On paper, J.A. Bayona may not seem like the best choice to direct a children’s movie. With feature film credits like the 2007 horror flick The Orphanage and the Ewan McGregor/Naomi Watts tsunami drama The Impossible, Bayona hasn’t exactly cultivated a traditionally kid-friendly aesthetic. But that’s exactly why he’s the right director for A Monster Calls, the story of Conor O’Malley, a young boy coping with his mother’s illness who is befriended by a giant tree-like “monster.” In fact, there’s a throughline in Bayona’s work that culminates in the adaptation of Patrick Ness’ novel.
“When I first read the novel, I was surprised by how close it felt to the other films I’d done before,” Bayona says. “All my other films were really about growing up, and this is a story about growing up. How Conor needs to understand that life can be black and white at the same time. He needs to accept that uncertainty. That’s what it means to be alive.”
Bayona, an ’80s kid (he’s 41), likens the movie to his favorite childhood stories that dealt with the complexities of growing up in similar ways. “It’s a big fantasy that deals with a lot of emotion that talks about childhood in a very respectful way,” he says. “It talks about the complexities of growing up. It reminded me of E.T. or The NeverEnding Story. It’s so rare to see those kinds of movies nowadays, and that’s why I wanted to be a part of it.”
Like any other book-to-film adaptation, there were changes made to the story when bringing it to the screen. Bayona insisted on one point in particular: “A Monster Calls is a story that, for me, had to be full of hope. I remember the first time I sat down with Patrick… I told him I wanted to find life, hope, and truth at the end of the story. The idea I suggested to him was that Conor was an artist. He had to be an artist because I was then able to visualize his inner world and find hope at the end of the story through that and the very special connection he has with his mother.”
Bayona hopes A Monster Calls can help children (and grown-ups, too) be more in touch with their inner lives. “I love fantasy,” he says. “I thought this story was interesting because it talks about how we need fantasy to understand reality.”
“Every time I do a film,” Bayona explains, “I’m very connected to the humanity behind the story. We all need fantasy when we grow up. I think somehow fantasy helps us to process dark thoughts and complicated emotions. It’s through stories when we watch movies or read books, that we have a better comprehension of what life is about. I think fantasy explains reality much better than reality.”