“If you ever see a war…you’ll learn that war only destroys. No one escapes from a war. No one. Not even the survivors. You accept things that would appall you at any other time because life has temporarily lost all meaning.” — The Ask and the Answer
“War,” says Mayor Prentiss, his eyes glinting. “At last.” — Monsters of Men
Movies based on young adult sci-fi and fantasy novels have been a mixed bag at the movies since the Harry Potter franchise convinced every studio exec that any glossy cover on the shelves in your local library’s Teen Zone could be the next billion-dollar franchise. It is charitable to say that most of them have not been very good.
The long, long wait for Chaos Walking, based on a sci-fi trilogy by Patrick Ness, doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence that this stab at hitting YA adaptation gold will fare any better. News of major reshoots (from three years ago!) is usually a good indication that a movie is going to be troubled. With the pandemic derailing everybody’s release schedule, it’s now hard to tell how much of Chaos Walking’s long stint in post-production has to do with any script problems.
It sure would be nice if the movie were good, though, because Ness’ trilogy, which began in 2011 with The Knife of Never Letting Go, is a powerful and imaginative story told unforgettably. It’s completely accessible to its target readership while tackling truly unsparing subject matter that touches on every vitally important social question we’re struggling with literally right now: Sexism, toxic masculinity, war and political violence, the inhumanity of colonization. Fans of the book deserve an adaptation with teeth.
The Noise is a man unfiltered, and without a filter a man is just chaos walking.
The series is set on a distant planet in a far off future where humanity has begun colonizing other worlds. The planet the young Todd finds himself on imparts the ability to broadcast one’s thoughts to others—an ability given to local fauna and humans alike—which characters refer to as “Noise.” It’s the central gimmick of the book, and Ness gets points for thoroughly thinking through all the ways in which this would absolutely make life weird and unbearable. Learning in a classroom is basically impossible, Todd reflects at one point, because you cheat even if you don’t mean to…“and everybody means to.” Hilariously (and often touchingly), we hear the internal monologues of animals, too: As Todd informs us in the opening, the thing you learn about dogs is that they have nothing of importance to say beyond “Poop!” and “Squirrel!” A particular type of indigenous herd animal keep themselves in formation by thinking a thought that the humans interpret simply as a soft, reassuring “Here.” The babel of thoughts that come from crowds of people is often represented on the page by jumbles of script in a myriad of jagged typefaces.
Todd lives in Prentisstown, run by the creepy Mayor Prentiss, who is attempting to weaponize the Noise, and has turned the town into a chauvinistic, insular sort of cult. There are no women: Todd’s been told that they died. Mere weeks from his 13th birthday (on a plant with a 13-month calendar), he encounters something he believes to be impossible: Viola, the sole survivor of a second wave of colonists. As it turns out, Prentisstown is not the only settlement on the planet. As it turns out, the planet is not fatal to women, but Prentisstown’s men were when they discovered women don’t give off Noise but can hear theirs.
And then there is the native population, aliens called the “Spackle,” (though to be fair, in this context, humans are the aliens). The novels follow Todd and Viola (Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley in the upcoming film) as they get caught up in the political conflicts of the planet between Mayor Prentiss’ authoritarian army, the other settlements who have opposed them, and the Spackle, who did not ask for any of this bullshit.
Besides some high stakes action you’re familiar with if you like adventure YA, Ness juggles some fascinating science fiction concepts with character turns that are shaded by complicated moral and ethical questions and some inspired humor. It can fall into the trope of entire wars being solved by hardheaded youngsters, but I promise you won’t care.
A film adaptation is a great opportunity for the story, especially now, in light of its themes: Prentisstown is a place where toxic masculinity has metastasized into a complete disaster. Women murdered, books burned and movies banned, a hierarchy based entirely around Prentiss’ nepotism and his militaristic ambitions. The worst thing a man can be is soft. The worst thing a woman can be is out from under the thumb of a man. The Noise isn’t a tool for understanding or a symbol of shared humanity, but a weapon for manipulating, controlling and destroying.
Throughout their adventures across the trilogy, Todd and Viola grapple with violence and whether or not it can ever be justified, with the inhumanity of war, the horrors of things like slavery and genocide. Prentiss is spoiling for a war of annihilation against the indigenous Spackle, and for a time it really seems like Todd has no choice but to join him in order to save the people he loves.
Chaos Walking has been on the shelf for a while, and there’s ample cause to be wary—not even counting the fact that you still shouldn’t be going to theaters. The word “unreleasable” has been bandied about to describe the movie, for starters, and Ness was reportedly hired on to write more script pages for extensive reshoots. Even assuming the reshoots fixed any other major issues, Holland and Ridley are too old to be playing these characters by the book, and the story isn’t going to hit the same way if we’re talking about unconvincingly teenaged teens rather than tweens. Todd and Viola’s innocence and naivete are foundational to some of their biggest decisions over the course of the books. Besides that, I’m not sure what I think of the way they’ve chosen to portray Noise in the movie, with a sort of hazy halo effect.
My biggest fear, though, is that this movie whiffs and we don’t get the opportunity to see Ness’ larger story play out. The books had plenty to say about what sort of problems are going to persist, no matter what planet we’re on.
Kenneth Lowe’s Noise is a monstrous thing. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog