Patrick Ness isn’t the first novelist to remake their own work for cinema, and he won’t be the last. He is, however, aware that turning A Monster Calls, the 2011 novel he spun from ideas and characters conceived by the late Siobhan Dowd, into a movie is an inherently risky move. Anybody could screw it up in the process of shifting mediums, even him, and finding the right person to direct the result takes trust and faith.
Enter The Orphanage’s J.A. Bayona, and presto, you have the right pairing for adapting A Monster Calls for the screen, though Ness wouldn’t call it an adaptation: He’d call it a remix. Readers and newcomers alike get to experience the story afresh through Bayona’s lens as a filmmaker, which blends its fantasy and horror qualities with his brand of emotional magic. Regardless of your familiarity with the source material, the film’s intentional blurring of genre boundaries is impressive.
Back in October, Ness made a stop in Boston, where Paste Magazine met with him to discuss the experience of helping usher A Monster Calls into theaters. We chatted about guarding one’s writing, the trouble with genre snobbery in both the film and literary worlds, and the importance of curiosity among both writers and readers.
Paste Magazine: About this time last year, I talked to Emma Donoghue about Room, and I asked her a question, which I’m going to ask you as well. I’m sure you’ve been asked it before, but what made you want to be the screenwriter for the adaptation of the book you wrote?
Patrick Ness: It was specific to this one that I felt like I knew, if it works, I felt like I know why it works, or I felt like I know what’s important to me in this story. People have responded well to it, and I kind of think I know why they do, I hope. That sounds really terrible, but it’s more that I feel really protective of the material, because it came from Siobhan Dowd first, and so I’m a custodian of the material as well as its author.
Hollywood always comes knocking when you have a book out, and it does okay, and certainly not everyone, but a few people, were suggesting changes, and I don’t mind the idea of changes, per se, but they weren’t changes that I agreed with. I didn’t think it should be softened. The mother should survive, for example, which was suggested, because I thought that was false. That’s kind of missing the point. So I thought, "I would rather it not be made than it be made badly, and I know I’m not a filmmaker, but why don’t I at least start the conversation and say, ‘Here are the things that are important to me in the story,’ and see if anybody responds?" They may not, that was the risk, that was always the risk. But I felt so close to the material that I didn’t want it to be messed up.
[End of spoiler.]
[Laughing] That sounds terrible! Because I could have totally messed it up, so make sure you include that part. That’s always the risk you take. I could totally have messed it up. Again, definitely not a filmmaker, but at least I can say from the start, "This beat is important, this arc is important." Not as crass as that, but more, "This feeling is what I’m after, and do you, as a filmmaker, understand it, is it making sense, can we do something with it?" And [J.A.] Bayona came on and said, "Yeah," and it was really, really fruitful.
So it was more backwards than normal, because I wrote it on spec. I didn’t have anybody attached on purpose. I thought, "I just want to start, and do it myself, and let’s see if people respond, and if they don’t, then it’s a risk I’ve taken." But they did, which was really nice and lucky! [Laughs]
Paste: Of course, that’s what you want, that positive response. But it’s interesting…
Ness: What did Emma Donoghue say?
Paste: I remember her saying she just wanted to approach her story in a new way, I think that was interesting to her.
Ness: I never use "adaptation," because that felt quite fusty to me, so the word I told myself is "remix." I understand what a remix does. The original song remains, and that’s the important thing: The book remains. But you’re taking it from one kind of song to another kind of song, and I understand that process. It’s still the same song, you can still recognize it as the same song, but it has to do different things, and that was interesting to me. I really wanted to learn this stuff, because complacency is the biggest enemy to any writer, I think. I didn’t want to just settle down, I wanted to be frightened and learn something new.
Paste: I’m also intrigued by you talking about being the custodian. I write in a different capacity than you do, but I feel protective, in a way, where I feel like I’d be hurting something that I’d created if I had to go adapt it to another medium. That wasn’t ever a concern for you? You didn’t feel like you were picking and choosing your favorite children to show up in the screenplay?
Ness: No, not really. I mean, if I was afraid of that, I would have thought that I’d made a bad movie, because you can absolutely be overly protective. But it was definitely the philosophy that the book remains, and I will work as hard as I can to make the movie as good as I can, but the book will always stay. And that felt a little bit freeing. And also, honestly, what it really seems to come down to is trusting the people you choose to work with. You’re never gonna always get it right, everything’s a risk, but I’d held onto the rights, and I’d held onto the screenplay, hadn’t sold anything, and then I was lucky to find a filmmaker who seemed to understand my point of view on it, and he brought all this great new stuff to it from his point of view. That’s the only thing you can take. It’s always a risk, but that’s the only way to minimize the risk: to just find somebody you trust, and hope for the best.
Paste: What is life without risk, after all?
Ness: Exactly. Well, that’s the point of this, really. Every book’s a risk, you know?
Paste: That’s true. So you were happy with the marriage between the material and Juan Antonio?
