I discussed the book here, before the movie came out, focusing on the hard truth Connor has to tell—that as much as he doesn’t want to lose his mom to cancer, he also wants and end to the pain—and in that way, he does. “It doesn’t just deal with grief and loss, …it deals with shame—the shame young Connor was feeling over his conflicted feelings about his mom’s struggle with cancer.”
When I read the book, that was the thing which hit me the hardest (and the realization of how often I have struggled with those same conflicted feelings). When I saw the movie—maybe it was because I already knew what was coming, maybe it was the difference in the story-telling medium—I was particularly struck by the parables the Monster told. He told three parables and they are conflicted, complicated messes of stories where the moral of the story isn’t so obvious or even pleasant. “Sometimes kingdoms get the princes they deserve. Farmers daughter sometimes die and witches sometimes need saving.” Good people turn out to be bad; bad and unkind people turn out to be righteous (if still unlikeable). Hard stories. Unexpected stories. Just like it was unexpected that the Monster was there to heal…but the person he healed was not who Connor expected. He didn’t heal Connor’s mom; he healed Connor.
I was just at a gathering of Christian artists in which the discussion for the night was centered around this article and a statement Bono made in which he basically said that Christian art is sometimes overly simplistic and dishonest. Well, I would argue there is plenty of secular stuff out there that is no different—think Hallmark channel. (Although, to be fair, it can be argued that there is something worthwhile in showing an optimistic, idealistic, happy picture of life—maybe it’s a glimpse of Heaven to come, or a reflection of the hope that we have in Jesus… Just because it’s not difficult, heavy or hard, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily dishonest.) Anyway – my point being there aren’t a lot of writers/story-tellers (Christian or non) who really do a good job of telling the honest realities of life. This story does it beautifully. It’s raw and hard and complicated, and yet, it’s still hopeful and strong and full of love and healing.
In our discussion of honest Christian art, the example that the speaker pointed to as striking a good balance between optimism and pessimism, hopefulness and honesty, joyfulness and suffering… the Psalms. In particular, he referenced one of my favorites, Psalm 22 (see my “Quick Thoughts on a Bipolar Psalm, here). The writer wrestles with the reality of the struggles and confusion of life against the hope of the character and the nature of God and the future He promises. This is Christianity. It’s not all roses and good times and easy, miraculous endings. We, too, suffer. It’s just that, in that suffering, we have hope in a God who is good, who loves us, and who is in control.
The monster in A Monster Calls, in many ways, symbolizes God. He doesn’t behave as Connor asks him to. He heals, but not in the way Connor expected (or wanted). He seems like a monster because he forces Connor to accept reality. (Just as we must accept reality about our OWN sins and need for a savior.) He seems like a monster because he could stop Connor’s mom from dying, and he doesn’t. (Who of us hasn’t wrestled with the same, seeing something horrible God could have stopped but didn’t?) For all his monstrousness, the Monster is also the one place of strength Connor turns to. For all his harshness, he is also incredibly tender. He gives Connor the ability and freedom to forgive himself. He comforts Connor in grief. He heals. He provides hope. (God is the same—he is unyielding stern about holiness, and unendingly tender and forgiving with our weakness. He helps us face our sin, but then gives us grace and forgiveness for it. In Him we are comforted, healed and find hope.) The movie is hard and complicated and realistic in all the right ways, but, like the Psalms, it doesn’t stop there. It doesn’t wallow in pain, it faces pain to heal. It ends as the Christian story does, with healing and life and hope. Yes there is death, but there is also resurrection.