A Monster Calls: Lessons from the Monster

By: Holly Berry

image by BBC

A Monster Calls, the dark fantasy drama film based on the novel by Patrick Ness and inspired by the ideas of Siobhan Dowd, follows a young boy, Conor, as he comes to terms with his mother’s terminal illness and is visited nightly by a yew tree that tells him three stories. The stories that the tree shares are based on princes, apothecaries, and an invisible man, with each story’s aim to teach Conor an important lesson. So, what messages can be gleaned from the mysterious tales of the talking yew tree that visits him at 00:07 each morning, and are they actually relevant?

The tree, known rather unaffectionately as the Monster, has a central message: stories can change everything. I brushed this off as I listened to his first story (the tale of a prince escaping a supposedly evil queen, and later blaming the queen for his wife’s murder despite being the culprit himself) believing that it had no relevance to the real world. But don't we often meet people that refuse to accept the ugly truth? Ostensibly, the story of princes and queens and faraway kingdoms is a fairytale, but the deeper meaning is knowing that people can often live in denial. The kingdom ends up turning on a benevolent queen, believing she is a murderer when the true culprit sits beneath the crown- a mistake that would have been avoided had the kingdom gathered their facts and looked beyond the surface of the prince’s façade. Conor argues that the tale is irrelevant, rightfully pointing out that this won’t save his terminally ill mother, but the Monster’s message is for Conor to understand that “sometimes people need to lie to themselves most of all”. Being a young boy, Conor’s fear and despair often manifests as anger, normally aimed towards his grandmother who is cold and distant. Conor believes she doesn’t care about him and doesn’t support her daughter enough through her illness; it's only later that he sees that he is so caught up in lying to himself about his mother’s looming death that he only sees his grandmother as a villain because he needs someone to blame for his pain. The tree’s story teaches us that sometimes things are awful and unfair, but there isn’t always an evil villain pulling the strings. Sometimes things are awful and unfair, and that’s just how it is.

The second story is based on an apothecary that requires a yew tree for a potent medicine, but a person (whose land the yew tree grows on) refuses to let him harvest it, as he believes in praying for healing instead. The apothecary grows bitter, but then the parson’s two daughters grow sick and he has no choice but to ask the apothecary for the yew medicine- he even promises that the apothecary can harvest the entire tree if he heals his daughters, but the apothecary refuses and the daughters pass away. Conor believes that the apothecary is in the wrong for refusing to heal the parson’s daughter- probably imagining his own desperation if such a miracle medicine existed for his mother- but the Monster argues that things are not quite so clear-cut. The parson throws away his beliefs for the medicine he never had faith in because he was desperate, before his daughters became ill he was content to ridicule the apothecary. The importance of this story is just how complicated humans can be; the true moral message of the Monster’s second tale is that there is no moral message. Both the apothecary and the parson are in the wrong, yet they are also both in the right: so, where does that leave us in determining the relevance of this tale? For me, this is the most relevant story; it’s not realistic to say that every situation will always have one good guy and one bad guy, but it is realistic to point out that we can be good or bad or both or neither, and there’s no clear criteria for any of them. The Monster’s message is brutally truthful- human nature is so complex that it would be impossible to have a one-rule-fits-all morality lesson.

The final tale that the Monster tells follows an invisible man. The twist to this story is that he is not invisible at all, the people around him had just become so used to overlooking him that they don't notice his presence anymore. As the Monster tells the story, Conor’s bully, Harry, says that he no longer sees him- prompting the rest of the school to also start acting like Conor is invisible. This story is directly linked to Conor’s present, and he decides to make himself visible again by unleashing his rage. He fights Harry until his bully is hospitalized with a broken nose and teeth, to which the Monster explains that “there are worse things than being invisible”. Conor sees his peers look at him and then look away in fear; they see him now but wish they didn’t. The Monster was trying to show him that taking revenge, no matter how justified we feel it might be, just means that you are equally as cruel as the person you are getting revenge on- not morally superior.

A Monster Calls teaches us that sometimes to protect ourselves from pain, we feel like we have to lie to ourselves and live in denial even though it taints the world around us for the worse, human nature is so complicated and unique that we could never hope to always have a definitive hero and villain, and that vengeance crosses the line onto the enemy’s side. So, maybe the tales of a young boy and a talking yew tree really are relevant to the real world.