A Monster Calls is a 2016 film about a boy named Connor, who’s mother is slowly dying of cancer. To cope with this tragedy, he imagines a monster made from a tree who tells him three stories. Each of these stories teaches him about the uncertainty and unpredictability of life and teaches him how to grieve.
Throughout these three stories, the film teaches us to allow us to be contradictory, accepting the unpredictability of life, and the power of belief. Much like Castaway, this film shows the dangers of power and control, when we try and bend reality to our will when events down happen to our liking. In the end, this film is about the incredibly difficult process of letting go, even when you don’t want to.
The First Story
The first story is arguably the hardest to analyze because it is the hardest to understand, and for good reason.
In the first tale, the story serves as a representation of the unpredictability of life. For example, The King in the story was presumed to be poisoned by his Queen who had been delving into the dark arts of witchcraft, but he had merely grown old. Another example would be when The King’s grandson’s new wife had been killed. At first, we automatically associate her death with the crooked Queen. However, the King’s grandson killed his own wife so he could frame the Queen and take the throne.
In most tales, we would expect that the story-line would be linear and easy to understand. However, as we can see with this story, that is not the case. Even Connor stated to the monster that he felt cheated. Although like the monster says, many things in life feel like a cheat.
One of the film’s best ways of explaining this part of its story is through another film that is referenced multiple times: King Kong. There have been other films that have done this in the past, such as Iron Giant, that used the character Superman, as a means to explain the Giant’s longing to forge his destiny, thus, wanting to protect the world, instead of destroying it.
In this film, Connor’s mom explains to her son that people tend to reject things they don’t understand. In King Kong, the movie ends with a less-than-stellar ending, with Kong being killed by airplanes and falling off of the Empire State Building. As a person who’s watched King Kong and loved it, I have to agree that it is not exactly the easiest thing to watch.
Nonetheless, I can still see why Merian C. Cooper wanted this as the ending, as its a great way to end its story, as heartless as it is. If Kong had survived, it may have also stripped away the stakes to the story and ruined the tension that it had built up. In life and film-making, you can’t eat your cake and have it too.
As much as Connor wanted Kong to survive, the film is not going to change. He doesn’t understand why Kong had to die, or why his mother’s medication is failing her, and this is because our brains are wired to fear things we don’t understand.
If someone walked up to you and started lifting a book with their “mind”, you would immediately start freaking out, and likely blame the ability on the paranormal. When something in life goes against everything you have learned up till now, like a disease not being able to be cured, or someone using telekinesis, our immediate reaction is anxiety and fear. Humans evolved in nature, so it was key for our survival that we perceived things we couldn’t understand as a threat. If we don’t understand something, we can’t discern if its friend or foe, so the safest bet is to treat it as something dangerous.
So by knowing this information, the best way to deal with these types of situations is to accept that you will never understand what is happening to you and allow yourself to be scared. In many situations, people are afraid to speak their mind because they fear they will become hypocritical. In events like this though, its perfectly okay. This is because they know they’re never going to comprehend their dilemma, so they embrace the confusion, allowing themselves to be vulnerable in the face of darkness. After all, one of the bravest things anyone can ever accomplish is accepting vulnerability and letting the confusion set in, instead of fighting a fight they know they won’t be able to win.
Life just doesn’t work the way you want it to. Some things in life are completely out of your control. Just like in the first story, as much as you want there to be a good guy and a bad guy, the story will never change. We always want things to happen a certain way, so it’s not unreasonable to expect someone to react with anxiety when life veers off of their expectations. There was never anything guaranteed to happen, nor will there ever will be. That sucks, and we may never understand why it has to happen, but we don’t have to understand or to like it. It’s scary to think that life will do things to us without our “permission”, but that’s life. Connor’s dad even said that most people don’t become happily ever after. Most people become “messily ever after”, and that’s okay.
The Second Story
The second story explains the consequences of resorting to fight your problems instead of allowing yourself to be vulnerable. It also serves as an example that sometimes even when people are poorly mannered, that doesn’t make them a villain.
