Chaos Walking: Book-to-Movie Adaptation

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.

The Good

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.

The Bad

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

4 Modern Movies Adapted from Classics

Some stories are evergreen. They are told and retold in new ways, through new media. They are as relevant today as they ever were. Four of the most popular movie adaptations of well-known classics are listed below.

CluelessJane Austen’s Emma is about the eponymous heroine’s knack for matchmaking and keen eye for finding the perfect partner for everyone but herself. In its 1995 adaptation, Clueless, starring Alicia Silverstone, Cher is a poised teenager who is on the top rung of the social ladder in her high school, like Emma Woodhouse is in her village, Highbury. Having made two successful matches, Cher and her best friend Dionne (played by Stacey Dash) decide to take the newly arrived Tai Frasier (Brittany Murphy) under their wing. All goes well until Cher misreads a situation and Tai gets her heart broken. The resident cupid of Bronson Alcott High School makes a few surprising discoveries about her own feelings and, for the first time in her perfectly organized life, loses her composure.


10 Things I Hate About YouThis is adapted from the Shakespearean comedy, The Taming of the Shrew. Julia Stiles plays Kat Stratford, the present-day version of the infamous Katherina. The movie gives her a much deeper personality than the original. She is headstrong, cynical, and independent in a generally “unfeminine” way, which, of course, makes her undesirable to most men—especially in contrast with her affable sister, Bianca (Larisa Oleynik). But Kat is far from a shrew, and the movie deserves credit for voicing her opinions and not stuffing her into the “difficult women” drawer. Patrick, played by the legendary Heath Ledger, is a refreshing upgrade from Petruchio as he makes no attempt to “tame” Kat. It’s a delight to watch the two find their way into each other’s hearts.


Bridget Jones’ DiaryThe movie is based on a novel of the same name by Helen Fielding, which is inspired by the beloved classic Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Bridget Jones, played by Renee Zellweger, is the modern-day reincarnation of Elizabeth Bennet, with the same characteristic wit and tendency to get herself into awkward situations from which she needs to be extricated by her friends, who are her lifeline for surviving single life in London. Much like the Bennets, Bridget’s family, especially her mother, never fails to mortify her in public gatherings. Love seems a baffling mystery as Bridget trudges through heartbreak and disappointment and finds resonance in unexpected places.


She’s the ManAlso adapted from a Shakespearean comedy, Twelfth Night, this hilarious movie features Amanda Bynes as Viola who, after a humiliating fight with her boyfriend on the soccer field at school, goes to her brother Sebastian’s (James Kirk) private school, disguised as him, to cover for Sebastian while he goes to London to play music, his true passion. Viola, posing as Sebastian, gets an attractive new roommate in the form of Duke (played by Channing Tatum), and rises to become the star soccer player of the school with Duke’s help. Amidst a few secret crushes and a lot of confusion resulting from Viola hastily switching between her aliases, the day of the game against her old school arrives.

The Screw Keeps Turning

Hollywood horror movies have earned their place as the reigning champions of clichés and overdone tropes. Iconic stories like “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” have been recycled, re-imagined, and represented both with success and resounding box office failure (looking at you, 2017’s “The Mummy”). Right alongside our favorite monsters are the ghost stories—which happen to be a personal favorite of mine. In my opinion, it’s a little harder to make a good ghost story into a movie, because suspense is harder to portray successfully then a well-done CGI monster. Ghost stories have their moments, and just like our iconic monsters, there are some ghost stories that stand the test of time and earn their place among the great horror novels of history, and thus their place in cinema.

The Turn of the Screw is the type of ghost story you may not have known you’ve seen before. It has the creepy house with dodgy staff, a spotty history with unexplained deaths, and Hollywood’s favorite horror trope, creepy children. Not only is it a staple of Henry James’s work, but it has been made and remade into films for decades, some successful, and some, not so much.  At one point, James’s strange Gothic tale of a governess and her encounter with the supernatural was even transformed into an opera. Just like the works of Shelley and Stoker, ghost stories like The Turn of the Screw have their moments in the spotlight, and we need only wait for the right inspiration before they return to mainstream relevancy with a vengeance.

