Review: A Monster Calls

Written by: Sion Smith

A monster calls

Once upon a time, I used to own a video store.

It was a cool video store. I would even go so far as to say, it was the best video store for miles around. I liked most of the customers too but some days, it could be like Clerks in there. On those days, I would play White Zombie. It’s good to be a triple-hard bastard in the movie business… albeit right on the fringes of the movie business.

I began behaving like this because one day, our tape-rep invited me to a preview screening of Legends of the Fall – that’s how long ago it was. Brad Pitt. Bears. Shoot… what’s not to like. I jumped at the chance, put on a suit and invited a ‘friend’ to come with me because a man should never miss an opportunity to appear as cool as he thinks he really could be in front of a woman.

The plan was perfect. We even held hands towards the end – which is when the plan began to dribble away through the gaps in my fingers. If you’ve seen Legends of the Fall, you’ll know that it ends with a freeze-frame fight between Brad Pitt and a grizzly bear. Frankly, it’s not very exciting – it’s very sad. So sad in fact, I cried.

Tears were running down my face but it’s fine… after all, we’re in the darkness of a movie theatre.

Except, that’s the final scene. It may have been a good death for one of them but it was not as good a death as it was for me when the house lights came up the moment the film had finished.

Where the hell are extended credits when you need them!

Anyway, since then, I don’t mind admitting I have cried at Marley & Me and several episodes of Doctor Who. To this very short list, I can now add A Monster Calls, but it’s fine. I was with my daughter and she cried too.

For those in the dark, A Monster Calls is a novel (certainly not a kids book as some have bandied around) by Patrick Ness that deals with the life of a young boy whose mother is dying of cancer. In a nutshell – and without giving plot away – the ‘Monster’ arrives in the shape of a humanoid yew tree with the voice of Liam Neeson. The ‘Monster’ comes to tell three tales that will give the boy hope but when all the tales are told, the deal is that the boy must then tell a fourth tale back to the tree.

Each of the stories told by the Monster is illustrated with water colours and beautifully so. The kind of watercolours I would gladly pay money for, lavishly frame and have knocking around the house to amaze the visitors who never come.

There are parables galore to be found in here and on the surface, it probably sounds as run-of-the-mill as they come – but not so.

The movie has everything going for it. Primarily, it’s very British – which means you have to roll with it. Not everything is explained and tied-up neatly at the end. This pleased me no end and if I thought anybody might have seen one of my old video-store favourites Paperhouse (1988), I might even say it reminded me of that for those very reasons.

Then there is the acting itself. With everybody at the top of their game, there is nothing – zero – to quibble about on that front either. But those are the things we always expect to be right with a movie. We might not often get them, but in our heads, they are surely a prerequisite to handing over the cash for a ticket in the first place.

You can also throw in the fact that it was adapted for the screen by Patrick Ness himself, rather than being left to fend for itself with somebody who needed the work. This counts for a lot.

All that to one side, A Monster Calls has a fistful of aces up its sleeve. Each of the stories told by the Monster is illustrated with water colours and beautifully so. The kind of watercolours I would gladly pay money for, lavishly frame and have knocking around the house to amaze the visitors who never come. There are other ‘art’ sequences in the movie too but rather than being singled out as special or unique, it all works seamlessly as part of the bigger picture.

In all of this, lies the beating heart of the Monster.

Somebody got it very right indeed when they pulled these strands together.

And I cried. I cried because it’s sad and it wanted to me cry. Not at it, but along with it and it’s only now that I realise I cried all those other times along with those films too. That’s what happens when you draw someone in by the soul as well as the eyes.

In the car on the way home, we listened to Nine Inch Nails because when you cut yourself that deep, you need to put a plaster on it.

Go see it.

Better still, read the book and then go see it.

Author: Sion Smith

My name is Sion Smith. I write about rock music, books and pop-culture – kind of like a rock n roll Nick Hornby or maybe Hank Moody with hair. Sion is pronounced as in Sean Connery/Shawn Michaels – take your pick. If you’re interested, it’s Welsh. I'm also the editor of Skin Deep, the biggest selling tattoo magazine in the UK and harbour designs on writing for Doctor Who – these two things are not related. Aside from that, I’m currently working on a TV screenplay called Fox On The Run and also contribute articles to The Void - which you know already because you're here. You can jump on the feed of my own blog at

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Responses to Review: A Monster Calls

  1. What a lovely review. The book is great, can’t wait to see the movie.

  2. Callum TylerNo Gravatar

    I couldn’t have summed it up better. It’s a very special movie in a world where special is rare.

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