A decade in the making, the adaptation of this young adult series finally hit the big screen in March of 2021. However, after years of planning and multiple reshoots, the film ultimately failed upon release, much to the dismay of the series’s fans and fans of the film’s stars.
Intriguing Concept, Great Potential
Based on “The Knife of Never Letting Go,” the first book in the “Chaos Walking” science fiction trilogy by Patrick Ness, the dystopian story takes place in the year 2557 in a place called Prentisstown on the planet New World. Colonized by refugees from Earth, New World’s native inhabitants, creatures called the Spackle, were said to have fought and slaughtered many of the settlers, resulting in the killing of many men and all the women in the settlement. The surviving men contracted a virus called the “Noise,” which gives all men the ability to constantly hear and see the thoughts of others. Tom Holland plays Todd, the teen main character who is too young to remember their settlement’s first years on the planet. One day he discovers Viola, a girl played by Daisy Ridley after her ship crash-lands on New World and she’s the only survivor from her crew. With the help of his father figures and his dog Manchee, Todd and Viola travel to a distant settlement to escape the mayor of Prentisstown and his mysterious disapproval of Viola’s presence.
After the first book’s release, the series was praised by critics and readers for its complex storyline and grip on themes such as gender politics, the meaning of war and the often blurred distinction between good and evil. During its prime, the trilogy was immensely popular among young adult readers, and the last book received the 2011 Carnegie Medal for the best new book for children and young adults published in the UK. Since then, the series has remained in the hearts of many young book lovers, including Ridley herself, who was one of the first cast members to land a role in the film.
With such strong elements in its favor, including a great premise and star-studded cast, it would seem as though the film was set up to be a massive success.
What Went Wrong?
Following the success of “The Hunger Games” and other hit young adult novels, Lionsgate acquired the rights to the “Chaos Walking” series in 2011. However, the film’s progress was put on hold for several years due to the departure of several major directors, until the studio hired Doug Liman of “The Bourne Identity” fame as the director in 2016. The film’s script was crafted by six writers, including Ness; it was perhaps not a good sign, as a large number of writers can lead to a lack of cohesion in the final product. Filming began in 2017 and the actors seemed to enjoy the filming process. Holland even posted several behind-the-scenes photos to his Instagram.
Sadly, following an early screening for executives at the beginning of 2018, Lionsgate claimed the movie was “unreleasable” even though they had already spent $100 million on the film. It was announced that “Chaos Walking” would go through several reshoots, which ultimately pushed the release date back a few years due to the difficult schedules of Ridley and Holland, who were gaining popularity and already committed to other productions.
Due to numerous production issues, many fans of the novels were concerned about the 2021 release. What was the final result? A moderate and possibly standard young adult film, with some typical adaptation issues sprinkled in.
As with most young adult book adaptations, the story often runs into trouble when transformed into a script, and this film is no exception. It’s easy to imagine that one of the biggest problems for the filmmakers was, perhaps, figuring out how to best convey the characters’ thoughts in the “Noise” on screen, which is thought to have been one of the main reasons for reshoots. While the Noise was ultimately depicted through voice-overs and images in puffs of colored smoke around the characters’ heads, the main flaw in the final product simply comes down to the lacking story.
Throughout the book series, Todd and Viola are younger teens who go through many trials no one should ever have to face. They experience the deaths of loved ones, unveil terrible and long-kept secrets and are constantly on the run from imminent capture or death. As these obstacles unfold, the main characters go through slow and rewarding character arcs in which they find strength in themselves to survive their difficult journey together. In addition to their clever, friendly banter, the characters express various levels of sadness, frustration and growing hope over the course of every book. In film format, these critical explorations of character are lost and reduced to the thoughts of confused yet determined young adults with not much inner turmoil.
Unfortunately, subpar character development is often the case with adaptations, since films do not have nearly enough time to explore the characters’ inner thoughts the way they would normally be displayed in a book.
The plot itself contains many of the interesting aspects of the original story, yet falls short in terms of fully exploring the themes. Critic Matt Zoller Seitz enjoyed the film, though he believes it did not reach its full potential. “It’s frustrating,” he said, “that ‘Chaos Walking’ barely delves into the backstory of the [native] race of humanoids that were beaten into submission by the humans and that supposedly burdened the surviving humans with audible/visible thoughts as if cursing them for the sins they committed. But then, there’s a lot of detail that gets skimmed over in the urgent push to get Viola and Todd to the transmitter.”
Some critics, like Glenn Kenny of The New York Times, also found that many of the interesting details of the film seemed glossed over. “The action buries the charms of its two lead players,” he said, “and mutes the talents of the distinguished supporting cast.”
“After reading the books, I’m mostly just upset for fans of the series,” said Amanda, a YouTube reviewer who originally expected the film to be a total mess, and was surprised by the book series’s potentiality. “Most of the changes [from the books] they made to make this work as a movie were not always positive ones. One of the more disappointing things is that the world has a lot of interesting themes and concepts, but the movie just never really capitalizes on them.”
The actors, especially Holland and Ridley, did well with what they had to work with. It’s likely the script just was not strong enough to carry the film’s themes and characters, resulting in the average-to-mixed reviews. “But that’s also why it’s frustrating that [the film] doesn’t do more with its conceit,” said critic Bilge Ebiri. “There is so much potential here for weirdness, creativity, terror — something to distinguish the film from your run-of-the-mill sci-fi adventure or glum pseudo-Western scenario.”
Experience Chaos For Yourself
Ultimately, “Chaos Walking” is a film that had a lot of potential, but fell victim to production issues and instead became a mediocre representation of what the story could have been. The film hangs on to some of the spirit of the original story, letting bits of Todd’s humor or sadness shine through every now and then, but the film isn’t quite able to capture the essence of the book series in all of its acclaim.
Fans of teen science fiction, and especially those who are intrigued by the premise, should find this film an interesting watch. However, if you love to read, it is highly recommended that you first pick up the books in physical or audiobook format, both of which are fantastic for their visual and audible interpretations of the Noise and Todd’s inner thoughts. More than a decade after its release, the book series still holds up as one of the most intriguing young adult dystopian series to date.