Samuel Kaufman ’19 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Editor’s Note: Emertainment Monthly had the incredible opportunity to speak with Patrick Ness, author of the novel and screenwriter of the adaptation of A Monster Calls. Ness spoke about writing the novel and the film, which follows Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a boy with a troubled life who meets a Monster (Liam Neeson), who leads him on an eye-opening journey about life.
This interview has been edited and condensed from its original form.
Emertainment Monthly: Can you talk about the most challenging and the most rewarding aspects of reworking a book into a movie script?
Patrick Ness: Since it was my own book, there [are] different challenges [because] the emotional closeness of the material is much harder to overcome, and that’s probably the biggest challenge. How do you separate out everything you believe [in a way] that works in a book? A book is not a movie. A movie is, at most, a long short story. So how do you translate a novel and compress it? What you get in return obviously is the imagery, so you can work from there.
But [one of] the biggest challenges I faced was telling myself that “the book will remain.” I will work as hard as I can to make the movie as good as I can, but the book stays. The book is not going to be erased by the movie. It’s like the Ghostbusters thing; it’s like, the first Ghostbusters wasn’t erased by the new Ghostbusters, so calm down for Christ’s sake, you know? So that’s how I did it. It’s okay that the movie needs to be different because it has to be different. It’s like remixing; that’s how I thought of it.[What is] most rewarding is a chance to see the stuff in motion. To see the animation in the tales and to see a filmmaker take my little, written ideas and go places I could never have imagined with them. That’s amazing. That’s when collaboration is a real joy. Because it isn’t always, but that’s when it really, really is. When the two of you bring your individual stuff to it and you make something bigger than either of you, that’s the great thing. It happened in the illustrations in the book as well. So yeah, that’s rewarding.
Were you ever pressured to go for a more traditional or happy ending for the film than was present in the book?
Yup. I hastened at the collaboration with [Director J.A.] Bayona and Berlin was terrific and that’s one of the reasons why I went with them. That question is why I wrote the script. I wrote the script on spec. I didn’t have anybody attached to it, I didn’t have a studio behind it, I didn’t get paid for it, I just wrote it first and I did that specifically for that reason because when some people—and I hasten to say not everybody, because I get a little tired of people just going “Hollywood is evil and stupid,” well, some of it might be but there are plenty of good people who are trying to make good stuff. So, there were one or two suggestions that the book [should] be softened and I was like, “well, but that’s really not the point of the book.” The book is about that it isn’t soft, but that you can still survive, so I thought, “Okay, I’ll do the script this way instead, to at least start the discussion, and let’s see what happens after that, but at least I can have had my say to say this is why I think it works and this is what’s important to me in the book.” So I avoided that bit by writing the script on my own first.
It’s a huge risk because God knows if anyone is going to ever want it, and you’ve done all this work for nothing, but I was lucky enough that there was some interest in it, which was nice. It got on the blacklist which was a big surprise and very nice. But Bayona really got it, he really got it. And that’s the fruit for risk. You can never be sure about anything, and anything can go wrong at any minute, but the best you can do, I think, is find somebody that you trust who at least understands your point of view, and off you went. They were extremely collaborative, which is rare and lucky.
I really love the idea of bringing up serious and important topics in children’s books and I think it would have been something I would have wanted to read as a child. When you were writing the movie script, was children one of your primary audiences or were you trying to get broad?
It’s interesting because I only get that question in America. The question of audiences is for after, I always feel. I mean, obviously, I’m conscious when I’m writing for young people. You can’t get too artsy-fartsy about it and say, “Oh, I just write to the wind,” because that’s not true, but it’s about faith in the story that you’re responding to, and it’s the same with message actually because I really try not to think of a conscious message, and I just have to trust I’m responding to a story I want to tell for a reason. I have to trust that it contains all of the things that are important to me. That I find valuable and exciting and interesting and if I pay attention enough to it, all the things that I want to say will be in it implicitly. And same for who it’s for. I figure if I pay enough attention to it, it will find the right people. And I look back on it and go, “Oh, okay so that’s maybe for this age group,” and what I would also add to that is that children respond very differently to the story than adults do because adults have a much more difficult time.
I mostly get asked about this by adults who’ve had a difficult time with the material because we bring in a history of loss and of this kind of situation with up in a way that children do not. And so children like it because it’s serious and sad and it takes their concerns seriously without being indulgent about them, which is what I always wanted when I was young. I didn’t want to be indulged, but I wanted to be taken seriously whereas adults bring all this pain. So that was an unexpected result.
At the end of the movie, Conor learns to “speak his truth.” Is that something that you’ve struggled with personally?
