In the fantasy drama film “A Monster calls” a young boy named Connor is frequently visited by a monster that tells him stories connected to his difficult situation in reality: His mother is slowly dying of cancer. The cinematic release is based on the novel with the same name. We had the chance to talk to the author and screenwriter Patrick Ness about his ideas of good storytelling, what the monster is all about and the transition from book to film.
An Interview by Martin Kulik
Patrick, the idea for the story of “A Monster Calls” was originally developed by Siobhan Dowd, who passed away in 2007 after a long fight with cancer. How did you get in contact and why did you decide to take on the task of bringing her vision to reality?
Siobhan Dowd and I shared an editor. “A monster calls” was supposed to be her fifth book. She fully expected she would be able to write it, even though she knew her cancer was terminal. But she caught an infection and was dying way faster than she thought, so our editor at the time came to me and said: “I don’t want this idea to disappear. Would you consider turning it into a book?” And my first response was: Probably not. Because I worry that anyone trying to do that, would write a memorial instead of a story. And nobody wants to read a memorial – even for good reasons. And that’s not what she would have written either, cause she is such a smart writer. So I was gonna decline.
But then I started looking at the material and started getting ideas. And that’s really the gold in a story. The first idea I got, was the scene where he comes out of the second dream and is destroying the living room. And I thought: “That’s it. That’s the anger. That’s the taboo of the book. That’s the story.”
The book that finally emerged from this idea was wildly sucessful and really popular by children as well as adults. Especially the monster seems to be recepted very well – why do you think that is?
Well I think it goes back to why we tell stories. My theory has always been, that life is inexplicable and impossible to understand. How we explain things like love? How do we explain things like time? How do we explain things like death? Monsters serve a huge function in that. They certainly are a way to explain fear and to explain the unknown. We are the only animals that know that we don’t know things. And that’s an interesting philosophical question – how do you deal with that? I’d say creating a monster is one way to do it. In a way creating a monster is making us feel safer in the world, cause it is a way to personify this fear. And then we can control it, we can step away from it.
But the monster is not only serving as a personification of fear, right? It also seems to be kindhearted.
Well I was hoping that people who read the book or watch the film start to question, if he really is a monster. Because he seems really monstrous at first, but then ultimately a kindness comes from him. I wanted him to be different things: I wanted him to be a monster. I also wanted him to be similar to an ancient pre-roman myth called the green man, which has been in english history for thousands of years. The green man is the landscape personified, a powerful analogy on nature. But I also wanted to leave open if the boy calls on a father figure.
I wanted that question to slide and slide in your heads. So that it’s never quite ultimately defined. Which is what a good story does – at least I think so. So hopefully if a kid – or anyone really – watches it and says “Oh, now I know who or what the monster is”, they slowly begin to question this definition and come to different conclusions. And that is what I want: to slowly make you unsure.
You have stated before, that we have all ages present at all times in our lifes, and that being 8, being 16 being 29 and so on stays with our personalities at all times. Is that why you tell stories for children as well as adults?
Maybe! There is lots to debate about what the difference between books for kids and books for adults is. And one of the things that people talk about, and that I sort of agree with, is how you experience it. For example: How do experience a book, where the lead character is a child? Do you experience it looking back or do you experience it as the child?
So when I write books for children I partly do it, because when I was a kid, I didn’t get to read the books I wanted to read. There were no books that took me seriously, that really dealt with the things I was feeling. Instead I got a lot of books telling me lessons about how my life should be and how I would grow out of it, because I was “just a teenager”. So when I’m writing books for children or teenagers now, I’m really writing them for teenage-me. And that’s my approach. Rather than trying to universalize a feeling, I try and make it true specifically for the main character of the book. And hopefully the readers see the truth in that. Hopefully they recognize, that what is true for him is also true for them.
Is the “fear of the unknown” or the “loss of control” something that we can relate to on all ages levels?
Yeah! I think that is one of the key things about writing for young people or teenagers. There is this terrible sense of injustice, for one thing. Because you have so many of the responsibilites of an adult, but almost none of the privileges and certainly none of the credit. So there is a constant feeling of: “I am not being treated fairly”. And you live in a world that acts on you. You are not allowed to be the agent of your own life much at the time. That’s tremendously frustrating.
And that’s absolutely a translateable feeling, because if I think about the government of the United Kingdom at the moment – it’s a disaster. We are having a complety useless election that will ruin the country for the next five years and an opposition that is utterly useless. And it’s like I have no control over this. I vote – sure, but I have no control about this terrible situation. So yes, absolutely, this feeling of being acted upon instead of acting for yourself is something everyone can relate to.
In “A Monster Calls” there are stories inside the story. Is it important for the main character, that he can deal with his feelings on that narrational metalevel?
Those stories are important, but only to a point. Because the analogy only goes up to a lesson and then the monster is taking it apart. And that, I think, is the overarching lesson. That there is more than one way to look at a story.
And that’s what we are trying to get Connor, the main character, to as well. He has those terrible feelings of guilt about his dying mother. That he want’s it to finish – which is a really normal and genuine human reaction. But there is this dilemma: He desperately does not want her to die, but he also want’s her to die. How in the world do you reconcile that? I think reconciling that, is what makes us adults. And the stories inside the story are only leading him to that conclusion for himself. They get him to understand: A story is a useful thing, but it has limits and it changes depending on who is telling it. So maybe if you can tell yourself a different story. Maybe if you change your perspective, you can live with that kind of situation, rather than letting it harm you. It’s a little shitft, but those little shifts are what is really empowering us to live. So I’m not trying to teach a lesson – you can get all kinds of contradictory lessons, depending on how you look at it. But if we change our own perception a little bit, maybe we can live with the contradiction of life.
You’re not only the author of the book, but also the screenwriter for the upcoming movie. What challenges did you face in transitioning the story?
I had to make some changes in the storytelling. Because a book you can put down. You can decide to stop at any time and at the end of the book you can close it and you can take as much time as you need and want. In a film you can’t do that. It’s a single experience – and that was the most challenging thing about it: Managing the audiences experience. Cause if you come on too heavy an audience resists – I would resist and say: “Come on… Too much.” So I had to really really think about how to manage that. As a result we made changes to the end for example. The movie needed to end in a different way. It needed to end in quiet, so the audience could take a breath and reflect. There is a lot of darkness and a lot of light in that film. Making little adjustments to the story was necessary to convey that and that little bit of magic. The ending of the film as it is right now would not have been the right ending for the book, but it is the right ending for the film.
Thank you so much for the interview, Patrick.
Pictures of the film and posters © Studiocanal
“A Monster Calls”
Directed by J. A. Bayona
Screenplay by: Patrick Ness
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebell, Lewis MacDougall, Liam Neeson