Movies, music, TV, arts and entertainment, straight from Southern California.
Hosted by John Horn
Airs Temporarily on hiatus so that our staff can help out our colleagues in the KPCC newsroom and on our other shows.
Arts & Entertainment

'A Monster Calls' uses fantastical elements to tell a dark coming-of-age tale

J.A. Bayona on the set of
J.A. Bayona on the set of "A Monster Calls" with Lewis Macdougall.
Via Focus Features

Listen to story

Download this story 7MB

"A Monster Calls" isn't just a film about grief or a monster movie or even a fantasy movie — it's all of those rolled up into one.

The film follows 12-year-old Conor O’Malley (played by Lewis MacDougall), who is coping with the attacks of a school bully and the terminal illness of his mother (Felicity Jones).

One night Conor encounters a "monster" (played by Liam Neeson) in the form of a giant humanoid tree who comes to help Conor fix his unhappy life.

Lunch Room clip

The fantasy drama is directed by J.A. Bayona and is based on Patrick Ness’ children’s novel of the same name. Bayona has created a dark coming-of-age tale using monster movie imagery and an honest portrayal of grief and coping.

When Bayona recently spoke with John Horn, he started by talking about how families would view this movie — specifically the age group it was crafted for:

"The story was written for kids. It's about their world. It's about emotions, they go through it every day. It's about loneliness, sadness, rage, self blame, bullying. Things that they know ... and the movie talks about it in a very accessible way, using fantasy. So, somehow it makes them understand their own feelings and their own emotions in a cool way for them."


"Stories are like wild creatures: when you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?"

One of the things that sets the movie apart from the book is the underlying theme of how fictional stories can help us deal with problems in the real world, but it also could be a dangerous idea:

We all have stories — stories that help us to understand each other, to understand ourselves. Stories are about truth, and this is what the story is about. It's Conor trying to find the truth and express it. I always like to compare information versus knowledge. It's not the same thing.

You can watch the news and it's all about information, but when you hear a story it's about knowledge. There's a learning. I mean, somehow, stories, movies ... they reveal some kind of truth about yourself. And I think that's a beautiful thing about storytelling — that you can go to the movies and leave the theater and go back home. And instead of thinking about the film, start to think about your own life and your own experience.

Movie poster for
Movie poster for "A Monster Calls."
Via Focus Features

Common themes throughout Bayona's films

"The Orphanage," "The Impossible," and "A Monster Calls" — one is kind of a gothic horror story, the other one is about a family trying to survive a tsunami, and the other one is a fantasy story about a young boy whose mother is dying and he has a friend who comes to visit him in his nightmares. They don't seem like similar stories, but Bayona makes an argument that they are connected:

At the center of the story, there is a motif of the mother-and-son bond. I think there's no stronger link or bond than the one that mothers and sons have. I thought there's always a chance of creating a very powerful story using that bond. And somehow I feel attracted to it, I don't know why. I think in mediterranean culture, the family is the center of society and the center of the family is the mother so, somehow the three films talks about childhood. And a mother is the most important piece in that world.

A 'Jurassic' undertaking

All three of Bayona's films are very personal stories and they're shot in a personal way. From this film, the director is moving into the "Jurassic" franchise. Bayona spoke about maintaining the things that are important to him as a filmmaker and storyteller, and bringing them to the massive franchise:

I grew up watching Steven Spielberg movies, so from the moment I had the offer of working with him I felt very excited. I'm working with Colin Trevorrow who did ["Jurassic World"], I'm working with Frank Marshall who's producing the film, and I'm working with Steven. And the three of them are directors, too. So, for me it's more like a collaborative team and I'm inheriting a franchise, like a collection of movies that I enjoyed when I was a kid. For me the experience is to take care of their creature as much as possible.

To get more content like this, subscribe to The Frame podcast on iTunes.

Get more stories like this

Delivered every Thursday, The Frame weekly email features the latest in Movies, music, TV, arts and entertainment.