Early this year, Universal Studios released The Turning, which is a modern take on Henry James’s novella. One of the brightest stars recognizable from the new adaptation would be Finn Wolfhard, from Netflix’s of Stranger Things, as Miles. Miles is one of the two children that are central to the plot of The Turn of the Screw, and Wolfhard accurately portrays his eerie childlike beauty as well as his somewhat unsettling nature. The young actor already has some clout with horror, even though Stranger Things errs more on the side of science-fiction, but the hype his casting creates certainly puts this iconic Henry James piece back on the map for an audience that might not otherwise be exposed to the 1898 classic.

…”The THeater of the mind [is]… so much more powerful than any screen…”

Now, in concerns to move adaptations, book lovers often must take them with a large grain of salt. Not only is the theater of the mind so much more powerful than any screen, some of the most defining traits of our favorite stories are the ways in which they are written. Henry James’ unique style of writing and the way in which he builds the tension in his novella are defining characteristics that have never been successfully translated to the big screen. This, coupled with the description “re-imagining” means that I went into this film trying to maintain an open mind and not be too harsh on how it might stray from the original story. I don’t intend to write any spoilers, especially since the national COVID-19 epidemic has closed theaters almost right in the middle of its run, but I left this film feeling quite underwhelmed. Not only does it miss the subtlety that makes The Turn of the Screw as iconic and masterful as it is, but many of the plot points are cheapened to produce a quick scare. I’m as much a fan of the jump scare as the next person, but when you associate a film with a book, you take on certain responsibilities to represent that story and what makes it so beloved for its readers. Far be it from me to hold Hollywood to that, especially since we have so many flops seeming to communicate that faith to the original work is the least of their worries.

Adaptations done right

But all is not lost. Just like we have these adaptations that fall short of our love for a certain story, sometimes we have one that rises to the occasion. A breakout hit on Netflix in the Fall of 2018 was The Haunting of Hill House. You might recognize the title from another master of the ghost story, Shirley Jackson. Even though it fell even more firmly under the category of “re-imagining,” I would venture to say this is one cinematic endeavor that did so successfully, albeit in a serial format rather than a feature-length movie. The series managed to capture the tell-tale gothic atmosphere that make most ghost stories successful, and took enough elements of the novel to pay homage to the original while also weaving a unique tale. The result was a series that honored Shirley Jackson’s work and created a beautiful, stand-alone story with rich characters, suspense, horror, and heart. After the award-winning success of their first season, Netflix announced a follow-up second season that would utilize the same actors, but tell the story of another haunted estate near and dear to a book lover’s heart. This second season will be called “The Haunting of Bly Manor,” which should be recognizable as the estate in which The Turn of the Screw takes place. Let’s just say that my hopes are considerably higher for this iteration of this incredible novella, if how much I loved the first season is any indication. While I expect the same treatment with the story that Hill House underwent, the attention paid to the spirit of the source material coupled with real creativity and good writing makes the giant leap between films like The Turning and what I expect The Haunting of Bly Manor will be. For that comparison, however, we will have to wait and see.

In the meantime, one can always content themselves with the original. The Turn of the Screw is a quick read, but lingers with you long after it is finished. The novella begins like the best of ghost stories—with a group of friends around a fire, exchanging scary stories. It is a secondhand account, passed down from the protagonist that experienced the event, a young governess commissioned to teach the orphans Miles and Flora at Bly Manor. We know what we are getting into from the beginning, but still, the suspense built from the unusual circumstances of her employment to the occurrences on the manor grounds draw the reader in and keeps them guessing, on the edge of their seat.

Was it all in her head? you can decide, come April 7th

Ambiguity is also a defining feature of The Turn of the Screw, leading us to wonder whether it was all in the governess’s head, or if she really was a victim of the ghosts of Bly Manor—and, isn’t that the best thing about ghost stories? We get to be scared and are still left to wonder if ghosts are real or if it’s all in our head. The Turn of the Screw is worth a read anytime of the year, not just during Halloween when we’re in the mood for scary stories. And if you are still curious about The Turning and would like to draw your own conclusions, you won’t be able to catch it in theaters, but you can still catch it on streaming services starting April 7, 2020.

If you are like me, and are sitting on pins and needles for the Netflix’s second season The Haunting of Bly Manor, you will be happy to know that production wrapped up filming in February and the show is set to premiere sometime in 2020. (I’m willing to wager around Fall, since that’s when most people are looking for their horror fix.) Until then…