Written by James P. Barker.
“It begins like so many stories with a boy too old to be a kid, too young to be a man… and a nightmare.” — The Monster
This analysis of the film contains spoilers that may differ from the book.
Early into Juan Antonio Bayona’s film adaptation of the Patrick Ness children’s fantasy A Monster Calls, twelve-year-old Conor watches with dismayed confusion as Kong, in the original 1933 black and white classic King Kong, is riddled with bullets, questioning why anyone would try to kill him. As Kong clings atop the Empire State Building, he falters, ultimately letting go and falling to his inevitable death. The scene resonates with a negative undercurrent within Conor, mirroring his own nightmare where, upon the cemetery grounds opening up, he’s left clinging to his mother’s hand, eventually watching in horror as he’s unable to hold on.
Prior to this moment, the scene begins as Conor’s mother, simply known as “Mum” from here on out, wishes to surprise him with his grandfather’s old film projector. “I wish you could have known him,” she says, adding “even Grandma softened up around him.” This bit of dialogue succinctly sets up the strenuous relationship between Conor and his grandmother but also illuminates the relationship between Mum and her father whose spirit hovers over the story in more ways than one; although his fate is never addressed, bits and pieces of backstory are threaded throughout, including photos of Liam Neeson who voices the titular character with Conor’s young Mum, suggesting the film’s plotline is one that this family, particularly Mum herself, has had to endure before.
It is here, within this context, that we see the reason why we tell stories: A Monster Calls is itself a story featuring three morally complex short tales to help a troubled child deal with another issue altogether: the comforting stories we tell ourselves as a means of self-deception. Much like The Babadook and Inside Out, A Monster Calls is another expressionistic allegory dealing with repressed emotions and at first, like Mr. Babadook, it appears as though The Monster is a manifestation of Conor’s burden dealing with everything from bullying, his overbearing grandmother and, most importantly, his Mum’s illness, but it becomes more apparent upon their first meeting that The Monster has a purpose seemingly of its own and not Conor’s doing:
MONSTER: I will visit you again on further nights, Conor O’Malley, and I will shake your walls until you wake. And then, I will tell you three stories. And when I finish my stories, you will tell me a fourth. You will tell me a fourth and it will be the truth. This truth that you hide, the truth you dream, you will tell me your nightmare. That will be your truth.
Conor, however, wants nothing to do with “stupid stories” and insists he has none to give himself, yet most of us inherently know the value of stories and the power they hold by the spells they cast while conveying some universal truth. As such, the main conflict found within A Monster Calls deals with, unsurprisingly, the clash of perspectives between Conor who views the stories as intrusions to his desire to save his Mum, and the perspective wielded by The Monster itself and their subsequent telling. It’s no coincidence the first tale comes after the arrival of Conor’s grandmother, echoing his real-life predicament as he’s told “The prince was too young to take the King’s place, so, by law, the Queen would rule another year. The future was uncertain.” However, the story’s purpose, its meaning in all its complexities, ultimately leaves Conor befuddled:
CONOR: Who’s the good guy here?
MONSTER: There’s not always a good guy, Conor O’Malley, nor is there always a bad one. Most people are somewhere in between.
CONOR: So how is this supposed to save me from Grandma?
MONSTER: It is not her you need saving from.
“Stories aren’t real, though. They don’t help anything,” Conor tells The Monster before the second story is told involving another complex tale of an Apothecary, a man of faith without faith, and the deaths that intertwine them. Here Conor learns from The Monster that belief is half of all healing and that, as such, your belief is valuable, so you must be careful where you put it… and with whom. Such wise words resonate with the young boy, but it’s only in a subsequent scene that we glimpse a hint of their true origin when Conor relays them to his ailing mother after she tells him about one last attempt at treatment in a scene that exemplifies the tale’s point:
CONOR: Does that mean it’s too late?
MUM: No, of course, it doesn’t mean it’s too late.
CONOR: Are you sure?
MUM: I believe every word I say.
Conor looks up, the words striking him.
CONOR: Belief is half of all healing. Belief in the cure. Belief the future awaits.
Mum smiles, answers knowingly. He’s getting it.
MUM: Yeah, and you know that tree I’m always going on about? Well, this drug is made from trees like that. All this time, we could have gone out there and chopped it down. But no, not that one. That one’s our friend.
Even at this point, Conor continues to see the stories as being stupid and thinks The Monster, being a healing tree, is there to heal his sick mother and that his nightmare of her falling from his outstretched grasp is not his truth.
CONOR: You’re a tree of healing and I need you to heal!
MONSTER: And so I shall.
While Conor grows insistent the new treatment involving the tree will heal his mother, it becomes increasingly evident to the audience this will not be the case, a fact Conor’s father hints at when he tells him The Monster is just a dream, that he knows it’s tough but Conor has to be brave, face reality… and the inevitable. The truth, however, is The Monster is indeed very real, just not in the form we see him… and not a product of Conor’s imagination, but rather one of his mother’s.
Laying awake later at night, Conor hears something that stirs him, leading him downstairs where he finds his grandmother watching old videotapes of Conor and his Mum. The tapes, discovered earlier after Conor’s thrashing of his grandmother’s living room, show Conor’s Mum teaching him as a younger child how to watercolor. “Life is always in the eyes. If you get that, you’ll be a proper artist,” she says, the subject of her painting finally revealed to be “Our Monster.”
The third tale, a brief one at that, as The Monster tells it:
MONSTER: There was once an invisible man who had grown tired of being unseen. It was not that he was actually invisible, it was just that people had become used to not seeing him. One day the invisible man couldn’t stand it anymore. He kept wondering if no one sees you, are you really there at all?
When Conor asks what the invisible man did, the answer is, “He called for a monster.” A fight ensues between Conor and his bully who, just moments before, said all this time Conor was just looking for someone to kick his head in, that he was not that guy anymore and that he no longer saw him. “You’re now invisible to me, too.” The fight lands Conor in hot water with the school’s Directress:
DIRECTRESS: If you want to be seen, O’Malley, this is not the best way. School rules dictate immediate exclusion… but how could I do that and consider myself any kind of a teacher? Go back to class. We will talk about this one day, but not today.
CONOR: You’re not punishing me?
DIRECTRESS: What could possibly be the point?
This exchange highlights Conor’s symptoms stemming from expectation, specifically the expectation of being punished for the way he truly feels inside with regards to his mixture of volatile emotions – an issue that harkens back to the stories he’s being told lacking a clear good or bad guy, for such moral clarity is easy to follow and gauge oneself against vs. the realities of life, as explained by his father, where most of us get “Messily ever after.” The root of Conor’s problem, however, still lies just underneath the surface, buried by a layer of self-deception.