After adapting A Monster Calls from an original author who died before she could finish it, Patrick Ness is set for a new level of fame as the film version looks set to be a major hit, writes Esther McCarthy.
His richly detailed novels have made him a major star in young adult fiction. Now Patrick Ness is poised to take on Hollywood, after adapting his own novel into his first screenplay.
The result is A Monster Calls, a sombre fantasy film with a deeply emotional build. It tells the story of Conor, an adolescent who faces down his demons — quite literally — as he struggles to come to terms with his mother’s terminal illness.
It’s a powerful, affecting film, and that’s before you realise its original concept came from the late Siobhan Dowd, a novelist who tackled the subject after she herself became terminally ill.
Following her death, Ness, who shared the same editor as Dowd, was tasked with bring it to fruition.
“She was this wonderful English writer, from an Irish family, and she wrote four really wonderful teen books, all of them knowing that she had cancer and that it was terminal,” explains Ness.
“This was going to be her fifth book, she thought she’d have time to write it, but sadly she died. She thought she’d have more time. She had 1,000 words of an opening chapter, a few of the characters, and an idea that the monster would tell stories.”
Ness was originally hesitant about taking on the novel — until he saw Dowd’s fascinating premise. “It was small but potent, there was stuff there clearly. It did that thing that you always want an idea to do, which is it started sparking other ideas.
"That’s when you know it’s got legs. It needed to be a book first, and the worst thing you could do is write something worthy but dull. It’s not what she would have done — she’s far more interesting than that.”
Still, rather than trying to second-guess which directions Dowd would have taken with the novel, or trying to find her voice, Ness quickly realised the only successful way to take it on was to be his own writer.
“We’re different people. So I concentrated on writing a story that she’d have loved rather than she had written. It was more, ‘Let’s go on an adventure together’ rather than, ‘Let me try to guess’.
“I told my publishers I couldn’t do it unless I had freedom — not for any ego reasons, but because that’s what she would have done. Let it loose, let’s see where it went. That’s how I approached it — let it grow and let’s see what happens.
“Who knows what she would have done with it. It would totally have changed in her hands as well. That didn’t worry me. it was more getting the spirit of all the things we agreed about in our books — about a child’s point of view, an honest belief that there are fascinating, human stories to be told there. You just follow the ideas where they go.”
Still, he agrees it came as a relief that her family have responded very positively to the novel and film.
A highly successful YA author, Ness felt A Monster Calls, with its strong story and graphic drawings by Jim Kay of the monster with whom Conor communicates, had the potential to be made into a movie.
Even though he’d never written a full screenplay before, he developed the script himself before approaching any film industry executives.
“I didn’t bring it to anybody till it was done. There was no permission seeking. It was just, ‘I want to try this’. I had reasons why — there were things that I believed about the work that I worried about being changed.
"I wanted to at least try to justify why I believed what I believed. I knew it was a risk, but I hoped that somebody would respond.
“The book still exists. I was really interested in seeing how you could approach it, how you could tell a story differently, while keeping it the same. That was really exciting, the right kind of scary, because complacency is my biggest fear. And in a sense you never believe the movie is going to be made anyway.”
Given YA fans often baulk at the notion of a detail being changed for the movie version, was he concerned at being too reverential to his own material?
“It’s a fine line, because people love the books for a reason, and there’s something very special about YA in the way that audiences take ownership of it. That’s one of its magical properties. I totally understand the challenge there, and why you’d sometimes err on the side of caution.
“In my head I would often use the word remix, rather than adaptation. It’s the same song for a different purpose. In film, the tales feel really involved, but the actual words spoken are a couple of paragraphs at most.
"That’s really exciting, to find ways to boil things down to their essence, because the pictures are doing so much. I’m OK with the transition.”
He smiles when I ask him about snobbery against YA in publishing circles, and mischievously likens the genre to Los Angeles. “I lived in LA for ten years, and if you go to New York and mention LA, New Yorkers will always insult LA — talk about how empty it is, how vapid it is.
“I quite like LA, I think it’s an interesting, melancholy place. But what I like most about LA is LA’s reaction to being insulted, particularly by New Yorkers. They don’t give a shit. They just do not care.
"They say, ‘Come on out, it’s lovely, you’ll love it. Have a mimosa’. And that to me is the attitude I try to take with YA. ‘Oh you’ll love it. Give us a try’.”
With his Doctor Who spin-off, Class, being widely well received, it looks certain Ness will be writing for the screen again. For a man who only started writing novels in his thirties after being made redundant from his job as a corporate writer, you get a sense that he’s only getting started.
Certainly, he’s putting his success to positive effect, using social media to share his own experiences with his young fans of suffering from anxiety.
“I think it’s important if I have any voice to any young people, just to say, ‘Yeah, that’s a real thing. You’re not failing because of it. It’s not a weakness, it’s an illness. If you had a physical illness you’d get treatment for it. There’s no shame’.
"Social media does a lot of bad things, but that’s where I think social media is at its best. I can take my experience and say, ‘You’re not alone’, which is all I wanted as a teen, particularly when you’re anxious, just someone to say, ‘Yeah I’ve been through it’.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved