It’s difficult for me to imagine what it would be like to be in the position of a writer such as Paul G. Tremblay as he watches one of his works adapted into a feature film for the first time. After exploding onto the literary horror scene with the runaway popularity of 2015’s A Head Full of Ghosts, and a subsequent string of hit novels that have garnered rave reviews from the likes of Stephen King, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling. And indeed, Hollywood has been calling Tremblay for years at this point, only for adaptations like A Head Full of Ghosts to end up trapped in development hell. It took the involvement of none other than M. Night Shyamalan to finally usher one of these projects to its conclusion, in the form of the upcoming Knock at the Cabin, currently scheduled for a Feb. 3, 2023 release.
That film is an adaptation of Tremblay’s 2019 novel The Cabin at the End of the World, which I recently happened to read. And after setting down the novel, I can’t help but find myself wondering how nervous someone in Tremblay’s position would be about committing their art into the hands of others—producers, screenwriters, directors—with no idea if the end product will faithfully reflect its characters and themes. It’s such an act of trust and risk to allow others to determine how your work will be depicted in a visual medium, or how audiences who haven’t read your work will ultimately be likely to react to your own name … made more palatable, of course, by the paycheck at the end of the day. This is reality, after all.
And then there’s the name “Shyamalan” to contend with; one of Hollywood’s most flashy, divisive and contentious cinematic selling points. It’s a name that has at various points been considered box office gold, and box office poison, depending on the year. How does the presence of such a shepherd, a writer-director known for being unable to restrain his wildly imaginative (but often nonsensical) instincts, affect our own expectations for Knock at the Cabin? And for those who have read the book: Can we really have any faith in Shyamalan, of all people, to adapt it authentically? Or does it seem more likely that Shyamalan will give in to the kind of storytelling he has always preferred as he rewrites the film in his own image?
These are questions we can’t really analyze unless we dispense with the avoidance of spoilers for Tremblay’s novel, so dispense we will. Suffice to say, if you want to be surprised by the things that happen in either The Cabin at the End of the World, or Knock at the Cabin, you should stop reading now. We’re about to dive deeper into Tremblay’s writing, and then muse over whether Shyamalan is really the right guy to interpret it.
A Clash of Faith, Uncertainty and Responsibility
The Cabin at the End of the World is really quite a simple novel in terms of plot—almost more of a novella, really—but is more complex and rich in its themes and the internal monologues of its characters. It concerns a small family unit (two dads and their adopted daughter), in an isolated place on vacation, and what happens when they’re approached by four strangers who give them a frightening ultimatum. Or as the film synopsis puts it: “While vacationing at a remote cabin, a family of three is taken hostage by four strangers who demand they make the ultimate sacrifice to avert the apocalypse.”
Specifically, those strangers (led by the hulking Leonard, played by Dave Bautista in the film) tell the family of Andrew, Eric and 7-year-old Wen that in order to avert the end of the world, one of the three family members needs to die. The four strangers aren’t there to make that decision, or kill anyone themselves if they can help it. Rather, they’ve been sent by some collective, supernatural force that filled their minds with visions of the apocalypse, and they were each able to infer that they needed to be at this spot, on this day, to present the impossible choice to the family. The strangers thus see themselves as servants of some kind of power they don’t understand, and they don’t believe they really have a choice in the matter—if they tried to refuse, they would be compelled to act, in order to save humanity. They see themselves as responsible for the survival of the entire human race.
The push-and-pull of the novel then boils down to belief, and an argument of rationality vs. uncertainty. Impassioned Andrew refuses to buy any explanations from the strangers, and focuses on concocting some method of escape so he can reach the gun they don’t know is stowed in the family’s car. Normally level-headed Eric suffers a concussion in the scuffle, which makes his perceptions less reliable than they would otherwise be, and over time he begins to subconsciously wonder whether the strangers are telling the truth, especially as strange occurrences seem to give credence to some of what Leonard and the home invaders are claiming. Wen, meanwhile, exists throughout as a fly on the wall, a normally inquisitive 7-year-old who regresses into a timid state as deadly events play out around her. We’re presented with many perspectives, snippets of POV from each of the protagonists but also from the strangers. We get a good sense of how everyone thinks, but that only seems to reinforce the idea that the group will be forever stuck at an impasse: Andrew and Eric refuse to kill each other, and the strangers are unable to convince them otherwise. Unfortunately, someone still needs to die, which forces the strangers to begin slowly killing each other, lesser sacrifices that they say are necessary, but will fail to prevent the apocalypse unless Andrew or Eric takes action.
Little Wen has a big part to play.
