Saving the World with a Story: Grief and Heroics in A Monster Calls & I Kill Giants

‘How does the story begin?’ In one, a little boy with a sick mother is taken under the wing of a monster who appears at 12:07 to tell him fairy tales. In the other,a little girl works against time to protect her neighbourhood against fearsome giants converging to destroy it. Based off of a novel and comic book respectively, A Monster Calls and I Kill Giants are films which blend the real and unreal worlds to help their protagonists come to terms with their mothers’ illnesses.

These films aren’t so much about saving the world but coming to terms with mortality. We’ve all grown up with bedtime stories, but these two films take those mighty giants and terrifying monsters straight to the door of these kids. In both, the children are misfits and outcasts. Though the films differ in setting (a run-of-the-mill British town and a coastal American cul-de-sac) the iconography of lonely childhood is the same: concrete school yards, bikes and back alleys.They get dragged through the dirt in their everyday lives, figuratively and kind of literally too. Barbara crashes her bike and plummets headfirst into a pool of mud, and Conor squelches through it to get the church on the hill where his monster lives.

I can’t help but be reminded of Ofelia crawling through the mud in Pan’s Labyrinth to complete her quest, or Atreyu in The Neverending Story having to abandon his horse Artax in the Swamp of Sadness (who else is still traumatised by that?). Mud almost feels like a rite of passage. Being a kid is one of the few times rolling around in the dirt and creating a laundry nightmare is socially acceptable. But I guess that highlights the difference; for children, playing in mud can be the highlight of the year, but for adults it just creates a mess. These filmmakers use that, showing the transition where kids are forced to learn about things like life and death. Only this time, there’s some monsters thrown in.

Or monster – singular – for Conor O’Malley. 12:07 is the new witching hour, apparently. Or rather the time when the world’s gravity gets shifted around Conor just enough to send pens, papers, odd shoes and just about anything else nearby rolling towards the windowsill. Cue molten-lava that injects life into the old yew tree on the hill, weaving the branches together into a hand, a torso, and finally a fearsome face that opens its red eyes ominously. It begins stamping its way down to arrive at Conor’s window, leaning into the bedroom light to show a gnarled old face- and recite a couple of aforementioned bedtime stories.

These fairy tales blur the lines completely between Conor’s world and the Monster’s. At first it is merely recited to him, then Conor disappears into the watercolours of the animated tales, and by the third tale it is the Monster that invades his reality. And they’re not your average Disney-fied fairy tales; these are full of destruction and anger and misdirection. While we are led to believe a queen murderous and evil, it is in fact the charming prince that bears a bloody dagger. What’s the point? Well, sometimes there is none, and that’s harder than any moral.

Drawing is almost as important as oral storytelling to A Monster Calls director J.A. Bayona, undeniably inspired by Jim Kay’s illustrations in the original novel. Conor’s room is a treasure trove of paintings and sketches, individual scribbles formed into monsters themselves when the camera finds the right angle. As we soon learn, it was Conor’s mum who taught him to draw, so it makes sense that its where he now finds comfort when she’s ill. The legacy of parents is something that often weighs heavily on fantasy stories, if not the whole of human experience. In these films, it’s where the protagonists find their coping mechanisms. Drawings from her sketchbook is what inspires the beautifully animated visuals of the Monster’s stories, even though he doesn’t discover this until the end of the film. And there’s the Monster, inked-in right at the end, like he’s come from her.

Barbara’s monsters take quite a different form. While both kids suffer at the hands of bullies, the girls in I Kill Giants go a bit more out of their way to make Barb’s life hell. But they don’t really scare her. ‘The second you stand up to them, they crumble. Just like giants.’ They’re the ones you really have to worry about. From the obscured views we get as Barbara runs from them in the forest, these monsters are gigantic, mighty, and vicious– surprisingly similar to the yew tree Monster Conor meets. ‘A giant takes everything from you. And when it’s done it’s like anything that made your life good was never even there’. The fantastical here is scary, evil, menacing. But it’s still easier to face than grief. Because – spoilers –the giants are more like a metaphor for death or illness.

