Adapting a much-loved children’s book for the screen can be fraught. It’s even more hazardous if the original is stunningly illustrated and thus already imprinted on the young reader’s mind. Live-action fantasy A Monster Calls is a case in point, based on the Carnegie Medal-winning novel by American-born, naturalised-British author Patrick Ness, expanded from an original story by Siobhan Dowd (who died from breast cancer before finishing it) and illustrated by Jim Kay.
The roll-call of artists, effects technicians, compositors, supervisors and animators listed in the end credits seems to go on forever, and speaks of the gargantuan effort involved in the empathetic realisation of what is easily the gloomiest children’s fantasy in recent memory. The dry phrases of certification “moderate threat” and “scenes of emotional distress” don’t quite cover the experience of viewing it. And I speak as a grown-up more likely to identify with Sigourney Weaver’s wicked grandmother than with the 13-year-old protagonist Conor, played with believable anxiety by Lewis MacDougall (last seen in a supporting role in Pan).
He’s sensitive and artistic, drawing his way into a parallel universe in his room while his terminally ill mother wheezes and hacks her way to the end of this mortal coil. In the book and film she is presented as a living saint – loving and funny, and apparently always on the verge of being cured by the next round of treatment. Unless that’s simply the way Conor sees her, of course. As played by the fragrant Felicity Jones, she is, shall we say, photogenically ill, but again, that may be in Conor’s idealised perception.
As well as being a social outcast, bullied cruelly at school, Conor must deal with the tease of an absent father (Toby Kebbell), who’s started a new life in America and pops back to offer a glimpse of false hope to his son, and with what he sees as the intrusive presence of an evil grandmother (Weaver), whose own encroaching loss – of her daughter – is never taken into the boy’s account.
It is melodramatic, and set in a windswept northern English town that’s straight out of Brontë (only a brief shot of a computer in a school classroom gives it away as contemporary). As revealed in the trailer, and in the poster image, we are soon to meet an ancient yew tree, voiced in stentorian tones by Liam Neeson, which creaks to life in a neighbouring graveyard.
He visits Conor at 12.07 each night and somehow never alerts the neighbours to his presence despite leaving physical evidence of his visitations. At one stage he encourages Conor to smash up what seems to be a symbolic, conjured up building, but the child wakes up having done the same damage to his gran’s front room.
The core of the Monster’s purpose is to offer three parables to the reluctant, inward-looking teen in exchange for one of Conor’s own. It is, in effect, a feature-length therapy session between a tree and a boy. These exquisitely animated fables – which have an appealingly fluid, 1940s Disney style – offer welcome but fleeting respite from the apocalyptically roiling, corporeal escalations of Conor’s Freudian journey to acceptance, which is underlined by a similarly unsubtle score by Fernando Velazquez. It’s hard going for us all, but never patronising.
The book’s power as a simply-told adolescent self-help manual loses a certain amount of its delicacy once made digital under the gothic direction of JA Bayona, who, after all, is the man who restaged a tsunami and its corporeal aftermath in The Impossible (and before that mined the supernatural terror of abandoned children and their ghosts in Spanish-language debut The Orphanage). This is a grown-up work for those who may not yet have grown up, and its 12A certificate has been fairly awarded.
Amid all the creaking, thunder-cracking, storm-lashed mayhem, Ness’s own hand at the tiller of the screenplay means the story’s emotional core remains intact. It’s all a long way from Harry Potter. I wonder if it’s perhaps too bleak and sad for the Christmas holidays? Even the presence of a yew tree – even a benevolent one with Aslan’s voice – adds a further layer of implied threat to the young. Maybe it’s the perfect way to end a terrible year. Maybe the children can handle it.