This is about as much objective truth as Tremblay gives us—the novel is about uncertainty, and it does a good job of making the events that occur seem just shy of being conclusive in one way or another. Leonard promises that “cities will drown,” and an earthquake causes a tidal wave that swamps a city … but Andrew points out that it actually happened before the group arrived at the cabin. Leonard prophesizes that the “skies will fall,” and dozens of airplanes experience simultaneous malfunctions and crash. Does that event really stand as conclusive proof that the world is ending? Or are the addled brains of everyone involved just attaching meaning to a series of unlikely tragedies that happen every day in our modern world? Would anyone looking at 24 hour news, on any day of the week, end up concluding that the world is ending?
Tremblay chooses not to pick a side, even in the novel’s conclusion. We know only a few things for sure—that something supernatural has been occurring in how the home invaders were summoned and given their information, but never do we really know whether the visions they’ve been given are TRUE. This is of utmost importance, because Tremblay is constantly introducing doubt into the equation. Yes, they’ve apparently experienced something supernatural, but what do we really know about that supernatural force? How do we know it’s not lying to these people, for reasons beyond our comprehension? How do we know they haven’t interpreted their mission incorrectly? It’s impossible to be sure.
There are some big shocks along the way, chief among them being that when Andrew finally frees himself and ends up in a physical scuffle with Leonard over Chekhov’s Gun, the weapon fires by accident, which ends up killing Wen in a moment of shockingly random brutality. Nor does this “sacrifice” count toward preventing the end of the world according to the strangers, because it wasn’t made willingly. In the end, all of the strangers end up dead, and a surviving Andrew and Eric, carrying the body of their adopted daughter, must face down the final question: Do they choose one of each other to die? Or do they press on? In the end, Andrew’s rationales win out, and the two choose to march forward into whatever awaits, be it the apocalypse or not. Presumably, they’ll find out soon enough whether Leonard and the others were correct, but we the audience are left in suspense.
Now, onto M. Night Shyamalan’s interpretation of such a story.
Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin
There are obvious questions that one would ask about any director’s choices in approaching the story of Paul G. Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World, in order to determine what kind of project this truly is. Do the screenwriters have the guts to shoot a 7-year-old girl, for instance? Even in the more splatter-centric parts of the horror cinema universe, realistic physical violence perpetrated by humans against children is still a taboo that isn’t crossed lightly, or often. In all the years since John Carpenter chose to depict a little girl being blown away at close range in 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13, that same shot has almost never been replicated, because screenwriters, directors and especially studios/producers are understandably squeamish. You can be sure that if Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin follows through with the death of Wen as written, it will be a major talking point when the film is released, dissected heavily.
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.
Nothing good can come of masks in a horror movie.
There are numerous factors that leave me feeling cautious here. For one, although the screenplay for Knock at the Cabin is initially attributed to Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, Shyamalan reportedly rewrote it when he came onto the project. So whatever chance there was that the film would be free from his influence as a writer ended at that point. Nor was Tremblay involved directly in crafting the screenplay, something he’s said he’s interested in doing more in the future, though the author freely admits he feels less comfortable with screenplays than with short fiction or novels. In an interview he said the following, in terms of visiting the set of the film and seeing what Shyamalan was up to:
“I have no contractual say over the screenplay or filming, but at the start FilmNation was great about keeping me in the loop with the early draft of a screenplay and asking my input. Much later, when we were introduced via phone, Night and I discussed the book and I answered a bunch of his questions about character and story, about why I did what I did. I can’t speak to his screenwriting process. I did get to visit the set and watch him and crew work for two days. I came away impressed with the positive creative atmosphere he engendered.”
So in short, it certainly sounds like Tremblay’s direct contributions to the film are pretty minimal. Sure, he spoke with Shyamalan and offered his input, but as he plainly puts it, “I have no contractual say over the screenplay.” Which is to say, the ball was in Shyamalan’s court, to cut and craft the story of Knock at the Cabin as he saw fit. Look at this next quote from Tremblay, and tell me it doesn’t sound like a man steeling himself for disappointment.
“Most of me is excited and intrigued at the prospect of seeing my story reimagined or refracted on screen. But I’d be lying if I said I was egoless about the whole experience. This novel means a great deal to me. I lived inside the book for the year and a half I wrote it. Any story and character changes will be something I’ll have to deal with. A good problem to have, of course.”
That really seems to say it all. Tremblay may be well established in the publishing world at this point, but he’s a novice when it comes to seeing his work adapted for the screen. Those quotes have the air of a guy reassuring himself that he’s getting a big paycheck for this, even as he fears for the sake of the story he wrote, knowing that it will probably be shifted into a more marketable form by a director known for zany feature films. Tremblay may not be happy about that, but he’s probably happy the film is at least guaranteed to be released, because he’s already known the disappointment of watching a project fall apart: A Head Full of Ghosts was acquired by Paramount for a film adaptation way back in 2015, but has been stuck in development hell ever since. At various times attached to directors such as Osgood Perkins and Scott Cooper, it still seems to be stuck in limbo, though Tremblay said in July that “we have a new director and screenplay.”
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 twist?
Unfortunately, I know which seems more likely to me.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more film writing.