For example, in the second story, the partisan spoke against the apothecary’s olden ways of healing, and in doing so, deprived him of business. However, when the partisan’s daughters acquired a deadly illness, he begged for the apothecary to help him, saying he would preach in his favor and essentially lie about his beliefs just to save his daughters. In a surprising turn of events, the apothecary refused, and the partisan’s daughters died of their sickness.
Sure, the apothecary may have been rude, but the partisan used his power to attack someone he disagreed with and manipulated the people he was preaching to. The apothecary was still a healer, and, as far as we know, only became sour once his business capsized.
Connor’s Grandmother could be easily compared to the apothecary or even the witch Queen from the first story.
As much as it seems that she’s out to get him, in reality, she only wants the best for him. When she tells Connor that he’ll be living with her for a few days, Connor feuds with anger and flat-out rejects her proposition. It’s harder on her than it is for Connor because they both want what’s best for Lizzie, and Connor just won’t let go.
The King’s Grandson
For a good portion of the film, Connor wears a similar striped shirt to the King’s Grandson in the first story. The boy in the second story killed his wife because he couldn’t accept how events were pulling together. Even if he wanted to take the throne from the Queen in a respectable way, not only was he too young, but by law, the Queen was to reign for another year.
Of course Connor never kills anyone. The meaning behind this comparison is that there are consequences when you try and change things you can’t control. After the second story is finished, the monster begins destroying a house and encourages Connor to take part. During this fit of destruction, the film abruptly cuts to Connor destroying his Grandmother’s furniture, leaving the house in disarray.
In life, when you waste time denying the truth and bottle your emotions, you end up pushing people away. Everyone else is dealing with the same problem he is and is just as confused and frustrated as he is. This isn’t a problem exclusive to Connor. When he looks into his Grandmother’s eyes and realizes what he has done, it is too late.
In the case of the parallel between Connor and the King’s Grandson, the comparison is important because, in both situations, the consequences that resulted from their actions resulted in pain and tragedy at the expense of another person.
Just because Connor couldn’t accept the reality of his mother’s inevitable death, or that he couldn’t get along with his Grandmother that only wanted the best for him and Lizzie, he acted out in a fit of rage and anger. Why is it necessary that he responds to his pain so selfishly when his family is dealing with the same pain he is feeling?
Messily Ever After
There’s a scene after Connor’s destructive rampage that I hold close to my heart. Connor’s father tells a story of his own, a story about his relationship with Lizzie. He said that they thought they had everything they wanted, but their marriage unfortunately, fell apart over time. He could have begged her to stay or vice versa. They could have promised to each other that they’ll change and work to fix this broken marriage, but they didn’t do that. They knew that life sucks sometimes and there will be points in life where relationships with two amazing people die for seemingly no reason.
Both of them had to let life take its course. What were they supposed to do, Fight back? Life is one of the few things humans can’t fight. So, Connor’s father just admitted that he still loves her, and had to give her up. He could have chased after her, in worry that the person he loved may have ended up with someone else, but what sense does that make? What sense is there in worrying who’s she’s going to be with when he knows in his heart that they’re never going to be together again?
In truth, those thoughts probably did come to mind after they split apart, but that’s the whole point of the film’s message. It’s okay to have contradictory feelings, as humans are complex, and our coping mechanisms often get in the way of our true intentions. The great thing about all of this is that none of it matters. All that matters is your actions. What’s amazing about thoughts, is just that. They’re just thoughts, and no one but you has access to them. So, what should we do with these thoughts? Just let them flow through your head as if they were dust bunnies.
Caesar vs Connor
To make it easier for me to explain what I want to say, I’ll compare Connor’s arc to a similar arc from a different film.
