Hollywood has a tendency to sugar coat even the best source material, but A Monster Calls is impressively heavy. For what is nominally a kids film it pulls no punches, as a boy is painfully forced to watch his mother die of cancer. The Monster in question is a huge living tree who visits the child at night to ready him for the end, striding down from atop the moorland each evening.
The moors of West Yorkshire and Lancashire are some of the most atmospheric landscapes in the UK, empty tops interrupted by radio towers and valleys with small mill towns and villages winding up them. There’s a deeper truth in the high moor and the top of the dales, and it is a very different type of Englishness to that usually found in Hollywood; A Monster Calls is, despite its topic, an American film at heart. Neither its main character nor Sigourney Weaver’s straight-laced grandmother have anything resembling a Lancashire accent, but generic English schoolteacher suffices in the circumstances.
Weaver’s clipped English is one of the few things that doesn’t sit right in an otherwise perfectly formed North. The production used locations ranging from Preston over to Ramsbottom north of Manchester and Marsden near Huddersfield to create a Pennine proto-town of low light and high summits. The snow lines on the tops and the glisten of wet stone houses is familiar, as is the rattle of diesel trains passing through to anyone who knows the peaks and the dales. It has been pointed out that Ness’ book and screenplay owe a debt to Ted Hughes and The Iron Man in its basic setup, a young boy encountering a huge beast who imparts deeper truth.
In The Iron Man Hughes’ troubled Hogarth encounters a metal giant and ends up saving the world, whereas Ness’ put-upon Connor only saves himself. Ness’ original teenage novel has something more deeply Hughesian to it than this superficial similarity though, the story drawing on on the central problem of coming to terms with deep time and moral ambiguity in an overwhelming world. The Iron Man was old, and so is Ness’ monster, older and bigger than anything Connor can imagine. The terrible American film adaption of Hughes’ dark fairy tale however lacks the atmosphere that Ness’ screenplay of his own book somehow keeps intact.
Felicity Jones is equally good as Connor’s cancer-stricken young mother, and Toby Kebbel adds some relative authenticity as his absent father (he’s from Wakefield, and stood next to Sigourney Weaver the difference in geography is all too tangible), both parents still recovering from marrying and having Conor too young. Liam Neeson is somewhat less impressive doing his Aslan voice as the Monster, who if anything we see a touch too much of to capture its ephemerality, the towering figure being strangely well lit in the slate grey Pennine rain. There is also a heavy-handed suggestion that the Monster has some kind of commonality with Connor’s dead grandfather, skewing the magic somewhat and reducing it to an instrumental figment of childish fantasy.
The crux of Ness’ story is the way in which different people approach the inevitability of the death of a loved one. In a scene at the very end of the film as they race to the hospital to be with Connor’s flagging mother as she dies, Weaver’s grandmother and Connor end up trapped in the rain at a railway crossing and are forced to admit that they are both dealing with the same thing in differing ways. The last fifteen minutes of the film are heart-wrenching, as there was never going to be any twist or reprieve. Mummy doesn’t go to heaven, but disappears into a dark black hole. There is no room for the church in Ness’ vision of death either ; both the book and the film are critical of religion’s simple linear explanations and claims to a monopoly on spirituality. Healing is to be found on the moors rather than at the altar.
What Ness shares with Hughes ultimately is not just the superficially similar spectre of a giant appearing in the night, but of a deeper approach and reflection on what it means to live, and accepting that depth and pain is necessary. As Hughes wrote in one of his letters, “The only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That’s why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember. But when that child gets buried away under their adaptive and protective shells—he becomes one of the walking dead, a monster.”