When I first heard that The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness was going to be made into a movie, I was cautiously optimistic. This book seemed like an odd choice for a movie adaptation, as it was filled with dark themes and had a very complicated setting that would be hard to translate into a movie. However, if done right, I could absolutely see this adaptation becoming something like The Hunger Games, where the dark themes and complex world were translated almost seamlessly to film. And seeing as they cast two of my favorite actors to play the leads, Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley, I knew that I at least needed to give this movie a chance. However, after finally getting to watch this adaptation, I have to admit that I am disappointed. While it was by no means terrible, the movie sanded down a great deal of what I loved about this book, leaving behind a movie that just felt underwhelming. In this reflection I will detail the things I enjoyed, and the things that let me down, in Chaos Walking.
Before I begin, however, a quick spoiler warning. Since I will be comparing the book and the movie, there will be spoilers for both. If you wish to view either of them unspoiled you can find the book here and showtimes for the movie here.
First off, what I enjoyed about the movie. One of the areas where I was most skeptical when it came to adapting this book to a movie was the concept of the Noise. Basically, in the book, the humans live on a planet where the men are all able to hear each others thoughts all of the time, an ability which they call the Noise. This would obviously be very difficult to do in a movie, as the voices would eventually become overwhelming. Much to my surprise, however, the movie actually managed to portray this not only in a way that didn’t overwhelm the viewer, but also led to some of the best moments in the movie. The Noise is portrayed as an iridescent fog that whispers, which allows for the viewer to differentiate between spoken and thought dialogue, and only gets louder when it’s necessary for the scene. My favorite scene where this occurs is when Todd, the main character, learns that the town murdered his mother and all the other women in the town. Todd’s panic and his subsequent struggle to hide his thoughts leads to a wild hurricane of competing voices that expresses the turmoil of the scene perfectly. I would even argue that this was better than how it was handled in the book.
Another way the Noise is improved from the book is its ability to create illusions. In the book you can only hear the disembodied voices, but in the movie the Noise will periodically take the form of people and things that look real enough to fool several characters. This is used in my favorite scene in the entire movie, where the main antagonist is fooled into thinking that the ghosts of all the women he killed are confronting him. It creates a powerful moment where the movie finally addresses the darker themes of the book in a direct way, and if the movie had featured more moments like this I would’ve enjoyed it a lot more. Instead, the movie shied away from these themes, so I’m only left with a small handful of moments that I remember fondly.
Sadly, the occasional good scene wasn’t able to save this movie—and for every good choice the movie made there were far more missteps that just didn’t work.
The first misstep in Chaos Walking was the age of the characters. The two main characters were 13 years old in the book, but in the movie their age seems to be somewhere in the 18–19-year-old zone. While I understand why movies age up characters, especially when the movie is rated PG-13 and contains a great deal of swearing and violence, this change damages a large portion of the movie. Todd, the male lead, is often treated like a child and behaves in a manner that would make sense if he was 13. He is also treated like a child by the adults in the movie. However, while Tom Holland is an actor that can often play younger characters, he’s still too old to fit in with the attitude and the treatment he receives. This problem also happens with Daisy Ridley’s character. She is treated and behaves like a frightened little girl, but she still comes off as a young adult and it creates a jarring disparity that is never really addressed. As much as I love Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley, they weren’t the best pick for a story about children, and the confusion over their age and the way they behave follows them throughout the entire film.
The movie also removed Todd’s entire character arc—his struggle with what it means to be a man. In the book, Todd is repeatedly taught that in order to be a man he must be able to kill, and when he finally leaves his town, he is confronted with many opportunities to do so, some more justifiable than others. Todd struggles with his desire to prove himself a man to his society and his innate humanity, inevitably questioning what it even means to be a man and if he really wants to be one. This arc is helped by Todd’s age, as he is regarded by his entire town as a child whom they don’t take seriously, and he is frustrated over this treatment. This is completely absent in the movie. Todd has no hangups about killing; he says one line about being a man in the beginning but it never comes up again, and for all intents and purposes he doesn’t struggle at all with his identity. This wouldn’t be an issue if the movie added another aspect of Todd’s character to replace it, but instead Todd is just portrayed as a doe-eyed kid with very little substance to him. This is a shame, because his struggles with manhood would’ve been an unique arc, but instead Todd is left a very bland character.
Where the movie really drops the ball, in my opinion, is the removal of the religious themes. The main focus of the book was how religious extremism can lead to violence and evil, especially when faced with the unknown. This is shown in two ways: first, how the humans treat the natives of the world, known as the spackle; and how they treat women. Without giving too much away, The Knife of Never Letting Go shows just how dangerous fear of the unknown can be, and how opportunistic people can use fear combined with religion to manipulate the masses for their own selfish ends. However, this is not the case in Chaos Walking. While religion does occasionally make an appearance, it is limited to one character who is generally dismissed by others. The power that fear has is glossed over entirely, with only slight moments where people behave irrationally. The violence and death driven by fear is completely dismissed as well. The animosity between the humans and the spackle only makes one very brief appearance, and could honestly have been left out of the movie entirely. While the movie does address how they subjugated and murdered all the women, it is only focused on occasionally, and the movie pins most of the blame on two men (rather than acknowledging that it was done by the entire town). At times it feels like the movie is afraid to delve too deeply into these ideas and risk alienating movie watchers, which is a real shame seeing as, like I said before, the times where this movie shines is when it embraces the themes of the book. If Chaos Walking had taken the risk and addressed these themes head on, it would’ve been a much better movie, but instead it only went halfway and left a lot to be desired.
In conclusion, I was pretty disappointed by this movie. I don’t necessarily blame anyone involved in the film, because this book was bound to be hard to make into a mainstream movie. It’s a book that is jam-packed with themes and ideas, and the movie struggled to include them and ended up feeling incomplete. As someone who read the book, I can’t say whether someone new to the story would enjoy the movie. I did watch this movie with my father, who hasn’t read the books, and he was often lost and confused, so I can’t imagine this movie being a good introduction the the world of The Knife of Never Letting Go. That being said, I can’t say that I completely regret watching it. The scenes where the movie really embraced the original story, though few and far between, were incredible to watch. Ultimately, I don’t see myself watching Chaos Walking again. It just lacked the spark I felt when reading The Knife of Never Letting Go that made me fall in love with the series.