After taking some time to sit with it and digest my thoughts, I am finally ready to talk about M. Night Shyamalan's Knock at the Cabin.
There are heavy spoilers for the movie. There are also spoilers for the book it was based on, The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay.
I was warned that as a reader of horror fiction, the movie was going to make me angry. I remembered other M. Night Shyamalan movies, Old for example, that had already aggravated me and I didn't doubt he'd find a way to screw up my favorite Tremblay novel. Last Saturday I made my way to the theater, prepared to be livid over this adaptation.
I left an hour and forty minutes later feeling largely indifferent to what I had just witnessed. While I understood the position that many of my fellow bookworms had, I'd honestly gone in expecting a lot worse.
The movie was not the book, and therefor was not the adaptation I wanted. Unlike some other Shyamalan titles, however, it wasn't terrible as film in its own rite. I didn't like the cinematography and there were a few moments that made my roll my eyes, but it could have been much worse. There was a stellar cast giving great performances. The setting was visually compelling. It told a story that wasn't reliant on a twist. It was passable in a way that exceeded whatever expectations I had for it.
As I tried to put all those thoughts into words for a review, I could not help but draw comparisons to the novel it was based on. The more I did, the more I yearned for a film that makes me feel the way the book made me felt. Heartbroken. Empty. Scared that humanity is not worth saving. Comforted by the fact it will continue anyway.
It's a very complex series of feelings that required a delicate touch on Tremblay's part to evoke. It required, also, a sense of subtlety that I never expected to be adequately reproduced by Shyamalan for the screen.
The core concept is the same in both versions. Wen and her two fathers, Eric and Andrew, are on vacation in a cabin where they are attacked and held hostage by four strangers. The strangers have brought masks, weapons, and visions of the end of days. They inform the family that the only way to save the world is by willingly sacrificing one of the three of them. They'll be asked for a sacrifice four times, and each time they say no, one of the four captors shall sacrifice themselves instead. These deaths are accompanied by catastrophic events, costing countless lives in the process.
Where the two tales differ is not just in the ending, but in the approach.
Tremblay's tale is a perfect balance of tragedy to disbelief. What the strangers are saying is impossible, illogical, and their proof constantly falls short of what it would take to convince the family -- or the reader, for that matter, of what they are saying. By the time the book reaches its bitter conclusion, it could still go either way. Our protagonists are left without answers, hoping they've made the right choice, and we are left eternally asking if they did.
Shyamalan took a different approach to things. The subtlety was taken out of the strangers who were named quite blatantly as both the facets of humanity and the four horseman of the apocalypse (which according to the film are Malevolence, Sustenance, Healing and Guiding -- a pet peeve I had with the dialogue.) The catastrophes were also far more convincing in the movie than they had been on the page. By the time the films ramps up to its conclusion, it has been as good as confirmed that the family actually needs to make a sacrifice.
Though I imagine the intention here was to create a more satisfying narrative for the movie goer, I could not help but to feel this drained the scenario of much of its tension. This also completely misses both the point and tone of the original story, which is supposed to be about doubt and sacrifice.
In the film, Eric convinces Andrew to sacrifice him. He has a vision from God, a moment of peace, and the clarity to know that giving his life will save his daughter and his husband, allowing them to live a good life. This includes a prophecy about Wen having her own practice someday and a partner that loves her.
When Eric and Andrew are both certain that a sacrifice is the only thing that will save the world, it becomes less of a sacrifice. Eric still dies, but it is with the assurance he's providing something better and the scene is painted as very uplifting.
There is one single moment of doubt that almost captures the spirit of the book. After Andrew gets Wen and they're leaving the cabin she asks him, with all the innocence of a child, if they saved the world in time. Had the movie stopped here, it would have come eerily close to striking the right note.
Instead, it continues playing out by letting Andrew and Wen drive to a diner (retroactively making them feel far less isolated than we had been led to believe). There they hear the reports that all the catastrophes have fixes themselves. Things are great and there are going to be no more casualties. Aside from the clumsy information dump, I genuinely dislike this scene. While it may not undermine all the deaths from the "plagues", it does greatly lessen the consequences of their inaction at earlier points. It feels like we are having all the blows softened for us, which stifles any emotional impact the film had hoped to portray.
The book, on the opposite side of the spectrum, sees Wen accidentally shot and killed. Eric and Andrew face the terrible loss of their child, only to learn that because the sacrifice was not made willingly, it didn't count. They are still asked to choose one of themselves for sacrifice. Instead of being shown proof that the end is truly upon them, they are able to sow doubt in the last of their four attackers, muddying the waters even further between whether or not these biblical events are real.
The book ends with them walking away from the cabin, carrying Wen, with Eric believing that it was all true and Andrew believing that it wasn't. Either way they leave the cabin destroyed, and with only one vague notion of what they will do, whether or not the world is ending.
"We will go on."
Shyamalan's film, as I said, is passable on its own merits. It's an uplifting, if not somewhat bland story, where faith saves the world from something unimaginable and frightening.
It is miles away, however, from the complex and nuanced tale of sacrifice, loss, and whether or not to put one's faith over their family.