(Warning: The following contains some moderate near-SPOILERS for A Monster Calls, largely straight from the mouth of the man who wrote it, Patrick Ness. Proceed with whatever level of caution the tree-monster living out back of your house suggests to you is wise...)
For many novelists, there's no more terrifying prospect than signing away the movie or TV rights to a book. Sure, there's a whole lot of money to be made, but the risks of watching helplessly as a cherished creation is ripped apart and haphazardly put back together by a Hollywood production are all too horrifyingly real. For every Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, after all, there's a Northern Lights. As it turns out, though, there's one remarkably effective way of avoiding a horrifying screening room reveal of what your beloved novel has become: Writing the screenplay for the movie yourself.
That, y'see, was the path taken by award winning Anglo-American author Patrick Ness, whose 2011 novel A Monster Calls was recently adapted into a (genuinely lovely) movie starring Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver and (the voice of) Liam Neeson. A movie that Ness himself wrote the screenplay for. The novel is a deeply personal tale of a young boy - Conor - whose mother is suffering from an apparently terminal illness, who finds himself visited by a mysterious monster promising to tell him three stories, on the condition that Conor himself will tell one in return. It's also based on an idea by another writer, Siobhan Dowd, who sadly died before being able to develop the story beyond its basic building blocks. As such, it's perhaps unsurprising that Ness was highly protective of the project, only allowing an adaptation on his own terms, and with a director (The Impossible's J.A. Bayona) who he felt comfortable trusting with the project.
When Movie Pilot recently spoke to Ness at the Toronto International Film Festival, however, he had far more positive things to talk about than creative doubt or adaptation-related despair. Read on, then, for Ness' thoughts on how there's no such thing as realistic fiction, why movies have such emotional resonance, and how young readers (and viewers) can - and very much need to - be treated with respect.
Movie Pilot: So congratulations. You made an entire audience of critics cry yesterday. That was impressive.
Patrick Ness: "[adopting a joking tone] Crying is healing, so you’re welcome."
MP: You’ve now generated a lot of raw emotion in two different mediums: Obviously the novel, and also the movie. Do you feel that there’s a particular power that movies have to make us cry, to feel that emotion? To feel something that we’re so often unable or unwilling to express in public?
PN: "Movies are a funny experience I think, because they are public in a way, but it’s a darkened room and you’re all facing the same direction, so it’s kind of quasi-public. In the odd obverse, social media is quasi-private – it’s not really, but everyone treats it as such. ‘No-one can see this thing that I’m sharing with the entire world’. Movies are the opposite of that I think. I think that good visuals can go right into the middle of your cerebral cortex, it’s gonna hit ya. I think they’re different approaches. A book’s back door approach is to make you think, to make you identify, to stir you up from behind."
"A film is more direct, which is why I think you have to be more honest with it. That was one of the big rules with both the book and the movie, and why I held onto the rights for a long time, and wrote it by myself, and waited until I found the right filmmaker, because one of my real concerns was not to fake it. You can cheapen it, and it was always about the truth of what’s happening to Conor, and you can so easily ‘goose’ the music, and ‘goose’ everything round it, and I kept saying it has to be true, it has to be true. That’s always the part about a movie – it’s so easy to manipulate, and I don’t like it that way, being pushed around by a movie, so it has to be true, all the time."
MP: You had a very strikingly visual filmmaker [J.A. Bayona, above] directing the movie, and the book is accordingly striking, visually. One of the things that struck me was that it was almost like watching a coming of age story directed like a horror movie, because obviously [Bayona] has a background in that. I thought that led to some very interesting visuals that you don’t often see in young-skewing, young-led movies.
PN: "There’s two things about that one. One is that when I wrote the book I knew that it would be illustrated, which I’d never done before, and the whole book is unusual because it took the idea of Siobhan Dowd, and then took the idea for the book, and handed the idea to the illustrator. That’s unusual for me, I’ve never done that in any other circumstance. What Jim brought to it – Jim Kay – was amazing, amazing illustrations, and there are so many things that I could have never done myself, never thought of myself, and so that made the film-making slightly easier. I thought ‘this experience has already been positive, I’ve already seen how this can be augmented, and together we can make something bigger than either can individually.’ And so Bayona’s huge visuals are a perfect marriage."