Yeah, I mean, of course. He’s in such a bind that I think is so common and we don’t treat it with as nearly as much sympathy as I think we should. He’s clever, he’s figured out 95 percent of the truth, and it’s that last five percent that’s causing him real pain because nobody will tell him if he’s right or wrong. In the movie, I think the most important thing that she says—and I hate the word important—but, for me, the key thing is in the hospital bed when she says, “If you need to break things, you break them.” And that is a kind of permission I was desperate for. Not to literally break things, but for someone just to say something other than “you’ll grow out of it” or to treat it as childish. Someone just to say, “It’s okay that you’re sad, and you be sad as long as you need to be and I will be here to keep you as safe as I can.” That’s all I wanted and I think that’s what I didn’t often get and I think that’s what many kids don’t often get because you get told “you’ll grow out of it” or “what you’re feeling isn’t as strong as what an adult feels,” well, that’s horseshit. You can’t live in the presumed future, you’re living right now, you’re living today. To be told that kind of truth, to acknowledge that what I was feeling was valid and that it wouldn’t kill me. Not indulgent, but just truthful and kind. That’s what I think the Monster is, I think the Monster is kind, without being at all nice, which I think is an interesting combination. I suppose, if anything, using the truth in a kind way.
A lot of an artist’s life involves people around them waiting for them to fail. Have you felt that way?
I’m an Army kid, and we didn’t have a ton of money, and so nobody from my tiny little town in Washington was ever going to do anything like write a book or write a movie, so I never expected encouragement, I just always assumed It was impossible, but I have one of those little, irritating sayings that writers have which is that “real writers don’t write, they write anyway.” That’s my philosophy. I didn’t think I would be able to publish a book, but I wrote one anyway. I didn’t think I would get a movie made, but I wrote one anyway. Because if you will never have a chance if you don’t try. Not a ton of encouragement, but that makes it sound quite “blame-y” to the people around me. I mostly kept it private. I kept my writing really quiet. I was a little embarrassed. It’s like saying you want to be on The Voice or something. You know, slightly embarrassing. So I wrote anyway. That, to me, is in the artists I like and the ones I admire the most. The ones who, regardless of encouragement or expectation of failure, they write anyway; they just keep at it. And they kind of go, “Okay, you do your thing, I’m over here writing.” And that to me is how interesting stuff gets done.
Can you talk about the process of creating your own fairy tales?
That was so much fun. Siobhan [Dowd]’s original material was on opening chapter, so it set up the premise and it set up the monster and then she’d written an email to our shared editor saying, “I’ve got these great ideas, the tree’s gonna tell these stories, I’ve got great ideas for the stories,” and then she didn’t write down what the ideas were. I love the idea of the storytelling because that seems to be the whole point of the movie, it’s about how a fiction can lead you to a truth, but it’s about more than that. It’s about how one story is never going to contain everything, so you’ve got to keep looking at it from different angles. And, as a kid, I always wondered what happened before the “before” and what happened after the “after.” Were there financial troubles? Did they get divorced? I suppose, as a kid, I just wanted to know that the future was going to turn out livable.
So that was so much fun—creating a fairy tale and then breaking it apart. “Witches merit saving” was my favorite line, it was kind of where I started from that. Witches get a really bad rap in fairy tales. On a more thematic level, I think the thing that makes us adults, I think the process is when we start acknowledging that we’re complicated, or when we realize it—and that happened quite young—when we realize we can hold contradictory ideas. And that’s what Conor has to learn to live with and so that if the fairy tales have a point, it’s that. It’s like his dad says, “there’s only messily ever after,” but that’s okay. That’s okay! To learn to live happily within a mess is human. It’s when we stop being children is when we learn that, I think.
I love the watercolor work used to illustrate the monster’s stories. I was curious as to whether when you were initially writing the book, [was that] the kind of artwork you were picturing?
Much of the inspiration for the cinematic artwork comes from the illustration [of] the book, and those are by a guy called Jim Kay and he is amazing. He is the official Harry Potter illustrator now, and he’s the loveliest and nicest man, which is also a plus. But I wrote the whole book before we talked to illustrators, which is an interesting way to do it; we didn’t work together while I was writing. He came on after, and that was a really good process to see how somebody could take what I had done and bring something I could never have expected to it, and together we could make something bigger than both of us. And that made filmmaking easy because I could understand that.
This whole project has felt like a relay race in a way, because I took Siobhan’s idea and then to the illustrator, and then we handed it over to the filmmakers, so it’s the collaboration at its most comfortable. So the production designer is called Eugenio Caballero. He’s from Mexico and he’s a great guy. He won an Oscar for Pan’s Labyrinth, so [he is a] great designer and really creative. They were talking about how to design the Monster, and what they eventually came back to [were] the illustrations because they were so strong, and so they just worked from there. There’s an illustration in the book of the monster sitting on top of a house with his elbows on his knees, and they say there’s so much power in there that that was the inspiration for their monster. [It] really flowed, there hasn’t been anything jarring. I was picturing nothing nearly that good because I have a prose imagination, I’m all words, so visuals are always a bit vague. To have somebody who can talk in pictures take my scribblings and suggestions and figure out what it is I wanted and then make something better out of them, that’s a hell of a thing.
Do you see yourself writing anything just for the screen in the future?
