Adaptation Anxiety: Can Chaos Walking Live Up to the Books?

When I was a teenager, one of the most beloved trilogies in our home was Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy. At the time, my mom was a middle school reading teacher, and it was constantly in circulation. I hung out in the school cafeteria while she stayed after school and devoured the first book, The Knife of Never Letting Go in one sitting. The same thing happened with book two, The Ask and the Answer, and book three, Monsters of Men.

Characters from the trilogy became part of our daily conversations, and my mom and I even began developing inside jokes that referenced the series. I still can’t listen to “Hello” by Lionel Ritchie without hearing my mom’s improvised lyrics, “Todd, I Gotta Poo,” passionately sung in what we imagined to be Manchee the Dog’s voice. It’s impossible to really say how much we loved this book and how it brought my mom and me closer together.

(Side note, I moved back in with my mom during the pandemic and even began teaching third grade at the same school, where she now teaches fourth grade. We are incredibly close, and I really do credit our love for YA Lit for this. Back to the article!)

It was first announced in ye olden days (2011) that Lionsgate picked up the rights to adapt the Chaos Walking trilogy into film. I was absolutely thrilled. Of course, it was a decade ago, and I was way less jaded and skeptical of all book to film YA adaptations. We’d just seen successful adaptations of several Young Adult works, including the absolute frenzy that was the Twilight film in 2008. By 2012, The Hunger Games hit screens and it finally seemed like Hollywood understood how to put YA Dystopia on-screen. There was hope! But as time moved on, the rights for the Chaos Walking trilogy fell deeper and deeper into production hell, and the possibility of seeing something so nostalgic on the screen fell with it.

That is, until the trailer dropped right before Thanksgiving in 2020.

Picture this: I’m hanging out with my mom, my phone chimes with a notification. It’s from YouTube. “Chaos Walking…” The gears in my exhausted, barely functional lizard brain start to turn. Since I’d just come off of my first year teaching third grade, and doing so entirely virtually, it took me a second to get there. Then it clicked, and I unnecessarily shouted that we needed to pause everything RIGHT NOW and watch this trailer.

We gathered around my phone and excitedly pressed play. I turned the volume all the way up. We watched.

It… was certainly a trailer for something called Chaos Walking.

I’ll be completely honest: we were confused. We had questions. The characters we’d loved had suddenly had a huge growth spurt—from 13 year old children to Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley, specifically—and we couldn’t recognize a lot of what we remembered. Will the story be the same? What changes did they make? Is it going to be too different? How can they do this as a film instead of a TV series? And, our biggest question of all, why didn’t we hear Manchee the Dog’s noise?!

The first book in the series, The Knife of Never Letting Go, begins in Prentisstown with Todd and his dog Manchee. Todd is nearly thirteen years old. When he turns thirteen, he will officially be a man. He needs to always keep his thoughts in check, because where he’s from, everyone can hear your thoughts. It’s called Noise; there’s no privacy or escape. Noise comes from not only people, but the animals, too. It’s constant information overload. While out with Manchee, Todd discovers something unheard of: there’s a hole in the Noise where he can’t hear any thoughts at all. When others in the town realize Todd knows something he shouldn’t, Todd is sent away before he can be captured, and that’s when he runs into his second biggest discovery. He meets a girl named Viola. The problem? There are no girls in Prentisstown, and Viola has no noise. Todd and Manchee, with Viola in tow, need to escape their pursuers to find safety, but how can someone hide when the ones chasing them can hear your every thought?

It is no easy feat to adapt such a behemoth like the Chaos Walking series into a film. One of the first and biggest questions my mom asked was, “Are they doing one book or all of the books?” I’m curious to see how much of this film is The Knife of Never Letting Go and how much of the film bleeds into books further into the series. It’s possible that “Chaos Walking” was a catchier film title than The Knife of Never Letting Go, but a title change does lead to immediate adaptation concern.

Patrick Ness’ series is so incredibly unique on paper that it’s hard to imagine translating it into another medium. For starters, this is the first young adult book I remember reading that was written in the main character’s dialect. In the book, Todd is our point of view narrator with a very specific style of speech.

The gas stayshun don’t work no more cuz the fission generator that made the gas went kerflooey last year and just sits there beside the gas stayshun like a hulking ugly hurt toe and no one’d live next to it except Mr. Hammar and Mr. Hammar’s much worse than Mr. Phelps cuz he’ll aim his noise right at you.
(The Knife of Never Letting Go, p 13)

Todd’s narration is all run on sentences and dialect and emotion, exactly how an almost thirteen year old boy on the brink of becoming a Man in his world would speak. He’s a child but he swears; he has all this fear but all this innocence. You’re completely grounded in the dystopian world through Todd’s speech. This isn’t only a feature of the book – it’s the heart of the book. When I read this for the first time, I was also reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for my high school English class, and the impact of reading another story written in a specific dialect that wasn’t from 1885 stayed with me the rest of my life. The Knife of Never Letting Go’s style was my first window into the validity of young adult literature, something I would argue the value of among my peers and several teachers for the rest of high school.

(Except for my high school English teacher. I had him for two years, and he was the coolest. I mean, the man had “more weight” from The Crucible tattooed on both of his arms and he helped fight to get our rural school to teach The Laramie Project. Shout out to you, Mr. Dobell, for cultivating my love of reading throughout high school! I’m now a sarcastic bibliophile and it’s partially your fault.)

Another thing that made The Knife of Never Letting Go unique was how completely visual it was in its storytelling. The text would change from your typical typing font to handwritten, gouged into the page, uncomfortable letters whenever the Noise from around him would overwhelm Todd.

(These pictures are from our first copy of The Knife of Never Letting Go and you can see annotations my mom made when she wanted to use this book in her seventh and eight grade class.)

Film is a visual medium, but it’s hard to imagine the Noise in a live-action adaptation. We see in the trailer that there’s a visual aspect they’ve emphasized that truly lends itself to film. Not only hearing Noise but being able to see the complete information overload everyone in Prentisstown deals with is interesting and I’m looking forward to seeing how that works for the entire film. However, I secretly hoped for an anime-style adaptation of this series, which I always thought would be incredible, but I’m holding out hope that this live-action version will take great care in how it shows Noise. I respect both Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley as actors, so maybe I can get past the huge jump in Todd and Viola’s ages to enjoy their performances. Patrick Ness is attached to the film as one of two screenplay writers, and that does give me a lot of hope.

All in all, the past ten years of young adult film adaptations, as well as the everything we’re currently going through, has left me skeptical of the film. Still, I know my mom and I are going to make a bunch of popcorn, dim our lights, and turn our living room into a movie theater so we can continue to bond over Patrick Ness’ story in this brand new format. I’m not sure who this movie was made for, with so many immediately noticeable changes, but I want it to be successful. I want to love this movie. We’ll just have to find out if this film is truly chaos walking or if it’s a knife that’s ready to be let go.

Cassie Schulz is the Events Assistant for Brazos Bookstore. You can find her on Twitter @kerfufflepuff where she tweets about books, musicals, and cats. You can also find her on Instagram, co-managing the page @tag.ur.lit with a fellow queer disaster who loves YA Lit as much as she does.

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