In War for the Planet of the apes, Caesar killed Winter, and albino gorilla, all for the sake of his selfish quest for vengeance. Winter may have exposed their hiding place to the Colonel, but he was scared. In his fear, Winter acted in such a way because he was fearful of the future, and his own life. Sure, that may be a selfish act as well, but it’s not unreasonable to expect someone would make rash decisions when they’re in fear.
In this film, the King’s Grandson killed his wife only to take the Queen’s place. The Queen may have become an evil witch in the future, but she was not a murderer, as the King had merely grown old. She certainly never deserved to be framed for the death of an innocent woman.
Like Connor and the King’s Grandson, Caesar acted harshly because he couldn’t look past his selfish coping mechanism for his rage and look the other way.
When Connor destroyed his Grandmother’s furniture, it was because he couldn’t look past her seemingly hostile nature. His Grandmother may seem to be the “bad guy”, but people cope with life in different ways. Connor reacted with such hatred just for something he could have easily forgiven.
Another example of this parallel between these films is Connor’s conversation with his father after his fit of destruction, vs Maurice, telling Caesar he’s acting like Koba after his selfish actions become the cause of Luca’s death.
Caesar may not like the notion of turning the other cheek while his family’s killer walks away unscathed, or that he was compared to Koba. Unfortunately, the reality of life is that we have to accept what it throws at us because we can’t change the past. If he had accepted the humility for what it was at face value: an act of war, he would have been able to separate his grieving process from his leadership over his tribe. It may be painful to just allow these thoughts and emotions to ungulate in his mind without acting on them, but it doesn’t matter how we feel, or what we think, it only matters what we do.
Connor’s father tries to teach him that just because people don’t get along, doesn’t mean they can’t love each other. His father came to the UK because he knew what Connor was going through and knew he needed his dad around in these trying times. He even offered to take Connor to LA for Christmas. After all this generosity, Connor rejected it. His father’s only here for a short amount of time and Connor is placing his selfish bubble higher on the priority list than spending quality time with his father.
The only thing Connor wants is to spend time with his mother and fails to see the big picture. When something terrible happens to us that we can’t control, we have to let it happen instead of pushing people away who are trying to help us.
It’s okay to accept that some things won’t last forever, and it’s okay to say goodbye and let terrible things happen to us. The bravest thing someone could do in this situation is being vulnerable in the face of darkness.
Belief is Half of all Healing
In the second story, the partisan preached against the apothecary’s business, but the apothecary did nothing wrong. The apothecary may have been using ancient methods of healing, but this process never hurt anybody.
Just like how humanity yearned for King Kong’s death because they couldn’t understand him, people automatically assumed the apothecary was evil because he’s the only one of his kind. Even today, when people produce healing remedies made from herbs, they do it in the privacy in their own homes. If they are respectful and humble people, they won’t entertain the notion that their remedies would always be more effective than something from a modern doctor.
Just by believing that the apothecary’s work can heal people, the city’s morale would have been raised significantly. Unfortunately though, the partisan never allowed him to continue with his work and turned his people against him.
The partisan only turned to this man when he had no options left for saving his daughters. He offered to give up everything he believed in, even promising to preach in his favor.
The problem with this, and why the apothecary turned him down, is that this wouldn’t have changed anything. It would have only made the situation worse, as the partisan would be preaching a lie, and by doing so, turning his back to the people. He would be abandoning his respect for his people, and they would have inevitably found out what’s going on. The partisan likely isn’t as smart as the King’s Grandson, and wouldn’t be able to devise a master plan to use the people to get what he wants.
The people and the church would have found out what’s going on, and his trustworthiness would have crumbled. When people say they’ll promise to change just for somebody else, in a frantic attempt to stop something horrible happening to them, they only do so out of selfishness from their crisis. Even if the other party entertained them, it still wouldn’t change anything. Both parties would be turning away from who they are and will be living a lie. This has happened many times throughout human history and has always resulted in relationships collapsing.