Ness: Yeah! Both The Orphanage and The Impossible take the child’s point of view with a kind of seriousness that I respect, and what I try to do in my work. It’s not overly indulgent, because kids don’t want that either, but it’s just calmly saying, "Yes, what you’re going through is important, and it is serious. It’s not something we should dismiss." And that is a small act, but it’s revolutionary, really, and it’s kind of the core of my storytelling, and most "why" storytelling, you know, "why" storytelling that I like. The other thing that he does, which is something I always do, is a lack of snobbery about genre boundaries. I don’t think there is such a thing as a realistic story. Even if it looks realistic, it’s still contrived, conceived, a character’s arc, coincidences and so on, everything [in the] story is driven, and so if you acknowledge that, then the bleeding of a boundary is much easier. And he just implicitly does that in his films. The Orphanage could be called a horror film, but it’s got emotional impact. The Impossible is a disaster film with an emotional impact. If you’re not a snob, your palate is so much richer. It’s so much wider.
And so the fantastical elements in this … in the book, in my head, it never occurred to me that they would be anything but seamless. All this is in the universe where the story takes place. And the filmmaker who has that same approach is the right guy. The divides aren’t strict, because it’s a story, and all you need to do is create a universe where the story can logically happen, and that’s it, and he does that. So those two things felt really good, and his approach to visuals, and he directs young actors extremely well, and Lewis [MacDougall] is amazing, and it just felt like, "Okay, if I’m going to take a risk, this is the risk I’m going to take." And it worked out! [Knocks on the table.]
Paste: [Laughs] So far, so good. It seems like people are receiving it pretty well.
Ness: To a point, it’s kind of like a book. I want people to love it. I want them to. But in the end, with a book, it’s like raising a child. You know all their flaws, and you know all that’s good about them, and you love them anyway, and you send them off into the world, and you hope people love them. If they love them, great. If [people] don’t love them, they’re still your kid, and you have to find a way in yourself to be at peace with it, to love it for its own thing, otherwise you’ll just go crazy. You can’t depend on the reaction. It has to be for the job you did, and the things that you wanted to accomplish, and that you can feel pride in accomplishing them, and also knowing that you can do better next time. It has to get to there, or I’d think you’d be endlessly miserable. I’m proud of the movie! I hope people love it, but what’s most important is that I feel like, "Okay good, that was a really good experience and I think we’ve made something really good."
Paste: You’re talking about boundaries of genre, and I think there are interesting things happening in horror right now where horror isn’t really "horror." It doesn’t scare you, it’s about something cultural or emotional. Was that at the core of your approach to writing the book or the screenplay?
Ness: Have you seen the film yet?
Paste: I have!
Ness: I never consciously think that, but I genuinely think the most important thing for a writer is not to be a snob. Well, actually I think the most important thing for a writer is not to be complacent, but the most important thing for a writer is not to be a snob. I ended up writing for teenagers outside of a grand plan. I just was writing a story, and I realized, "Oh, it’s more for teenagers," and I really believed that it was my job at that point to say, "Great, let’s see where it leads" without going, "Oh, I have to lower myself." Some people actually do think that they have to lower their standards to write for teenagers, and that makes me quite angry.
Paste: Teenagers deserve good books, too.
Ness: Exactly! Everybody deserves a good book, and a book is good regardless of who it’s for. It’s good or bad on its own merits, not for its target audience. The same is true of genre leakage. The Chaos Walking trilogy has sci-fi elements, it has Western elements; A Monster Calls has lots of fantastical elements, and there’s a monster in it, but I think people watch movies widely. They understand different languages. So I don’t know why we would be so afraid of speaking more than one in one film. You still have to do it appropriately. It still has to work. But if there’s a gigantic creature walking down a hill, well, that’s a rich thing. We have an identification with what that is. It’s fear at first, but then if it becomes more, and then you think you know what that "more" is and it becomes more than that, you’re turned around again. I love that as a viewer. I love it when a movie shoots off in an unexpected direction.
Paste: I absolutely do too, especially since I see so many of them. It’s nice when they surprise you.
Ness: Yeah, yeah. And it’s hard to do that. It’s so expensive, so it’s really hard to do that. It’s good to make a movie that’s shot in an abandoned tuberculosis hospital 40 miles outside of Barcelona. You’re not going to get many studio set visits. That’s the way to do it.
Paste: That’s perfect. I’m curious: The word "snob," that’s something that I wrestle with whether it’s within myself or within my community of peers. Where do you think that line is, and how do we avoid tripping over it? I feel like once you trip over the line, it makes it really hard for you to enjoy the thing that you’re supposedly passionate about—in my case, film.
Ness: The important thing is that it can work both ways. I have argued a long time about not being snobbish about genre stuff, and then you get into the genre communities, and there’s a lot of snobbery about literary fiction, so-called "literary fiction." It’s like, "Guys, this sword cuts both ways!" A book is good or bad on its own merits, as I’ve been saying. The worst thing with snobbery is that it’s a lack of curiosity. How can you be any kind of creative if you curtail your curiosity? You’re not going to like everything. It’s perfectly fine not to like everything. I don’t know if I can bear to read another Civil War novel, particularly one about white people who are really nice to their slaves. What is up with that?
