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‘Knock at the Cabin’ Review

Adaptation is translation, not transliteration.
February 10, 2023
‘Knock at the Cabin’ Review

This review contains spoilers for both Knock at the Cabin and its source novel, The Cabin at the End of the World. For those of you seeking a thumbs up or down, I’ll say here that Knock at the Cabin once again demonstrates Shyamalan is one of our most talented visual storytellers and this is a tense, thrilling film. If you continue reading and complain to me about the ending of either book or film being spoiled, a part of humanity will be judged.

After reading Paul G. Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World ahead of the release of Knock at the Cabin, I was intensely curious to see how M. Night Shyamalan would adapt it. In a way, it’s the perfect movie for Shyamalan, who in recent years has taken to self-financing and controlling fully his films. The setup is pretty simple and fairly contained: While renting an isolated cabin, a gay couple, Andrew and Eric, and their adopted daughter, Wen, are detained by a quartet of religious fanatics who believe the world will end in a series of calamities if the family does not decide to sacrifice one of their number.

To prove their seriousness and to demonstrate they aren’t asking for a sacrifice they will not make themselves, each time the family refuses, one of the quartet is killed by the others. After each of these sacrifices, their leader—the hulking Leonard, a gentle giant who runs an after-school program when he isn’t experiencing horrible visions of the end of the world—turns on the TV and shows the family that some tragedy has occurred. First a flood, then a plague, and then a worldwide series of airline crashes. Seas rise, sickness spreads, the skies fall. It’s the end of the world.

Or is it? There’s some ambiguity in Tremblay’s book. Is one of the attackers the man who assaulted Andrew in the commission of a hate crime? Did the quartet know these events would be shown on the TV at these times? Regardless, things don’t go as Leonard and his friends plan. During an escape attempt, young Wen is killed, but the accidental death doesn’t satisfy the requirements of sacrifice; Eric and Andrew must still choose one or the other to die, or doom humanity to extinction.

Killing Wen—as well as the indefinite note on which the book ends—would also kill a straightforward adaptation with movie audiences. A dead kid and an inconclusive ending? That’s box office suicide. Given he has his own skin in the game, I couldn’t imagine Shyamalan would be too interested in dying that kind of death.

Adaptation is an act of translation, not transliteration. λόγος might transliterate as “logos,” but “logos” doesn’t mean “the plural of logo, the symbol of a corporation.” It translates to “word,” or “speech,” or “the word of God,” depending on the context.

So too it is with turning a novel into film. Simply filming the words on the page might not necessarily work on the screen, particularly if that screen is actually 3,000 screens and needs to attract an audience in the mid-seven-figures to break even. Distilling the essence of what’s on the page while making the product appealing to mass audiences without alienating readers of the source material is, undoubtedly, tricky. But I think Knock at the Cabin pulls it off.

The setup is the same: Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) are at an isolated lakeside cabin with their adopted daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui). Leonard (Dave Bautista) is joined by Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Redmond (Rupert Grint), and Adriane (Abby Quinn) in taking the trio hostage and demanding they make a sacrifice to prevent the end of the world. We see the tragedies happen—floods, plagues, etc.—and there is some ambiguity as to timing, at least initially. Redmond may or may not have been the man who attacked Andrew. Eric may or may not have glimpsed the divine before the first sacrifice is made.

However, there are some sizable changes. The biggest is that Wen survives and Leonard makes it to the end of the movie, Bautista given one final monologue to beg for the fate of humanity. Eric and Andrew are then forced to choose: Will they sacrifice one of themselves? Not for humanity, humanity is too big a concept to grasp, too large a burden to bear. But for Wen. So she can grow up, have a life, have a future. So that she can experience what will come.

While reading the book—which is quite good, I recommend checking it out—I couldn’t help but think that Tremblay had written himself into a corner. By removing Wen from the equation midway through the novel, Eric and Andrew no longer had a personal stake in the future of humanity. And this is all that any of us ever has in the future of humanity. The next generation. Call it love or the inborn determination to ensure the proliferation of our genetic material or the desire to spread our beliefs via memetic propagation. The continuation of humanity, or our little corner of it: It’s really all that matters.

There’s been some talk about whether or not Knock at the Cabin is “good for the gays” (as one critic put it, tongue firmly in cheek) or “dangerous” (as another critic put it in the midst of hyperventilating). But much like The Last of Us’s third episode—which followed a gay couple’s existence through 20 years of zombie living and civilization dying—Knock at the Cabin demonstrates the ultimate acceptance of gay marriage as a normal part of the social landscape, at least as seen through the lens of movies: as people thrust into desperate situations who want nothing more than to protect the ones they love.

Knock at the Cabin and The Cabin at the End of the World are both fundamentally asking the same question—when, and for whom, are we willing to make the ultimate sacrifice—even if both come at it from slightly differently directions. The deviations are less important than the similarities.

Sonny Bunch

Sonny Bunch is the Culture Editor of The Bulwark. Before serving as editor-in-chief of the film site Rebeller, he was the executive editor of and film critic for The Washington Free Beacon. He is currently a contributor to The Washington Post and his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Commentary Magazine, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. He is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association