Calling the monster what it is: cancer
I recently saw a film about the trials a young child experiences once a family member is affected by “the illness.” The protagonist of this story had to watch in disbelief as “the big one” took hold of his mother and she grew weaker and paler after every “treatment” failed and every “medicine” had no effect.
The film is trying to open a dialogue with a young, impressionable audience about the feelings they might experience when something as close to them as their own mother gets diagnosed with “it.”
That movie was J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls. Oh and by the way, if you didn’t catch it, the mother has cancer.
I must admit, even though I was engrossed in the film’s blending of fantasy elements and all too real subject matter, I was baffled that within Patrick Ness’s moving script, the word “cancer” never makes an appearance.
It becomes painfully obvious that the mission of the film was to never give a name to its subject matter (a he-who-must-not-be-named, if you will) and instead perform a Mad-Lib-esque gymnastics to avoid saying the C-word in all its ugliness.
Anyone who knows the steps the film does to dance around the disease would be in the know. But I began to wonder about the younger audience in the theatre with me — the intended audience.
Why shield them from the all too real truth that, as statistics show, they in all likelihood have tangentially come into contact with?
The film pretends to be straightforward with its audience and prepare to tackle the issue, but can’t drop the “you’ll understand when you’re older” mentality and give a name to its source of drama.
Because of this, how can we be expected to apply it to our own all-too-real lives?
This is what a film like A Monster Calls is supposed to do for us: to become our reference point to use for our own lives.
Popular media is a teacher in its own right to the young. It’s where we learn morals, identities, behaviours and how our decision making gets primarily influenced.
So by not saying the word “cancer” and treating your audience with respect enough to handle the hard lesson, you’ve deprived them of internalizing or relating to your message.
What if the kid didn’t pick up on the subtle nudges and winks you used to signal “cancer”? What if they felt condescended to like you gave them too little credit when they’ve already lost someone to the disease?
I am not asking for you to stop your movie and offer a lecture on “the illness.” All I want is for you to give it a name so we can move away from these hush-hush attitudes and really talk about it.
If you don’t, your film will never resonate because you’ve denied it the impact it could have in being true to life.
Cancer, cancer, cancer — see how easy that is to print? The hard thing is actually experiencing and dealing with it, either in yourself or a loved one.
That is why we need popular media in all forms to help soften the blow without ever trying to deny us our reality.