M Night Shyamalan has a new movie out, called Knock at the Cabin. Like much of the work the director’s known for, it’s a thriller movie with an intriguing premise, a good plot twist or two, and a couple of great performances, namely from Dave Bautista and Rupert Grint this time around.
Whatever your opinion of him might be, you have to respect the reputation Shyamalan’s created for himself. Largely resisting major franchises for over two decades now, he’s consistently written and directed drama movies with some degree of originality to them (except for that one time he did a live-action adaptation of a popular animated series, but we choose to pretend that didn’t happen).
This has made M Night Shyamalan movies feel like a big deal, because you know you’re seeing something uniquely shaped by his sensibilities and storytelling. Usually, I’m part of this chorus, even if I haven’t loved a lot of his films, but something about Knock at the Cabin’s publicity has rubbed me the wrong way.
It’s not from the trailers or posters, though they’re endemic to the issue, nor is it part of the interviews, our own sit down with Shyamalan and Grint reflective of the insight the filmmaker always provides. It’s in the perceived authorship of the story, because Knock at the Cabin is an adaptation, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that.
The horror movie is based on the book The Cabin at the End of the world, from writer Paul Tremblay. Through trailers and press materials, mentions of Tremblay’s name are scant. He’s included in the YouTube description of trailers, but not the videos themselves. Shyamalan, on the other hand, is all over them, noted for directing the film as well as co-writing the screenplay with Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman.
Not that Tremblay should be centre-stage here, he’s not involved as a filmmaker, but the level by which Knock at the Cabin has been marketed as a creation of Shyamalan’s, rather than an adaptation, feels like erasure. Any studio production derived from a novel or other form of media is an opportunity to platform and celebrate that creator.
Hollywood is a massive business, and widely distributed films like Knock at the Cabin can significantly raise someone’s profile, even if all they did was provide permission for their work to be adapted. Numerous writers have benefitted massively from directors and studios tackling their books, the likes of Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Sally Rooney being famous examples.
In King and Gaiman’s cases, their association now feels like a blessing for any prospective attempt to bring their writing into a visual medium. The relationship can be enormously beneficial to both sides, if treated symbiotically. That doesn’t appear to be the case here.
Tremblay has commented on this, alluding to wording in his contract that gave screenwriters precedence. “There was contractual stuff, and Universal and my side of the street had a slightly different interpretation in one line of their contract about if the screenwriters get credit, where the author gets credit,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
He suggests part of it is tied to the Writers Guild of America, and its rules surrounding credit on a film. “As an old leftie, I love that the WGA is so powerful,” he says. “I wish novelists had a union that strong. But certainly no one out there needs to feel bad for me. It’s all a learning experience, and I’m very happy that now the movie is out.”
The Cabin at the End of the World is Tremblay’s sixth novel, and it was optioned in 2017, six months before it hit shelves. In November 2022, the author tweeted one of the posters, mentioning that he liked it, but “there’s something missing”. He admitted to Mashable this was a “bit cheeky”, and was apprehensive about getting fully into the guts of studio contracts, merely adding that he had particular hopes for what survived the filmic re-write, and to accrue new readers along the way.
“You don’t want to seem like an ungrateful tool, but at the same time it’s like hey, this is something I worked on for 18 months,” he states. “I’m not ego-less about the book and the differences that there are going to be between the movie and the book, and obviously I do want people to read the book as well.”
Auteurship does play into this. Shyamalan’s got some brand loyalty behind him, and he’s one of the few filmmakers operating at his level that isn’t tied to Marvel movies, Star Wars movies, or the DCU. But all too quickly, that name value can eclipse everything around it. Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Spike Lee, and many other greats have made films where the original book is reduced to mere trivia, something thrown around among friends to sound cool and knowledgeable.
Tremblay’s said repeatedly that he doesn’t want anyone upset on his behalf, nor for people to believe he was hard done by in any of this process. The Knock at the Cabin ending does take some liberties on the book, separating it from the original story, making it all the more worthwhile for viewers to check out both.
He even enjoyed watching it, calling Knock at the Cabin and its performances “pretty great”, while thanking Shyamalan for introducing the screening he attended. In his Los Angeles Times interview, Tremblay advises writers to get entertainment lawyers when looking at contracts. Really, that might just say it all.
So, as someone who always enjoys researching source material after watching a film or TV series, I’m going to provide the recommendation Knock at the Cabin doesn’t, and tell you to check out the book. If you liked Shyamalan’s film, it should be right up your street.