M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin is one of the man’s most confident, assured directorial efforts since the likes of Signs and The Village. It’s a handsome film, though shot a little idiosyncratically at times—it often lives inches from characters’ faces, like a canted take on the uncomfortably close conversations of Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. As an old-school thriller, though, Knock at the Cabin checks all the boxes: It’s a pulse-raising, suspenseful good time, featuring both the director’s own signature fusion of emotion and mysticism, and another wonderfully nuanced performance by hulking thespian Dave Bautista. As is so often the case in his career, a focused setting and story produces more satisfying results for Shyamalan than when he’s allowed to run wild with his own overindulgent concepts.
This is likely to be the perspective of someone seeing Knock at the Cabin, if they’re not familiar with the film’s source material, 2018 novel The Cabin at the End of the World by decorated horror author Paul G. Tremblay. If a viewer is familiar with Tremblay’s novel, however, the assessment of Knock at the Cabin almost can’t help but change radically. Because although Shyamalan has crafted an effective thriller on its own merits, the reality is that Knock at the Cabin is a painfully dismissive adaptation of its own source material. Seemingly faithful for the vast majority of its runtime, Shyamalan veers off in the final 20 minutes, irretrievably altering the outcome, themes and indeed the entire point of Tremblay’s book. Really, “altering” isn’t even a strong enough description—Shyamalan effectively reverses almost every bit of Tremblay’s intention into the exact opposite. It’s one of the more insulting adaptations of an author’s work you’re likely to see, and although Tremblay has been polite in discussing his opinion of the movie—as you’d expect from an author who has been cut their first ever big Hollywood check for a film adaptation—he does indeed admit that he prefers his own ending. I can only imagine how he must genuinely feel.
“There were times where I was tearing up at random things just because, wow, it was right out of the book,” said Tremblay in a just-published interview with the L.A. Times. “And other times I felt like I wanted to run out of the theater.”
I wouldn’t blame Tremblay for doing exactly that. From the moment I read The Cabin at the End of the World last fall and found out that Shyamalan was adapting it, this is pretty much exactly what I was afraid might happen.
In fact, I wrote as much in November, in a piece entitled “Can M. Night Shyamalan Really Deliver a Faithful Adaptation in Knock at the Cabin?” Diving into the the themes of the book, I questioned whether Shyamalan and Universal Pictures would have the guts to depict certain key moments from the novel, and whether Shyamalan would be able to resist his own compulsion for revelatory twists in order to preserve the novel’s single most consistent theme, which is that of uncertainty and a lack of easy, satisfying answers. As I wrote at the time:
Perhaps more important, though, to the spirit of Tremblay’s book, is the following question: Does M. Night Shyamalan have it in him to adapt and depict the uncertainty and doubt in Tremblay’s story? Will producers be okay with a story that never truly picks a side, or reveals if the protagonists or antagonists were “right”? And as a writer, will Shyamalan be able to bring himself to depict an ending that is adamantly free from a big reveal or dramatic twist? The twist ending, after all, is associated so strongly with Shyamalan’s career that the director’s very name is used to imply a zany twist. And to be honest, I’m not sure that Shyamalan can stop himself from trying to “spice up” Tremblay’s work with an ending that the audience can view as more definitive and revelatory.
So at the end of the day, it comes down to this: Which seems more likely? That M. Night Shyamalan would present a faithful, grounded version of The Cabin at the End of the World, capturing its unique tone of uncertainty and gray moralism? Or that he’ll deliver the type of film he’s been known for throughout his whole career, a Knock at the Cabin that eliminates the subtlety of Tremblay’s story in order to please the multiplex masses with a big, dramatic, emotional twist?
As predicted, Shyamalan goes with the latter, which really should be no surprise to any of us. But it’s still upsetting to watch the point of Tremblay’s story be trampled with such a cowardly, insulting adaptation, smashed by the director’s scriptural contributions with sledgehammer blows, exactly like one of its characters committing a messy ritual suicide.
What’s all the more shocking is that for roughly 80% of the film’s 100 minute runtime, Shyamalan plays the adaptation as closely as possible, with the exact events of this family being taken hostage by mysterious antagonists revealed to us via staging and dialogue that is often taken directly from the novel. It’s as if the director was hoping that by hewing as closely to the novel as possible in the early going, he could then diverge as dramatically as he wanted later on while still receiving credit for material that isn’t particularly consequential to the end product. All of Tremblay’s most important decisions, Shyamalan reverses.