You can check out the visuals for yourself in the trailer, right here:
PN (Cont.) "The second part is, a philosophy of mine, is that I don’t believe there is such a thing as realistic fiction, it’s all fantasy, all of it. Even if we wrote about this suite, this slightly uncomfortable table… even that has characters who are made up, arcing towards destinies, contrivances, coincidences, all fiction, all narrative fiction, is fantasy. So I, in my books, think all you have to do is create a place where the story can logically exist. That’s it. That may look like the real world, that may not look like the real world, but if you do it right, an audience is going to care. So for the book, and for the film of it, I really wanted someone who was like I am, really interested in the porousness of boundary. We never say in the movie how ‘quote unquote’ real the monster is, which is also how ‘quote unquote’ real is a movie, and I loved the leaking over of the horror genre."
"The most damaging thing, I think, for any creative person is snobbery. Genuinely. Power can be found anywhere, and falsity can be found anywhere, so if you’re not afraid to look for power in unexpected places, then it’s a hell of a thing. The first tale [the movie features a number of animated ‘tales’ told by the monster to Conor], there’s this incredible shot, animated shot, of this marching army of people, and the monster rises up behind them, and that’s a pure horror shot, you would think, but in the context of the story, and how we’ve come to know the monster, it contains so much more power than that. So if you’re not afraid to try, you can get really great stuff – really great stuff. If you’re just not a snob about genre and letting them bleed. Honestly, that’s what people like, that’s what people read, they read all kinds of different things."
MP: It’s also about embracing the complexity of it, I suppose. One of the things that’s very noticeable compared to most other movies is the amount of emotional complexity – and the lack of immediate answers – that you offer within the movie. It struck me as a very compassionate movie – one of the lines that was particularly interesting, just after the first tale, in the background, is a teacher saying ‘there are always two sides to the story.” Is it particularly interesting to you, the idea of exploring the inherent complexity of life, rather than going ‘here’s a nice easy coming of age story’?
PN: "See, I think complexity is the thing that makes us out, I think that’s the separation. To me A Monster Calls is very much about that explicitly, that’s how I’ve always viewed it, that [Conor] believes, like anyone naturally would, he’s desperate for his mother not to die. But there’s this other component, this opposite thing that he also believes, which is human. That strain between what you want to be true, and what is also true – believing two opposite things at the same time – that to me is the step into adulthood, recognizing that you can believe these two things and it won’t destroy you. I absolutely believe that’s what it’s about."
"I’ve always been interested in what happens before the story starts, and what happens after the story finishes, and I think stories have a fantastic function, and are enormously useful. They’re like a net to catch the truth – but not all of it. They catch some of the truth, so you have to have lots of different stories. And there’s always more to a story, so they have limits – they’re brilliant, but they have limits. Writing the fairytales [the film’s animated sequences] was so much fun. Here’s your normal fairytale, and everyone lived happily ever after, except they didn’t. I just love that, that frustration in a lack of an easy closure. But finding that happiness and joy and laughter and hope in the possible, while believe all these awful things as well? That’s so gloriously, messily human. Humans are so… the dad in the movie says ‘some of us just get messily ever after’. Embrace it, we’re messes. I love us, I love human messes. We’re messes, and charmingly, attractively so, bless us."
MP: One of the films A Monster Calls very much reminded me of was The Princess Bride, partly because William Goldman wrote the novel and then adapted it for the screenplay, but also because it’s so playful with genre, and the idea of not having a closed ending. How do you find the idea of endings being open? ‘A Monster Calls’ isn’t an obvious movie to have a sequel, for instance.
PN: "Yeah, no. ‘A Monster Calls Again’. That’s a Liam Neeson joke actually, when he saw me tapping away once, he said ‘I bet you guys are writing the sequel – A Monster Calls Again’. I didn’t even really realise it until I’d written four or five books and looked back on the [Chaos Walking] trilogy and on this book, and more than this the book that followed this [2013’s More Than This] they’re all completely different books, but they all end up being about what happens after the end of the world, and that’s an interesting thing to me."
"It’s an interesting thing in young adult fiction because so much is about the end of the world, literally dystopias – which are just allegories for high school by the way – but it’s also that feeling of being young which takes up the room… That feels like the end of the world. And so when I look back on the books, they really are about the world has ended, and yet here I still am. So what do you do? That to me is really interesting. ‘A Monster Calls’ is definitely about that. [Conor] is facing the end of his world. And yet, he’s got to find a way to pick himself up, and carry on, and that is so human. That to me – I think it’s a sad film, obviously, but I don’t think it’s a bleak one - that’s why I resisted the pat ending, because life doesn’t have one. We like to pretend it does – it doesn’t. And that is a huge, huge bonus to us. What do you do after the end of the world? You keep on going. You figure it out. And that’s interesting."
