In Hard Times, a Boy is Given the Healing Power of Storytelling


Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) and the Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) in “A Monster Calls” Photo Credit:
Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) and the Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) in “A Monster Calls”
Photo Credit:

Stories, in general, have the ability to help us understand the world and the experiences we go through. They teach us timeless lessons and provide us with the opportunity to see ourselves in the characters and feel a connection to them that assists us in coming to terms with our own lives.

This is something that’s explored in director J.A. Bayona’s fantasy-drama, “A Monster Calls,” which is based on the novel by Patrick Ness and inspired by an original idea from the late writer Siobhan Dowd. With emotional performances and a screenplay and direction that capture the beauty and heartbreak of the source material, Bayona delivers a near seamless transition of the story from page to screen.

Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is a young boy living in England who’s trying to cope with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) terminal illness. One night, an ancient being in the form of a yew tree (voiced by Liam Neeson) visits Conor to tell him three stories that he hopes will teach him how to deal with the misfortune that has befallen him and face his greatest fear.

MacDougall’s performance is one that perfectly embodies the main character of Ness’ creation from the novel. In a film that’s a deeply emotional meditation on letting go of someone you love, MacDougall brings this role to realization as someone who must face the possibility of a painful loss. What makes MacDougall’s character so sympathetic is the degree of truth there is to his performance in how someone would approach this situation, such as when Conor holds onto hope for his mother and has moments of needing to relieve his anger. There isn’t anything overdramatic about his sadness, but is instead a perfect representation of what it means to be a child in such an unfortunate scenario.

Similar to Neeson’s work in voicing Aslan the lion for the “Chronicles of Narnia” films, he roars with the voice of an ancient entity that has boundless wisdom of the world. Because of Neeson’s voice echoing regality with every word, it’s hard to imagine any other actor in the role of the Monster. He’s a character who commands respect as a teller of tales, and you can’t help but give yourself over to Neeson’s vocals as the Monster uses his thought-provoking narratives to help Conor understand what he’s going through. It’s a majestic voice performance that’s fitting for a character who’s probably as old as the art of storytelling itself, and Neeson is perfect in the role.

The screenplay by Ness remains faithful to the novel in the way he presents the process of grief and the experience of losing someone who’s close to you, and he brings that notion to the page and screen in the most remarkable and poignant of details, all of which makes this a book-to-film adaptation that works. When it comes down to it, I can’t think of anyone other than Ness being able to transmit the language of his novel to his screenplay, given how emotionally rich his writing is.

While the film is faithful to the book, one of the only big changes the screenplay makes is adding an epilogue that follows the original ending of the novel. Although this epilogue adds an interesting layer to the story and makes it a little more optimistic, it doesn’t necessarily fit with the darker tone of what came before and feels somewhat tacked on.

Just as the novel is realistic in its depiction of grief and is never over-sentimentalized, Bayona delivers that to the film. With the heartfelt mother-child bond that MacDougall and Jones exhibit throughout the movie, Bayona is able to explore the unbreakability of a mother-child relationship, as he did in his horror film “The Orphanage” and his disaster-drama “The Impossible.” Just like in those movies, Bayona explores the strong bonds between parents and children, yet avoids many of the cliches along the way. Through the different genres of these three films, Bayona is able to find new ways to examine those connections between the characters in each movie.

This is a loving adaptation from Bayona, and he infuses it with visuals as gorgeous as Jim Kay’s black-and-white illustrations that appeared in Ness’ novel, while also capturing the look of the Monster that Ness envisioned on the page. When it comes to the sequences of the three tales, Bayona uses a stunning mix of 3D animation and watercolors, transporting us to the events of the stories and immersing us in their complex views of their characters’ actions and how they relate to Conor’s situation.

The melancholy subject matter of the film may make it difficult for some to watch, but it’s a cathartic experience that offers something for both adults and older children and is a movie you’ll be thankful to have seen. This film shows that when we face certain things in the world that are difficult to comprehend, we have storytelling to help us find some clarity, and in the case of “A Monster Calls,” this is a story told beautifully.

Final Grade: A-

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