This begins with one of the book’s most shocking moments, which is the accidental death of seven-year-old Wen, adopted daughter of gay protagonist couple Eric and Andrew. This is a pivotal moment in the novel, as Wen is killed by a stray bullet during a struggle for the plot-important handgun that could theoretically grant our protagonists their freedom—however, reaching for that freedom and attempting to be proactive in their defense ultimately results in tragedy. The death of Wen has extensive ripple effects on both the protagonists and antagonistic home invader group—it provides a basis for Andrew and Eric’s eventual decision to spurn the apocalyptic responsibility they’re told they’ve been burdened with, but it also erodes the convictions of the home invaders and makes them question the morality of their mission. The death of Wen is thus absolutely crucial to the development of every surviving character.
Shyamalan and Universal, on the other hand, don’t have the guts or conviction to depict the death of a seven-year-old girl a la John Carpenter in 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13, so in the film Wen is never subjected to any imminent danger. As a result, Andrew and Eric are more incentivized to listen to the invaders, and the antagonists are never made to truly question the validity of their mission or the visions they received. The script deftly dodges out of the way of the complexity the story is meant to have.
This becomes the running theme of Shyamalan’s adaptation in its final 20 minutes: Every time Tremblay’s book focuses on uncertainty or the struggle of ambiguity, Shyamalan provides a concrete answer and obliterates the author’s themes. Whereas in the novel we’re given equal weight and rationale to both believe or distrust the claims of the invaders, in the film their apocalyptic quest is eventually revealed to be 100% real, or so close to real as to make no difference. This radically transforms the outlook of this quartet of home invaders—knowing that they’re in the right, the audience really has no choice but to accept them as essentially tragic heroes, prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to prevent the literal apocalypse. Any actions that Bautista and co. take are now justified, because what actions wouldn’t be justified in order to save the lives of almost 8 billion people?
This knowledge and certainty that the apocalypse is real likewise takes what is supposed to be an impossible choice for Andrew and Eric—to decide whether to sacrifice one of their family—and effectively makes the choice moot. In the novel, it’s a battle between rationality, logic and creeping doubt, along with the overwhelming grief and bitterness of having just lost their daughter. Andrew and Eric ultimately decide to flip a middle finger at the universe, with Andrew in particular arguing that any God so wantonly cruel as to kill their daughter and not accept that as a great enough sacrifice is not a God he wants to appease, even with the apocalypse on the line. In his interview with the L.A. Times, Tremblay says the following: “That was the story: their choice. Their ultimate rejection of fear and cruelty, whether or not the apocalypse is happening. What has happened in the cabin and what they’re presented with is wrong; it’s immoral, and they refuse.”
In the film, though, the pair are given concrete indication that the apocalypse is real, and this removes the weight of the decision from their shoulders. Wen hasn’t been killed, they don’t have that grief to bear, and they both end up believing that only the sacrifice of one of them can save the lives of the 8 billion other people on the planet. Recast in this way, the “choice” doesn’t become a choice at all, and Andrew reluctantly sacrifices Eric to appease the same God that the novel’s Andrew righteously spurns.
This would be a big enough betrayal of Tremblay’s vision already, but Shyamalan can’t resist piling more on—he then depicts a surviving Andrew and Wen driving into town, where they stop at a diner to watch news broadcasts. These news clips confirm everything in black-and-white certitude, driving a final nail through any ambiguity: Andrew’s actions have saved the world and simultaneously reversed every apocalyptic disaster that was underway. Killing Eric was undeniably the “correct” choice, and Andrew will never need to be haunted by the uncertainty of not knowing whether or not they did the right thing. We’re told, point blank, that he chose correctly. Shyamalan, allergic to nuance, removes every shred of doubt.
The Cabin at the End of the World is most effective for the fact that it depicts the very personal decision-making process of people who don’t have all the facts, people who are weighing their innate suspicions and values against the disturbing evidence they’re being offered, set against a relentless ticking clock. The audience is meant to swing back and forth in a delicate waltz between belief and skepticism, with the ultimate decision of Eric and Andrew to thumb their nose at fate viewable as both tragic and hopeful, depending on where the reader lands. In the end, the pair stands defiant against a cruel God and universe. That the wisdom of this be open to your interpretation is literally the entire point.
How Hollywood, then, of M. Night Shyamalan to come along, profess his admiration for the novel and then cheerfully hack its themes to pieces in the name of making it more marketable to multiplex audiences. The Cabin at the End of the World is about being given the unexpected burden of making an unfair sacrifice; Knock at the Cabin plasters a big, fake smile on its face and readily sacrifices its source material in the hopes of making a few bucks with an admittedly entertaining thriller.
At least Tremblay has the money to console him. Fans of his novel, on the other hand, have only the disappointment they probably should have expected from the beginning.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.