Oh yeah. I always consider myself a novelist, but I also believe that the only person who should tell a writer what to write is the writer. That comes out in a lot of ways, and part of it is things like I am the one who decides which genre I write in, nobody tells me. I’m the one who decides what age group I write for. The writer needs to make that decision. Not be a snob about it, you have to not be a sob, but I always want to learn things, and I think screenplays are another form of storytelling, and I want to grow. Complacency is the biggest enemy to a writer. To be comfortable and not try, and I never want to do that. All of my books end up being slightly different than the one before because I want to try something new. I do have ideas for scripts, and I’ve done other adaptations as well that haven’t been filmed yet. But it’s also that idea of “the writer is the only one who decides” is also important in the “own voices” idea, and I say this all the time, especially when I’m talking to high schools and stuff. And it’s that your story is important to tell because you want to tell it, that’s the only permission you ever need. Storytelling isn’t just for one type of guy. You don’t have to change your story for one type of guy. It’s important because you want to tell it and you are the one who makes that decision. That’s the important thing, is that the writer is the one who chooses to tell their story. Now, in a movie, it a collaboration, people are paying millions of dollars, so you have to work on a team, but it has to start with the story. So you might as well start with your story and then let other people come and
I do have ideas for scripts, and I’ve done other adaptations as well that haven’t been filmed yet. But it’s also that idea of “the writer is the only one who decides” is also important in the “own voices” idea, and I say this all the time, especially when I’m talking to high schools and stuff. And it’s that your story is important to tell because you want to tell it, that’s the only permission you ever need. Storytelling isn’t just for one type of guy. You don’t have to change your story for one type of guy. It’s important because you want to tell it and you are the one who makes that decision. That’s the important thing, is that the writer is the one who chooses to tell their story. Now, in a movie, it [is] a collaboration, people are paying millions of dollars, so you have to work on a team, but it has to start with the story. So, you might as well start with your story and then let other people come and fit to it, rather than the other way around.
Have you ever felt pressure to write what someone wanted you to?
Never. I’m quite stubborn. The pressure never comes from somebody wagging their finger at you. That’s not the bad pressure; the bad pressure is [an] expectation. It’s what, maybe, a market expects or maybe you’ve written this kind of book so you need to write more of this kind of book. Or, this has been successful so you need to write that. The expectations you put on yourself are the worst kind of things, and whenever I’ve tried to do that, I have failed. Not failed to write a story, but failed to write a story that engaged, at all. I could put something together, but there’s no joy in it, and so nobody wants it. Because why would you come to a story where the writer has taken no joy in writing it? It’s the internal expectations that you put on yourself that are much worse. Think of the big success stories … because nobody was looking for Harry Potter. Nobody was looking for Hunger Games. Whatever you think of those books, it’s somebody sitting down and writing a story that they’re burning to tell. And what do you know? The world responds. The world doesn’t know it was looking for that. So if you can do that … that’s very hard to do. But it’s not other people that are a problem, it’s your own brain.
All of the main characters are both a very relatable and sympathetic, while also being deeply flawed and occasionally unlikable – can you talk about how you struck that balance?
I find villains that are purely villainous a little boring. There’s nowhere they can go. They can be enjoyable, but there’s no real place where they can go. They start one place and they end in the same place. They can serve a function in a different kind of movie, but I tend to have real compassion for them—the villains in this movie. That, to me, is [the] complexity of them. The grandmother is never going to be a wildly warm, wonderful mother, but she raised a daughter who turned out pretty well, and she’s gonna raise Conor. What was really important about her is that we needed to see her through Conor’s eyes, and so we see all of the difficulty of her, and all of the strictness and coldness, but we see more than he does. This is a woman who lost her husband, and who is now about to lose her daughter, and what does that cost you? And the other thing is that she is a young mom, so her mom is going to be in her 50s; she’s not going to be retired, she’s going to have a career. This isn’t going to be a stereotypical “cuddly grandma” and that is much more interesting to me as a character than either a pure villain or a pure cuddly grandma. Much more interesting, because they can do unexpected things and they can surprise you.
To me, there’s nothing more moving than the idea of redemption. And so just the tiny bit of redemption where you realize your mistake and you can still make amends for it. There are times when you can’t and sometimes that’s also really interesting fiction. If you’ve read my other books, I have no problem ending on a note of terrible ambiguity. That can also be compelling, but in a story like this, it was important that we are seeing through his anger. The story is about him learning to manage that. Not let go of it, but manage it. When he does that, he can finally see that there is more to the stories that he has told himself. People are messier and can surprise you. Individuals can. Groups never can. As a group, we’re scary. One on one, people can surprise you all the time.
I noticed that the word “cancer” is never said in the film. Can you talk about why you did that?
Yeah, I had a couple of rules when I started because it’s an allegorical representation of what’s happening to Conor; nobody’s telling him exactly what’s going on even though we all know what’s going on. Nobody says “I love you” in the book either. That was a good challenge. Hopefully, it’s infused with love, but I didn’t want any easy outs. I didn’t want sort of photogenic tears. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t giving myself an easy out. There’s only one hug in the book, and it’s kind of a comedy hug. There’s a few more in the movie, but that’s okay. Those were on purpose. What we know and what isn’t discussed is important.
A Monster Calls will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on March 28. Check out Emertainment Monthly‘s review here.