The Art Of Adaptation: A Monster Calls

“I saw this as a powerful and important story to tell as a movie – an adventure that anyone can relate to.”

Directed by J.A. Bayona (The Impossible, The Orphanage), A Monster Calls is a visually spectacular and stunningly emotional drama based on the award-winning novel. The screenplay adaptation is by the book’s author, Patrick Ness, who wrote the novel from an original idea by the late Siobhan Dowd.


12-year-old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is about to escape into a fantastical world of monsters and fairy tales. He is dealing with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) illness, which has necessitated Conor’s spending time with his less-than-sympathetic grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). His daily existence at his U.K. school is one of academic disinterest and bullying by classmates. As Conor’s father (Toby Kebbell) has resettled thousands of miles away in the U.S., the boy yearns for guidance.

He unexpectedly summons a most unlikely ally, who bursts forth with terrifying grandeur from an ancient towering yew tree and the powerful earth below it: a 40-foot-high colossus of a creature (portrayed in performance-capture and voiceover by Liam Neeson) who appears at Conor’s bedroom window @12:07 one night – and at that time on nights thereafter. The Monster has stories to tell, and he insists that Conor hear them and powerfully visualize them. Conor’s fear gives way to feistiness and then to looking within; for, The Monster demands that once the tales are told it will be time for Conor to tell his own story in return. Ancient, wild, and relentless, the Monster guides Conor on a journey of courage, faith, and truth.


In June 2012, Patrick Ness’ novel A Monster Calls, inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd and illustrated by Jim Kay, became the first book to win both of the U.K.’s oldest and most prestigious children’s book awards, the CILIP Carnegie Medal and the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustrations. Mr. Ness became only the second author to win two consecutive Carnegie Medals. A Monster Calls also won The Children’s Book of the Year Award at the Galaxy National Book Awards; the Red House Children’s Book Award; Germany’s Jugendliteratur Prize; and the U.K. Literary Association’s Children’s Book Prize. His much-praised “Chaos Walking Trilogy” is being developed by Lionsgate as a feature film series. The first book in the trilogy, The Knife of Never Letting Go, won The Guardian’s Children’s Fiction Prize in 2008 as well as The Book Trust Teenage Prize. The second book, The Ask and the Answer, won the Costa Children’s Book Award in 2009; and the third book, Monsters of Men, brought Mr. Ness his first Carnegie Medal in 2011. His books have been translated into 37 languages. His novel for adults The Crane Wife was inspired by a Japanese folk tale and was selected for Oprah’s Book Club in the U.S., with Mr. Ness then being shortlisted for UK Author of the Year at the 2013 National Book Awards.

A Monster Calls began with the book A Monster Calls, first published in 2011.

Sergio Sánchez, a voracious reader, and also the screenwriter of The Orphanage and The Impossible, was so entranced by the novel that he gave it to those award-winning films’ director, his friend J.A. Bayona.

Upon reading the book, Bayona recognized at once “themes I’d touched on in The Orphanage and The Impossible: characters finding themselves in a very intense situation, with death on the horizon.

“I saw this as a powerful and important story to tell as a movie – an adventure that anyone can relate to.”

Millions of readers agree. The novel, written by Patrick Ness, based on an original idea by the late Siobhan Dowd, has been published in almost 40 languages. A Monster Calls won many prestigious prizes worldwide, including the distinguished Carnegie Medal and, for illustrator Jim Kay, the Kate Greenaway Medal. Bayona marvels, “It became beloved, and iconic – and I wanted to do it justice.”

Belén Atienza, Bayona’s producer on his earlier movies and an executive producer on the multi-Oscar-winning Pan’s Labyrinth, took to the book as well. “Belén and I both felt passionate about it,” states the director, adding that he “knew it would be an even bigger challenge than The Impossible.”

Atienza muses, “Like all good books that deal with a big subject, in the end you find that it’s truly been speaking to you about a lot of different things. One of the key themes is how we process grief and the loss of loved ones. That’s what strikes you in a very direct way when you first read the book, but reading it again you can realize the author is exploring how fantasy is part of us as human beings – and the power it can give us to help deal with life.

“Once you start to read it and to hear Conor’s voice, the effect is so compelling. The beautiful, delicate jewel of a story stayed with me for months.”

The story had originated with another author, Siobhan Dowd. She succumbed to cancer soon after starting it. Ness reflects, “Siobhan wrote magnificent books, ones that teenagers deeply responded to; A Monster Calls was to have been her fifth. She had an opening; 1,000 words; an idea for a structure; and a few characters.”