Everything that Barbara does, from Dungeons and Dragons to making her new friend a blood-marked totem to protect her, is partially a coping mechanism. Unlike in A Monster Calls, Barbara doesn’t admit her fear at all. In fact, she keeps it a secret even from the audience until the last fifteen minutes of runtime. Instead, the giants that plague the woods around her town and her attempts to keep them at bay feel more real. Barbara takes quite a lot of satisfaction in it: who wouldn’t be proud of defeating creatures that bathe in the blood of children, use human liver as a garnish, and have eyes that make the sun go out.

Her prized weapon lives in her pink glittery satchel: Coveleski, the hammer, named after an old baseball player. Yet, when the girls are told to play baseball at school Barbara asks to be excused, and deliberately gets herself thrown out of the class when denied. Remember the idea that a parent’s legacy determines a lot of the coping mechanisms in these films? The new kid Sophia finds a recording of Barbara’s mum talking about the Philly baseball team, with little Barbara interjecting fearsome descriptions of the New York Giants. Maybe it’s not so strange her ultimate weapon was named after one of the Philly players: Coveleski the Giant Killer.

Barb’s heroics are obvious; she hunts giants, protecting her town, her family, and her newfound friend. And when she comes face to face with a Titan –the worst giants of all –she makes quite the valiant warrior with her Thor-meets-Ramona-Flowers hammer. Conor doesn’t seem so traditionally courageous; there’s no final duel with the talking yew tree. In fact, he’s frustrated that there are no pure heroes in the stories he’s told. But there’s more to heroics than being badass or physically adept. The agency these children have by using storytelling to get themselves through their shit is more impressive than killing a dragon because you had a spare ten minutes. The desire to hear about or become heroes means that, maybe, their mums will be saved. But what it actually gives them is the power to save themselves.

What really interests me is how the different genders of our heroes affects their stories. I am so grateful for a film for kids with a male protagonist that can manage grief through stories, show genuine affection to his parents, and be seen crying on camera! But this is where I think I Kill Giants shines out, because the girls helping other girls is integral to Barbara taking control of her situation.

By meeting Sophia she gains a friend, by opening up with the female counsellor she makes an ally, and by making amends with her sister she regains her family- and she can do this while loving Dungeons and Dragons (because, shock horror, girls can be into that), and wearing hoodies under the denim jacket along with token bunny ears, knee-high striped socks and thick glasses. Her fingers are tough and dirty, she pokes at a dead deer with a stick and I like that she can be unnecessarily brusque. There are no delicate little girls here, but she can have her femininity still.

And perhaps, most radically, she gets beaten up by the female bullies, and even hits a teacher in a moment of anger. Barbara can be violent, she throws things around and threatens her peers. We don’t see that a lot with girls – we’re they’re supposed to break down and cry hysterically, right? In fact, both kids get to be destructive. Conor smashes a television in an alley and proceeds to completely wreck his grandmother’s living room with the help with of the Monster.

But ultimately, it’s letting go that allows our heroes to get what Conor’s dad calls ‘messily ever after’. In the ocean off the coast of Barbara’s hometown and under the branches of Conor’s yew tree, their fairy tales come to an end when their monsters teach them to accept their fate. Heroics in child heroes is harder to represent because of what’s accessible to their audiences. The fantasy genre allows their accomplishments to be dramatised as just as difficult as the problems of adulthood because, really, they are. The purpose of cinema is to show that, for ‘stories are wild creatures’. ‘When you let them loose, who knows what happens’.

 

by Daisy Leigh-Phippard

Daisy is studying film production at Arts University Bournemouth with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. If you can’t find her lost between the shelves of a bookshop you might be able to see her in a dark cinema if you squint hard enough. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s LabyrinthThe HandmaidenFrida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on thedaisydeer.wordpress.com, and find her general ramblings as @thedaisydeer at TwitterLetterboxd and Instagram.

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