This message is reflected in Connor’s life in multiple ways. One of the most prominent ways it does this is through Lizzie lying to Connor, saying she’s going to be healed when she knows in her heart that she’s long gone. When Connor speaks of the fourth tale and tells the truth, he said that deep down he knew that she wasn’t going to be okay. Lizzie wanted to keep Connor ignorant to give him hope to believe in the cure. I think we all know the hypocrisy of this whole situation. Lizzie knew that by keeping him in the dark she could keep Connor hopeful while he figures it out himself. But why would Lizzie want to give him hope, when she already knew the endgame? And to tell you the truth, I don’t know the answer myself.
I’ve said this many, many times throughout this review, but I can’t emphasize this enough. Humans are complex, and not even the most intelligent of our kind, have not unraveled all of our brains strange and unorthodox ways of thinking. In positions like these, we may find ourselves wanting the truth, but also wanting to be lied to, as to not injure our hearts. That’s just the nature of the human spirit.
The Third Story
In the third story, we learn about the dangers of attempting to fight life. Even though sometimes we may think that life doesn’t know we exist, but that doesn’t mean the people that care about us don’t. As much as you may think that no-one is noticing you, they are always watching.
The tale goes like this:
There was once an invisible man, who had grown tired of being unseen. It was not that he was actually invisible, it was just that people had become used to not seeing him. One day the invisible man couldn’t stand it anymore. He kept wondering, if no one sees you, are you really there at all?Liam Neeson as The Monster (2016)
After The Monster told this story, Connor then stormed forward and took out his anger on his bully. Connor was then reprimanded by his school principal after finding out his violent outburst put the boy in the hospital. When Connor asks why he isn’t being punished, she responds with: “What could possibly be the point?”
This film uses the third story to help explain to Connor, and the audience, that there’s nothing we can do to stop life from enacting its master plan, and we’re bound to make mistakes. Humans are complex and flawed, and we’re so used to being able to control everything. When they’res something we can’t control, we react with fear and anger. As I mentioned earlier, when the brain encounters something it doesn’t understand, its first response is to treat it as a threat. Knowing this information, it’s not unreasonable to expect that someone would make mistakes and act irrationally when dealing with something frightening.
The Fickleness of Punishment
People only learn when they feel pain. I think we can all relate to a situation where we tried to prevent someone we loved from making a rash decision, but the person in question never entertained your advice and they ended up making a grave mistake. Only after they made such a grave mistake did they realize what they have done, and end up asking themselves, “what was I thinking?”.
People don’t realize that they’ve made a mistake until after the consequences become reality. That’s how people learn to be better people. There’s no real way to live life without experiencing failures. After all, When we fail, we will naturally adjust our actions so we don’t make the same mistake again. Connor didn’t need to be punished by his actions because the consequences that resulted from his actions were so traumatic that it was never needed.
In instances like these, where we mess up and cause disarray, we may feel like we deserve the worst for acting out of line. The truth is if you’re going through something traumatic, and you lash out by breaking things, no one is going to hold that against you. You knew you messed up, and the other party can forgive you given the circumstances, so, what’s the point of punishment? In the end, Connor’s Grandmother flat-out rejects Connor’s apology because they’re both going through the same experience and have both made mistakes.
The Invisible Man
Leading up to the telling of this story, Connor felt as if he didn’t exist. In my own experience, I can relate to Connor because I too have lived through times where I felt that the world was piling on top of me. I felt that the world had been doing what it wanted, without a care in the world of how I felt.
To Connor, his Grandma doesn’t seem to pay attention to him or care about him, his father tells him things he doesn’t want to hear, and his mother tells him that she’s going to be alright when in reality, her condition is only worsening. Connor’s age benefits his character arc here, because everyone just tells him a “script”, and do their “grown-up” talk while he is seemingly ignored. After a lengthy buildup of this, his anger leads him to take out his frustrations on his school bully.
The truth of the matter is, you can’t cure invisibility through violence. If anything, it only makes your situation worse, as now everyone is staring at you in reaction to your heinous act. When grieving, it’s important to realize that giving your anger what it wants is going to do nothing to benefit you.
