At the turn of the year I sat with my daughter in an otherwise empty cinema. She’d just commented that we had our own private viewing when a mother and her young son arrived. It was term time and I thought it strange that he wasn’t in school. Then the film started and I forgot about them.
A Monster Calls is about death and how a young boy comes to face a terrifying truth. Both the book and the film were written by Patrick Ness inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd, who died before she could realise it. Both book and film share a dark, frightening world in which a young boy is visited by a monster who comes to him each night to tell him a story. On the last night, the boy must tell the monster his own tale but it is a story that is too terrible for the boy to speak.
Both the film and the book are dark and the foreboding atmosphere fills you with dread as you wait for the Monster’s arrival each night at the same time and the nightmarish landscapes which the boy must visit until the very last night when it is his turn to tell his own story. In the film, Liam Neeson voices the Monster, his deep, booming voice vibrating through the terrifying world that the young boy, played by Lewis MacDougall, inhabits. His mother is played by Felicity J0nes. It’s no spoiler that the boy has to face his mother’s death and all that means to his world.
The language and visualisation is dramatic and dark. As writers we have to find the best ways to tell a story that will affect our audience dramatically and the build in tension and fear is palpable in this film. We know what is coming but we still remain in our seats, living our hero’s torment on the giant screen as it sucks us into his dark world, hoping that somehow he will escape his fate but knowing that he can’t.
In real life when we are faced with the spectre of death, our language is more restrained, the monsters are in our heads but we subdue and control them with civilised language when we tell their story. Yet they never go away. How do we talk about our own death though when we can see that it is imminent? Steve Hewlett, a journalist with the BBC, used his training to tell his story from diagnosis to near death. His words were quiet, his message succinct but just as in the darkness of that cinema, I could not control my tears as I listened. Here was a journalist plying his trade, delivering his message so that we could understand it, no melodrama, no self pity, for he knew that those of his listeners who were able to feel, would do so somewhere in the depths of themselves. His words were not dramatic but the weight of them was as wounding as the images of Lewis MacDougall’s struggle in A Monster Calls.
When the lights went up in that auditorium at the turn of the year, the mother and son were no longer there.
You can listen to Steve Hewlett in the BBC podcast at the following link. TheEddieMairInterview-20161121-SteveHewlettISeeMyConditionAsABitOfAStory.mp3(3.12MB)? From:aod-pod-uk-live.akamaized.net
or Search The Eddie Mair Interviews on the BBC Website.