A Monster Calls and cinema’s long history of sympathetic monsters.
“People don’t like what they don’t understand,” Lizzie tells her son, Conor, as they watch King Kong early in A Monster Calls. This scene, and this line in particular, comes across as an homage to far more than King Kong. It’s an acknowledgement of all the films that have come before which explore the incredible potential of monsters to be emotionally resonant, thought-provoking, and challenging characters.
But first things first: what is a monster? For the sake of this article, a monster is a character that is grotesque in appearance and is introduced as a cause of fear, hatred, or disgust. Films that take a more complex approach to monsters than simply treating them as amalgamations of repulsive characteristics for protagonists to defeat have existed since the early days of cinema. Yet, the vast majority of films featuring monsters have always and continue to fall into the “Evil monster is evil. The end.” school of character development.
While such flat characterization is never a good thing, it can be more problematic in some cases more than others. Back when D.W. Griffith made Birth of a Nation, he openly validated and reinforced the racist caricature of the monstrous Black man. In the heyday of Westerns, the inherent racism of “Cowboys vs. Indians” plot lines was par for the same course. Times may have changed as to what is deemed acceptable, but these underlining prejudices are still very much present. The prejudices and fears embodied by predatory Black men, bloodthirsty Native Americans or any number of othered peoples have been generalized into today’s monsters and aliens.
Just as monsters can be used to reinforce fears of others, they can be used to defy and denounce these prejudices, but it is a very fine line ‐ as demonstrated in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931). Whale intended Frankenstein’s Monster to be a sympathetic figure (quite like in Shelley’s original novel) ‐ a politically subversive choice in an age of moral panic where the concept that criminals were born and could be identified by appearance alone was subject of a good deal of support. We like to forget that the eugenics movement was quite popular in the US before World War II, and it was us who influenced the Germans far more than the other way around.
In a pivotal scene in Frankenstein, the Monster befriends a little girl, Maria who is playing by the side of a lake. They make a game of throwing daisies in the lake and watching them float, inspiring the Monster to toss Maria in the lake, expecting she will float as well. She does not, and drowns. As film critic Jon Towlson writes in his book Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages of Films from Frankenstein to the Present, this scene was intended to:
“[blow] open the taboo of the 1930s sex crimes moral panic by revealing his ‘sexual psychopath’ monster as misjudged, improperly labeled, unfairly accused and unjustly punished.”
Studio executives wanted to trim the scene, but Whale refused to back down, knowing that the scene could easily be cut to feed into and validate the the image of the “sexual psychopath” ‐ what Towlson describes as an “amalgamation of drifter, homosexual, and child molester” ‐ which was used to fuel the increased persecution of those falsely conflated with rapists and pedophiles, such as gay people and the homeless. While Whale won the battle, state censors in several states edited the scene anyway, as did the movie’s 1938 re-release. Until a partial restoration was made possible by the rediscovery of some of the missing footage in 1985, the essential message of Frankenstein was horrifically in opposition to Whale’s actual intent.
While Whale’s monster was one of the first sympathetic monsters in cinema, it was far from the last. Films from King Kong to The Elephant Man to Edward Scissorhands have introduced audiences to monster figures that ultimately inspire sympathy ‐ even empathy (the key difference between the two being identification: we can feel sad for someone we sympathize with but still see them as an “other,” while the most impactful takes on the concept are those that inspire us not to simply care about monster figures, but fundamentally connect with them).
The eponymous monster of A Monster Calls is a little bit different from the traditional movie monster in that he is never really an “Other.” Not only is he quickly established as being a figment of the protagonist’s imagination, but he is also implied to be some sort of manifestation of Conor’s dead grandfather. This particular device of revealing a monster as being one and the same as a sympathetic figure is one that has been used several times before in cinematic history and can pack quite an emotional punch. However, it does remove a good deal of the political weight of the sympathetic monster concept by tying the monster to a specific, easily relatable figure.
Director J.A. Bayona previously used a similar sort of narrative device in The Orphantage, when Laura realizes the banging she had heard in the walls months earlier was not an angry ghost but her own missing son, who had accidentally gotten trapped. Another example of this sort of sympathetic monster narrative device, where the film builds a sympathetic character and a grotesque one and then reveals them to be one and the same is Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, where Sweeney realizes too late that the crazed homeless woman that wandered the streets was actually the beloved wife he believed to be dead. Tim Burton’s films actually quite frequently use this device ‐ it can also be seen in Big Fish, when Edward’s boss is revealed to be a werewolf, and Corpse Bride, when the “zombie apocalypse” turns into joyful reunions between the living and the decaying but reanimated dear departed.
However, while the main monster of A Monster Calls does not fill any sort of ideologically subversive role due to his connection to the very standard (white male) human protagonist, the film does not forget or shy away from addressing and confronting the ways in which we build and reinforce our prejudices through the monster narrative. Throughout the film, the Monster tells Conor stories that feature familiar characters ‐ a widowed king, his scheming second wife (potentially a witch), a beloved prince ‐ and similarly familiar beginnings. After the king dies, the queen wishes to keep the throne even once the prince comes of age, and gets the idea to marry her stepson in order to do so. The prince, already in love with a farmer’s daughter, runs away with his sweetheart, who is then murdered in her sleep. The prince, with the people of the kingdom on his side, seek vengeance against the evil queen. And then the film turns everything sideways: the evil queen never murdered anyone ‐ she was framed by the prince. It doesn’t flip the story entirely; the prince becomes a “much-beloved king who ruled happily until the end of his days,” and the queen was “most certainly [a] witch and could well have been on her way to great evil. Who can say?” Instead, the film draws attention to the danger of unthinking assumptions and simple dichotomies. And though the queen is a “witch,” the film is very clear in stating that she still merits saving.
Conor gets angry with the Monster, feeling tricked, but the Monster simply responds to Conor’s accusations by pointing out that the “lies” were really Conor’s assumptions (“I never said she killed the farmer’s daughter. I only said that the prince said it was so.”) In doing so, the film challenges the notion of monsters by seeing them as products of prejudice and misunderstanding ‐ much in the way of Frankenstein and the sympathetic monster storyline ‐ rather than fundamentally different or inferior. It might be tempting to connect this to the sort of revisionist retellings of fairytales in a movie like Maleficent (2014) but there is an important difference. Because the stories in a movie like that are merely derivative and not original, they fail to truly challenge the ways of thinking of its viewers. Instead of calling out their assumptions, a movie like Maleficent timidly asks “hey, what if you maybe thought about it this way instead?”. One is nicer but the other actually makes a point.
While the Monster in A Monster Calls serves primarily to demonstrate the importance of acknowledging and understanding the parts of ourselves that we would rather ignore ‐ the inner monster ‐ the film does not forget to take that extra step and apply it to how we consider others. Like the many sympathetic monster movies that have come before, A Monster Calls reminds us that the fault in “people are frightened by what they don’t understand” lies just as much, if not more, with those who are frightened than those who are feared.