By Sarah Osman
It is sad Monster is such a botched effort, given that this is an important and timely story.
Walter Dean Myers, a prolific author of YA literature, is probably best known for his chilling novel, Monster, praised for its innovative storytelling approach, a combination of screenplay and diary entries written by the novel’s protagonist, Steve Harmon. The plot revolves around how Harmon was arrested for a murder that he did not commit; through flashbacks we are taken through his trial and the handing down of his prison sentence. For many, Monster has been begging for years to be turned into a film. Unfortunately it has been, via Netflix, and the result proves that not all books are meant to be films.
Adapting Monster was always going to be tricky — the director and screenwriter would have to find a way to adapt Monster’s unusual narrative structure. It would be difficult but not impossible: Stephen King’s Carrie is told through a series of newspaper articles and court documents, yet the book has been adapted into three relatively successful films. Half of Monster is written in screenplay format, so that part could have easily been used verbatim. Alas, screenwriters Radha Blank (The 40-Year-Old Version), Colen Wiley, and Janece Shaffe made a fatal choice: to have the entire screenplay take place in Harmon’s head. So the character’s voice-over ends up reading stage directions like these Int. Courtroom. Traditionally, voice-overs are about bringing viewers inside a character’s head. But instead of bringing us closer, we are distanced from Harmon, who sounds like he is reading a text, which shuts down emotional involvement.
Monster was originally meant to be released in the fall of 2019 under a new title, All Rise. That didn’t happen, and somewhere between the film’s initial release at Sundance in 2018 and now, 14 minutes from the film were cut. Considering how haphazard Monster comes across now, I can’t help but wonder what was cut. Would those 14 minutes have helped settle down the movie’s zigzag pacing? Of course, it is always suspicious when a film takes such a long time to be released. Given the interval it has taken Netflix to air Monster, there is reason to believe that we are not getting what the creators intended us to see.
Like the novel, Monster follows Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a teenager from Harlem who is implicated in a crime he didn’t commit. The guy comes from a polite, middle-class family; he attends a prestigious prep school where he is studying film. He’s the last kid you would expect to have murdered someone but, because of the color of his skin and some of his “no good” friends, he is tragically pulled into America’s biased justice system. No one sees Harmon the way he sees himself: the prosecutor portrays him as a “monster” (literally — he yells the word out in his opening argument); his lawyer sees him as a good kid caught up with the wrong crowd; his teachers see him as brilliant, etc. Ironically, the characters around Harmon — who are content to paint him with broad strokes — are shoehorned into one-word descriptors. The prosecutor is the racist “bad” cop, the lawyer is the sympathetic white “savior,” Harmon’s girlfriend is his bland love interest, his film instructor is the “inspirational” teacher. For a film whose theme is that it is tragic to judge a book by its cover, most of the figures in Monster are superficial. The only character treated with complexity is Harmon’s friend , who also implicated in the murder, James (Rakim Mayers, a.k.a. rapper A$AP Rocky).
The actors do their best with a mediocre screenplay. Mayers is a welcome surprise, blending the charm of James’s street smarts with explosions of terrifying anger. Jeffrey Wright plays Harmon’s father with a quiet subtlety that is missing from the rest of the film. (Wright also delivers a stellar monologue but, because it is already included in the trailer, the speech isn’t as moving as it should be). Harrison efficiently shifts, conveying Harmon’s emotional journey from fear to joy and then confusion. This was a challenge, given how stoically the character was written.
It is sad Monster is such a botched effort, given that this is an important and timely story. The disturbingly high number of BIPOC mistreated by the US justice system reached criminal levels long ago. However, no matter how honorable Monster’s heart is, the political conflict needs to be treated with a dramatically healthy respect for multiple perspectives, not cartoon underlining. At one point, Harmon’s film teacher (Tim Blake Nelson) screens the film Rashomon while spewing stale effusions about the dark beauty of film and the complications that arise when looking for the truth. This scene is pretty ironic given that Monster, which should have drawn more closely on its intricate source material, is content to sound the same “enlightened” note, over and over again.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer living in Los Angeles. She has written for Young Hollywood and High Voltage Magazine. She will be featured in the upcoming anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences under the Trump Era.