Movies about tragedy, especially ones that factor into Hollywood’s year-end surge of awards-friendly fare, rarely revolve around children. A Monster Calls, however, puts a child front and center, tackling subjects of terminal illness and mortality and viewing them from the perspective of a 12-year-old boy. And if such weighty material seems more un-Pixaresque than most children’s movies are comfortable with, well, that was the intention.
"I don’t see a difference between addressing kids or their parents," says director J.A. Bayona, whose previous work also shows a willingness to grapple with fear of the unknown. "I try to treat the kids as respectfully as I treat anyone else."
That much is evident in Bayona’s other films, which, at first glance, don’t appear to have much in common. But ghost story The Orphanage and tsunami survival story The Impossible both turn into meditations on loss, bereavement, and family strength in the face of disaster. It takes A Monster Calls, about a boy coping with his mom’s cancer, to round out Bayona’s accidental trilogy not just of mothers and sons, but also of tragedy as experienced by children. "I’ve always been drawn to telling challenging stories told through the eyes of a kid," he says.
Based on a children’s book by Patrick Ness (who also wrote the screenplay), the film follows young Conor as he comes to terms with his mother’s sickness by seeking the help of a tree-like monster that tells him fables. On paper, the premise sounds more fantastical than anything else Bayona has done. But in the same way that The Orphanage and The Impossible were family dramas by way of genre storytelling, A Monster Calls keeps its fantasy firmly rooted in reality. Sure, there’s a boy and his monster, but this isn’t The BFG; this is Conor’s story through and through.
"It’s so rare to find a fantasy movie with kids where you can also find complexity in the description of their psychology," Bayona says. Emotion, he claims, is the key to successful fantasy, citing The Iron Giant and Pixar's Inside Out as films that aren’t afraid to add depth to their entertainment. "They need to be real, they need to be serious."
Where other movies might use the death of a parent as a jumping off point for the rest of the plot, A Monster Calls is unique in how it confronts the subject head on. More than that, it never wavers from its emphasis on Conor’s emotional journey even in the face of the inevitable—and much of that comes from the source material itself.
Ness, who inherited the original idea for A Monster Calls from author Siobhan Dowd shortly before she died of cancer, saw an opportunity to tell a true children’s story that wasn’t really being written anywhere else. "A young person’s point of view is really important to my work," he says. "They are the driver and agent of the story. They make the decisions and their feelings are important, and not to be dismissed because they’re a young person."
That messaging was critical in developing a faithful onscreen adaptation. When Ness and Bayona met, they both recognized a simple truth essential not only to their past work, but to this story in particular: that children know more than their parents would like them to know. For Conor, it’s an understanding that his mom’s condition might not get better—no matter the measures he or his family might take to deny it. And so the task became transcending what the audience already knows is coming, and instead telling a story that is emotionally honest.
Which is why, Ness points out, softening the material was never up for discussion. Caught in the unique position of wanting to abide by Hollywood conventions for his first screenplay but being protective of his own story, he recognized book-to-movie adaptations regularly get tweaks. But changing the ending wholesale to something happier—which "one or two voices" had suggested early on—would have completely altered the spirit of A Monster Calls and ultimately betrayed Conor’s truth.
"Kids understand this material, they really do. It’s parents who have a hard time with it," Ness says. "Moms die. And we’re leaving those kids whose moms die alone if we never tell their story."
By the time the script had been finished, the biggest challenge became finding the right boy to fill Conor’s shoes.
Though casting children’s roles is difficult for any movie, the process became exceedingly trying for A Monster Calls. After all, Bayona and Ness sought a boy who could carry not just the weight of an entire movie, but also the emotional complexity that a character such as Conor requires—not to mention the demands of having to act against a CGI/animatronic hybrid for most of the film. The right fit had to be someone who could serve as an emotional throughline for audiences to connect with, someone who could portray the vulnerability and despair of a kid at odds with his reality.
"If you don’t give kids the whole truth, they’re going to invent truths that are much worse to worry about," Ness says. "That’s Conor. He’s a clever kid and he’s figured out 95 percent of the truth. And it’s the last five percent that he has plausibly constructed that is doing the damage."
The production team ended up looking at close to 1,000 boys before their attention landed on Lewis MacDougall, a then-12-year-old who had lost his own mother not long before auditioning. For Ness, MacDougall’s ability to wordlessly communicate inner turmoil reflected Conor’s inability to externalize his conflicts, setting him apart from other candidates immediately. Where most boys had been more "predictable" and theatrical in conveying sadness, he delivered a quiet rage beneath his grief. As it became quickly apparent, he could hit every emotion on the spectrum—sometimes all at once.
And that was precisely what Bayona had been looking for. He needed a lead who could depict the highs and lows of Conor’s mood swings, and do so in a way that could prove movies about children didn’t have to be one-note, just happy or sad. MacDougall offered the type of nuance that would keep all of Conor’s other struggles—bullies at school, his estranged grandmother, his parents’ divorce—from devolving into heavy-handed melodrama.
"The movie deals with such delicate material," Bayona says. "We had to address all those emotions without saying what was already on the page—and Lewis was good at that."
Throughout production, one of the greatest ongoing battles was finding the right balance between reality and fantasy—something that the book deftly pulled off. But as Bayona soon discovered, what worked well in print didn’t necessarily translate well into the visual language of film.
"It was difficult to find the architecture for the film because we had to navigate many different levels of reality and fantasy within the story," he says. A book, at least according to Bayona, has more space for world building and tone setting. But a movie, by nature of being more compressed and literal in its storytelling, is more easily taken at face value. "When an audience watches a film, they really want to know from the first moment what the film is about."
Eventually, however, Bayona realized that the easiest way to balance reality and fantasy was to blur the line between the two entirely. The two didn’t have to live separately; instead, he viewed fantasy as a means of servicing truth, something he’d already accomplished in The Orphanage, where the ghosts are more ambiguous and act as accessories to the human drama. Similarly in A Monster Calls, he never makes it clear if the monster is real or not—but that’s not the point. Instead, the monster is a facet of Conor’s shifting world, a physical manifestation of the chaos and uncertainty he keeps inside.
And that was why Bayona couldn’t have MacDougall acting against a CGI monster. To him, children react best to something in front of them, and Conor’s anger and pain—the emotions that drive the story and keep it grounded—simply wouldn’t work against something that very obviously wasn’t there. So he insisted on having as much of the monster as possible practically built, giving MacDougall life-size replicas of the monster’s head, arms, and feet to interact with.
The monster’s fables also stay anchored in Conor’s reality. He and his mom share a love for art, and presenting the fairy tales as illustrated sequences provides a thread of connection between the two, even as she starts spending more time in the hospital. Though the first sequences are more colorful and animated—an indication that fantasy is becoming more real to Conor than reality itself—they gradually become less stylized and more 3D as he starts to come to terms with his situation. "I think you get to the end of those stories, and you see that Conor is prepared to face the future," Bayona says.
Ultimately, A Monster Calls makes a case for telling stories that aren’t afraid to examine the complexities of a child’s life. As more of those movies get made, Bayona argues, the better chance Hollywood will have for more inclusive and emotionally authentic movies.
"A Monster Calls is a story about how we need fantasy to understand reality," he says. "Sometimes fiction gives us a better comprehension of what life is about—more than life itself."