Paste: Did you see Free State of Jones by any chance?
Ness: Oh no, is that another one?
Paste: That’s the Matthew McConaughey Southern Unionist story where he rebels against the Confederacy. Based on a real person.
Ness: Well, a real story’s fine, but I once turned down an offer on a project, because I’m sorry, there are just too many movies about really nice white Southerners during the Civil War. After 12 Years a Slave, that’s irrelevant!
Paste: You can’t do that anymore!
Ness: You can’t do that anymore, for good reason! So of course there are things you’re not going to like, of course there are. But you can’t cease to be curious. So I’m always curious. I’ll read anything that sounds interesting. And I may hate it! But at least I’ve given it a try. So that, I suppose, is my big worry: The death of curiosity is the death of creativity, and you can’t call yourself a writer if your creativity dies.
Paste: I completely agree. "Curiosity" is a big keyword for me, especially since we’re sitting here today talking about a movie that’s set from the perspective of a child. Is that the perspective that, when you write, you try to see the world through? Is that how you try to approach the world in general?
Ness: God, if I had an approach to the world, I’d probably be a happier person, or certainly more happy-go-lucky. Whenever I write for teenagers, I always write for the teenager that I was, and what I felt like I wasn’t getting. Part of that was a serious point of view. Sort of what it comes down to, when looked at objectively—because I never think about it in those terms while I’m writing—is that teenagers, as readers, have some demands. All readers do, but teenagers’ demands are that it has to be a good story. There’s no snobbery about plot, which I like, because once you get a plot together and it’s working, you can kind of ignore it because it’s doing its job, and you can stuff all the other stuff in it that you want. And you have to respect them, not indulge them, but respect them. If you do those two things, then a young reader will follow you almost anywhere. And that’s liberating, because you really can take huge swings at the ball. So I suppose that’s the way I think about it. … I don’t put it in the terms of what they’re willing to do, although I suppose I do—I just did. How fantastic to have an audience that’s willing to take some chances, because it lets me take some chances. You won’t always succeed, but at least you’ve taken a chance!
Paste: There’s a bit of a give and take there, because the audience needs to feel free to jump over the ledge, so to speak, just as much as the writer needs to do that.
Ness: That’s true! I think that’s true of all good writing. I occasionally teach, though I haven’t in awhile, but I always say that you can lack confidence in everything else in your life, as I frequently do, but when you’re on the page you have to be confident because a reader wants you to be. They want to know that you’re going to lead them somewhere good. So if I can be confident enough to do that, think of the places you can go. It’s a kind of confidence on the page so that the reader will trust you implicitly.
Paste: Writing a book and writing a screenplay being different things, was that a bit more of an obstacle, finding that confidence writing a screenplay, or did you find no difficulty in the transition?
Ness: I’m not sort of aggressively confident, but [with] prose, you’re on your own. You’re god of it. That’s why it’s hard, and thrilling, and I love that process. A screenplay is like … I always say it’s like how I rebelled growing up. I come from quite a religious family, so to rebel, I follow the letter of every law, but maybe not the spirit. "How can I follow the letter of the law and get away with murder?" That’s what you do with a screenplay. There are so many rules to screenplays. So I think, "Great, bring it, I’ll see if I can still do what I want." Greet all writing with spite and defiance. It’s a good place to start.
Paste: That spirit doesn’t feel like it’s a big part of A Monster Calls, but there is kind of a defiance of adulthood in the way that this boy engages in this fantasy. The adults can’t really see it. They’re not attuned to it. But he is, and that’s a big factor in the book and in the movie.
Ness: The defiance comes from a demand to be told the truth. That’s where I feel it comes from. The opening lines are key: "Too old to be a kid, too young to be a man." That’s an impossible situation. The whole premise of the book is that he knows, but nobody will tell him, so as a clever kid—as most kids are—you figure out 95 percent of the truth, but it’s that 5 percent that gets you in trouble. So he’s figured out 95 percent of it, but he has nobody who will tell him truthfully enough how he should deal with the last 5 percent.
[Mild spoiler ahead.]
So that’s where the defiance comes from. It comes from, "I need to know, and I’m going to find out." And that’s why he’s suffering, because his suffering is enormous for that 5 percent! You fall through, there’s no relief there. That’s where the defiance is: "Will somebody please just tell me the things I already know?"
When he says to the monster, "You’ll stay?"—to me that’s the whole movie. He knows he can face it, even though nobody thinks he can. He knows he can do it, he just doesn’t want to do it by himself. But the actions of the adults around him are leaving him by himself, even though it’s all well intentioned. That’s the tragedy of it. How would they act elsewise? How is the mother supposed to act otherwise? Everything she does, she does from a loving place, to try to keep him hopeful. That’s why it’s a tragedy. There’s no win there, but if somebody would just tell him that little extra bit … that’s where the defiance is. He demands to know. And there’s no bad thing there.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.