J.A. Bayona’s most recent feature film as director was The Impossible, starring Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, and Tom Holland; it was based on the powerful true story of a family’s survival of the tragic Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. The Impossible grossed more than $180 million at the worldwide box office and brought Ms. Watts Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, and Academy Award nominations. Mr. Holland received honors including an Empire Award for Best Newcomer. The Impossible won five Goya Awards, which are Spain’s Oscars equivalent, including Best Director; and six Gaudí Awards, including Best Director. Prior to making A Monster Calls, Mr. Bayona directed the first two episodes of Showtime’s series Penny Dreadful, starring Eva Green, which instantly attracted a loyal following. Having completed A Monster Calls, he will next direct the new Jurassic World movie, for release in June 2018. Born in Barcelona, he grew up with a passion for film. This led him to become a journalist and later to study directing, at the Cinema and Audiovisual School of Catalonia (ESCAC). After directing two short films, My Holidays and The Sponge Man, Mr. Bayona met screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez, who gifted him with the script for The Orphanage, which became his first feature as director. The Orphanage world-premiered at the 2007 Cannes International Film Festival to a 10-minute standing ovation. It was then released nationally in Spain, and its opening four-day box office was the highest of the year and at the time the second-highest ever for a Spanish film. The Orphanage was nominated for 14 Goya Awards, winning seven including Mr. Bayona’s for Best New Director.

Initially hesitant when approached by the late author’s editor and asked to adopt the idea, Ness eventually took on the responsibility. His attachment to the story only grew, and he wanted to ensure that the conversations it encouraged would continue. As such, he wrote a very faithful screenplay adaptation. He explains, “To me, this is a story about fear of loss. I was really trying above all things to find the truth of how Conor felt; to not lie about it, not sugarcoat it, not sentimentalize it…to really feel how it hurts, because it surely does.”

The producer and director sensed that the story could work as a film – without ever losing the emotional core. Atienza notes, “Bayona is someone who listens to his emotions. He found a lot of himself in this kid, how Conor accesses fantasy in this difficult point in his life.

“Since, in his films, Bayona likes to speak to audiences through a combination of different genres, this was perfect material for him. He began to see how he might interpret the novel, bringing it ‘round to his own territory.”

The director notes, “I was also inspired to think about why it is we tell stories, and I began to read up on works of mythology from experts such as Joseph Campbell.”

After finishing The Impossible, a film which went on to move audiences around the world, Bayona received the A Monster Calls screenplay from his agent. Spain’s Telecinco Cinema, which had backed Bayona’s earlier films, stepped forward to finance the development and the director knew it would be his next project. Atienza states, “With the unconditional support of these dear partners, we were able to prepare the movie properly.” Joined by Spain’s La Trini, and by the prestigious U.S.-based production companies Participant Media and River Road Entertainment, the story was finally headed for the big screen.

“Bayona and I felt that River Road and Participant understood our creative goals, and this story, from the very beginning,” remarks Atienza. “They realized that we wanted the movie to be a meaningful experience, something you think about afterwards, for a wide audience.”


Bayona and Ness began meeting in Barcelona. “Bayona spoke of how A Monster Calls could for him complete a trilogy about mothers and sons,” remembers the author. “I could see that he was the ideal storyteller for this tale. One thing I like about him, which is probably the most important thing in all of my own writing, is that he takes the feelings of a child seriously. He sees the child as a human being, not as a human being in waiting but as someone who truly lives and experiences and feels pain, joy, fear, trust issues, and happiness.”

The two took time to work out details of taking the book from page to screen. “We didn’t want to make a melodrama,” states Bayona. “Everything had to be integrated: Conor’s diverging relationships with his mother and his grandmother, and the fantastical element of the story. I realized that the 40-foot-high Monster would need to be depicted by integrating 2D and 3D animation.

“One other thing that unlocked it for me was the idea that Conor loves to draw; it connected everything else. This was also a bond to me personally, as I was obsessed with drawing when I was a boy.”

Bayona feels that “the book speaks about death in a direct and darker way. For the film, I wanted to transcend what we know is coming – the death of Conor’s mother – and be able to fuse the boy’s need to draw with the strength of legacy. There is light at the end of the story, resulting from the idea that art heals. Patrick’s screenplay has added themes while still being faithful to the novel; in making the movie, there are some elements of the book that we have taken further.”

Director J.A. Bayona and Lewis MacDougall during filming of A Monster Calls.Bayona states, “Lewis was the perfect actor to play Conor. He has a wonderful vulnerability and at the same time a great strength that goes beyond his years, and a lot of that is echoed in the character. He can be compared to an adult actor because he has an amazing ability to prepare himself for a scene. © Focus Features


As usual for the director, prep work encompassed everything from concept art to casting calls for children. To take the journey of making A Monster Calls, he invited core creative collaborators along, “the people who have been critical to the stories I’ve told – some dating back to film school.”

Atienza adds, “Óscar Faura, our director of photography; our editors Bernat Vilaplana and Jaume Martí; Fernando Velázquez, the composer – this powerful team of ours can meet any technical challenges while also keeping their artists’ souls and a sensitivity to the intimacy of the stories that Bayona tells.”

The creative team on A Monster Calls also includes production designer Eugenio Caballero, an Academy Award winner for Pan’s Labyrinth who previously collaborated with Bayona on The Impossible; and costume designer Steven Noble, who previously collaborated with actress Felicity Jones on her Oscar-nominated performance in The Theory of Everything. Bayona marvels, “I had the finest resources in the form of these collaborators.”

At every phase of pre-production, production, and post-production, Bayona sees Atienza as “my shadow. She is a constant support, not only in the organization of the shoot, but creatively as well. Belén is key to my process.

“We have tried to bring this novel to the screen in the best and most faithful way possible while at the same time infusing it with our personal vision.”