MP: The trend in young adult fiction towards dystopia has brought with it a growing level of respect for younger readers among writers. In the young adult fiction I’d be reading as a kid, you’d get great stuff, but you’d also get a lot that was treating readers as though they were eight-year-olds reading at a twelve-year-old level. One of the striking things about the movie, and all of your books, is the level of respect you treat young readers with. My dad always had a phrase he’d use: ‘children are just smaller people’. If you treat them with respect then they act like people and are incredibly interesting to talk to.
MP: Is there a particular approach you took to bringing that to the story?
PN: "Whenever I write for young people, I’m always writing for the teenager I was, and what I wanted and wasn’t getting. It’s really that direct, y’know, I felt the lack, like you did. I’m probably older than you, so teenage fiction was not the rich field it is now, we all went from kids books to Stephen King – which is no problem, god bless him forever Stephen King – but I didn’t get books that I thought treated me like an intelligent human being. There was also the dismissiveness of books, that ‘you’ll grow out of it’. That is a damaging and infuriating phrase. You might grow out of it, but you don’t live your life in an expected future, you live it right now. And so the feelings of injustice, and strain, and anxiety in particular, those are happening right then, and those need to be taken seriously. Maybe not overly seriously, because no feeling really should, they’re deadly enough without being treated quite so po-faced."
"But I really wanted a book – I really wanted to write books – that I wasn’t getting. That sounds really hubristic, but I just felt like… you get so many of the responsibilities, and none of the privileges. So I use the word injustice, and I’ll use it again. That sense of injustice. I wanted someone to at least pretend I could have an intelligent conversation. And maybe I wouldn’t know everything, but I wanted to reach up as a reader, I didn’t want to reach down. So that’s why I write. I’m hoping to reach up. I think readers want to reach up. So that’s what I am: The fifteen-year-old me who was sitting there grumpily, rolling his eyes at all this crap he was given."
MP: Going back to the idea of movies generating emotion for a moment, though: Do you remember the first movie that made you cry?
PN: "Oh my god, yes I do. Have you heard of Where The Red Fern Grows? [A 1974 adaptation of Wilson Rawls' novel] I live in Europe, and hardly anyone there has heard of it. But yeah, Where The Red Fern Grows is, for an eight-year-old, utterly devastating. The two dogs, and one of them dies protecting the boy, and the other one dies of heartbreak. The end. It’s just… absolutely, it was Where The Red Fern Grows. It is completely devastating. It is the apocalypse for an eight-year-old. Good god. What were they thinking?"
MP: Do you think that the way movies approach emotion has changed over the years? You look back at older films, they’re often: There’s this movie, and then in the last five minutes they go ‘OK now grief’.
PN: "Movies are really expensive, and there are a lot of people to worry about how much money they’re going to make - and so it’s so hard to get something really good made. And so I can sympathize some with that feeling of ‘we’ve got to do that, we’ve got to do this’ – it’s a lot of money. Fortunately, movies are both more expensive and much cheaper now, so you can have your big, big, big, big films, and you can have lots and lots of smaller films that take risks. And this is – we got a fairly decent budget – it’s $43 million I think – but it was made in Spain. It’s still an independent feel – and that’s I think where you get some interesting stuff. You can get interesting really big movies, but… I don’t know if there’s been a big change, there’s just been more points of view being able to do it, and more people – different voices – being able to explore. Which I think is, god that’s healthy, and interesting, and not just the same crap."
MP: Before we finish up, I think a lot of your fans will want me to ask: Any news on the [hugely popular] Chaos Walking trilogy adaptation [which is currently being adapted into a movie]?
PN: "Nothing I can share. Everything that’s been in the public sphere is all very exciting, let’s put it that way."
Want to read more about A Monster Calls, and other movies recently to have appeared at TIFF? Check out:
- What TIFF 2016's Opening Weekend Means For the 2017 Oscars Race
- 'Arrival' Is A Very Different Sci-Fi Movie To What You're Expecting
- Can 'La La Land' Make The Old School Musical Cool Again?
What do you reckon, though? Are you excited to see A Monster Calls? Let us know below!