In my own life, I can recall several occurrences in which I felt that nothing I had been doing had been working to dull the pain I was feeling. This doesn’t just happen from going through the loss of a loved one, or even a breakup. This phenomenon happens in all instances where someone would be experiencing depression or sorrow in their life.
From my experience, I can say that there were times I had tried to listen to what people were telling me, watching self-help videos, and watching movies that dealt with a similar theme of acceptance. When none of them worked, I felt the only thing that could help me, the only thing that could make me feel powerful was my anger.
So when I felt I had no options left to cope with my emotions, I snapped, and said and did things that I would regret later.
What I and many other people failed to realize when under its influence is just that. Anger has an incredible influence on our minds if we let it roam free. The truth of the matter is, there are other options. No matter how much you may think that no one cares, there are people that care. The only reason why you may think you are invisible is because your depressive thoughts make you invisible.
There’s a powerful scene near the end of the film when Lizzie’s condition has reached critical levels. It’s too late to continue this charade any longer, and she has to tell Connor the truth. In an inspirational monologue, she says:
One day, if you look back, and you feel bad for being so angry, you can even speak to me. You have to know that that was okay, that I knew. Because I know everything you need to tell me without you having to say it out loud. And if you need to break things, by God you break them!Felicity Jones as Lizzie O’Malley (A Monster Calls – 2016)
The best way to cope with grief, and your anger, is to embrace it as who you are. If you need to scream, if you need to punch a wall, or if you need to break things, that’s okay, because that’s what being human is all about. It’s okay to be angry, and you shouldn’t feel like you need to be punished when you feel such emotions. You shouldn’t have to feel like you need to hurt someone to express yourself.
People resort to violence in these situations because they are afraid. They are afraid of speaking the truth and embracing their vulnerability. Our pain and our anger makes us who we are, so trying to run away from it would only be foolish. We need these emotions to make us flawed, to make us human. That’s what the gift of free will is all about.
In an inevitable sequence of events, Connor has to face his nightmare and speak of the 4th tale. In his nightmare, and finally admit to what he’s feeling, that’s been plaguing him for this entire journey. In this nightmare, a sinkhole develops in the ground, and Connor has to hold onto his mom as the void from the earth sucks her in with immense strength. To save himself, he has to let go. When he does, he finally, admits to The Monster and screams: “I just want it to be over!”.
Back to the theme of punishment again, Connor still thinks that he deserves punishment for wanting his pain to end, even if it meant losing his mother. This is only basic human instinct, and it’s completely natural to wish for an end of pain. He wished for an end to his pain, but he also wished for his mother to continue living. Just as these three stories suggest, not everything in life is going to make sense. At some point in his life, Connor had to accept that sometimes, that’s just how life happens. Of course, these two things contradict each other, but that doesn’t matter.
In King Kong, the humans killed him because they failed to understand him. Connor couldn’t understand his feelings and why he wanted to believe that his mother was going to live when he knew all along that she was lying. After all, from The Monster’s mouth, it does not matter what you think, it is only important what you do.
I feel that the best way to conclude this blog post is to tell my own tale in reflection on what I learned from this film.
I think we’ve all been in situations where we have been suffering through more pain than what should be warranted, as we avoid the red flags because we don’t want to let go of what’s causing us pain. In my own experience, I can recall a similar experience of having to let go. I had recently gone through a breakup from a partner whom I loved very much. I know I had to let her go, but the thought of her being with someone else was too much for me. How could I wish for an end to my pain, yet also want to hold onto her? It didn’t really make sense. Although, no matter what I thought, I knew I wasn’t ever going to get her back, nor would it be a healthy relationship anyway if I did. So I allowed myself to be hypocritical and just accepted reality, as confusing as it was.
Over time, I was healed. Yes, it was hard, it was more than hard. Nonetheless, I was able to move on because I knew that it was best for me, as confusing as that felt.