Reflection on “A Monster Calls” book and film

  A personal interpretation with some spoilers…

After watching Rogue One and reading over  Fa_monster_callselicity Jones’ other roles, I came across, A Monster Calls. I was intrigued by the plot and listened to the audio-book. I don’t often watch tear-jerkers on the big screen, however, my interest in the book, persuaded me to see the film.

A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness, is a doleful yet beautiful tale and film that describes the emotions many people go through when losing a loved one. The movie was slightly altered to give more detail to the main character and his immediate family. It wasn’t particularly suspenseful but it gave closure. The book was brief, so it helped that the film could fill in gaps and bring the book to life.

The audience is dropped into thirteen-year-old Conor O’Malley’s ritualistic world as he gets up, prepares breakfast, and goes to school. His parents are divorced, and with his mother’s illness, Conor learns to be self-reliant. His mother is in the late stages of cancer and is taking potent drugs to battle the disease, leaving her debilitated. She is progressively getting worse, though they remain optimistic through experimental drug treatments.

Conor’s reality turns into a recurring nightmare of him trying to save his mother from a sinkhole. He is already withdrawn from reality, and to add to his stress, the nightmare leaves him with exhaustion and anxiety. One evening, as Conor begins to drift off, an old yew tree across from their yard comes to life, headed straight to his bedroom. Initially, Conor is terrified and believes it is an extension of his nightmare but learns the tree is only there to tell him stories.

The yew tree tells three tales and Conor must tell the fourth about his nightmare. The condition is Conor must tell the truth. The first tale is about a beloved prince who loathes his evil stepmother who is a witch. The second is about a stubborn apothecary who prefers to use herbs for cures and refuses to conform to modern society. The third is about an invisible man who just wants to be seen. The common thread in the stories is the yew tree, who helps the characters in some way. The tales slightly resemble Conor’s life. His grandmother takes over the care of Conor and his mother. They are both distant to one another and find it difficult to agree. He learns that one of the drugs is an extract from a yew tree developed to treat cancer. Later he confronts a bully that has been tormenting him at school. Conor expects the tales to end happily but soon realizes that the they are not. It takes the three tales and the progression of the cancer for him to finally come to terms with his own truth.

The book and film portrays Conor’s torment as a nightmare bleeding into reality. He tells himself and others that his mother will turnaround and become well again, and chases any thought of her dying away. However, a small part of him wants the nightmare to end. Conor holds all his emotions inside and the yew tree is a manifestation of those suppressed feelings. The tree helps Conor to realize he cannot hold them in, otherwise he risks his own destruction.

The film brings the yew tree to life and the interaction between the tree and Conor are believable. The film also adds more background to his family. Family photos explain some of the details about his mother’s childhood and relationship with her own father who passed away when she was young. It also follows Conor and his father, who has a smaller role in the book, as they go on father-son day trips. The film added vivid imagery to the dream-like world.

In my own experience, it took me six months to overcome my own sadness and guilt of my mother’s death, though not entirely. Although her death happened in a matter of days rather than weeks, I could empathize with the main character. Watching a movie that reminded me of this made me realize that it is important for me to have moments of sadness as well as bliss. The author understood those dark moments leading up to death and the emotions expressed in these horrible situations. The film conveyed this to me: that we all must deal with our own monsters and that we all want a happy ending. Realistically, life is terminal. In order for us to cope with the outcomes, we must confront those truths no matter how awful, sad or painful they may be.


An Evening with Karin Muller

Karin Muller, a travel journalist for National Geographic with documentaries spanning the globe, hosted a pre-screening of her latest documentary, Egypt’s Secret Side at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Union South. 

Muller presented a lecture, Artistic Inspiration From Animal Sex Lives followed by two nights of Egypt’s Secret Side pre-screenings and buffets of authentic Egyptian dishes.  Though it sounded like a wine and paint event, the lecture happened to be quite humorous and educational.  She lectured on how animals have evolved and their continued success of their species.  Informational yet shocking at times, Muller uses her wit and often takes examples from her own dating experiences to compare the mating behaviors of animals.

Topics included; promiscuity versus monogamy, what attracts mates, why fathers matter and why size matters, i.e. length of insect eye shafts.  She mostly discussed insects, non-human primates, small mammals and birds.  Though strength and virility are important, female birds often choose mates based on flamboyance or gifts provided as an indication of the type of father they will be.  She compared and contrasted testicle to body size ratios of gorillas, chimps and bonobos and how these physical attributes play a role in their social behaviors.  The night concluded with a bonus video featuring the celestial mating ritual of Leopard slugs.

The following evenings offered an optional pre-screening buffet, which is part of a travel film series hosted by the UW.  Seasoned chefs at the Union South provided a family style dinner that included an all-you-can-eat buffet featuring dishes unique to the region of the featured film; baba ghanoush, hummus, falafel, tagine, and lamb moussaka.  The other dinner guests were very informative and excited to talk about past events and looking forward to future events.

Although Muller has pre-screened other documentaries, Cuba, Japan, Sudan, this was the first I attended.  If you are familiar with any of Muller’s documentaries, you know she fully immerses herself in the culture and spends three months at a time getting the finest details of often misunderstood aspects of a country.  In Egpyt’s Secret Side, Muller settles in with a host family and wears a hijab during the film. It opens with traditional family life in Cairo by introducing the Zabbaleen, also known as trash collectors, a minority population in Egypt consisting of Coptic Christians.  She later focuses on Cairo’s upward growth of dwellings and daily vehicle compaction in and around the city.  Cairo is at the center of political and economic activity in which Muller provides a window into the issues surrounding the city’s municipal waste system and leads into bigger issues with Egypt’s civil unrest.

The second part of the film reveals upheaval and citizens protesting in the streets that goes on for days and eventually leads to angry mobs and rioting, where mostly women are the targets for attack.  She hones in on the division in political and religious beliefs.  Egyptians long for stability and are fighting to rid the country of corruption.  She flees to the countryside for relief from the protesting but only to find herself under dire situations due to the political strife.

Muller eventually makes it out of Egypt and eager to share her compelling story.  She interacts before, after and during the viewing and gave an intimate narrative of the film as well as answered questions.  Her message is this; Egypt is still a developing country and remains in conflict.  Their view of Americans is just as misguided as our view of them.  The only way to break the futile cycle is to educate one another and open ourselves to new perspectives.

I look forward to her next visit to Madison!

University of Wisconsin-Madison Union Theater Travel Adventure Series

Karin Muller is the author and filmmaker of Hitchhiking Vietnam, Cuba’s Secret Side, Sudan’s Secret Side, and Along/The Royal Inca Road.  I started following Ms. Muller in 2013 when I traveled to Vietnam with my mom.  Although Hitchhiking Vietnam was published nearly two decades ago, the spiritual journey it provided was just as relevant as learning about my mom’s life in Vietnam over 50 years ago.  It became my travel guide and inspired me to be as adventurous as Muller, at least as much as I could with my mom.