This week along with many (many) other people, I blubbed, sniffed, and leaked my way through the film version of A Monster Calls. The film is adapted from the book by Patrick Ness (he also did the screenplay) which was inspired by an original idea by another Carnegie Medal winner, Sioban Dowd. Sioban didn’t live long enough to write the book she planned and Ness did an astonishing job of making something truly important with her work.
In case you can’t tell already, I really love this book and teach it as often as I can to university students at all levels of study. The screening I went to see was a film-book club run by the Tyneside Cinema and my colleague, Hannah Durkin also from Newcastle University. Most of the audience had read the book and so in the discussion that followed there were many questions about how like/unlike the book it was and whether that mattered. Questions included: Where was Lily? Where did Grandad come from? How did the actor who played Connor do it? And, why wasn’t Sigourney Weaver better?
A question that it took us a while to get to but which I think is at the heart of my sadness about this film was: Where were the ‘short spikey yew tree leaves’ that should have covered every inch of Connor’s bedroom floor and which he later put in the rubbish bin? The poisonous red yew tree berries that came in ‘through a closed bedroom window’ were missing too. Without the possibility of the monster leaving traces in the real world, it is rendered as a fantasy, the mental projection of a distressed child. And by taking the possibility of real magic out of the film the film stops being for young people and makes it for rational adults who are looking for reassurance, and psychologically coherent illumination of grief. As a result, the audience sympathise with Connor as a distessed child, to great affect, but they don’t get the invitation to see love and grief as transcendent as being beyond the rational and the everyday. Harrumph Harrumph. Harrumph. btw the featured image is by my painter husband, Gavin Watson.
Is this story really for young people anyway? It’s meant to be… but I find the fact that you teach it to ‘university students at all levels’ significant. I haven’t seen the film but I have read the book and while I admired Patrick Ness’s brilliant writing, the world he creates didn’t convince me. I could just about accept a school mismanaging a child in Connor’s situation (though with school counselling services and child centred policies it would have to be a really backward school to fail so catastrophically) but I couldn’t accept that a grandmother would be so cold and brutal to a grandson whose mother is dying. (Maybe that’s why Sigourney Weaver failed to convince – an impossible role?) For these reasons the story just doesn’t work for me. On the other hand, there’s plenty of wonderful imagery to make it a literary topic for university students…