How M. Night Shyamalan's Knock At The Cabin Faithfully Adapts The Book (Until It Doesn't)

This piece contains major spoilers for "Knock at the Cabin," and the novel, "The Cabin at the End of the World."

M. Night Shyamalan's "Knock at the Cabin" has turned out to be an interesting mix of the old and new for the divisive director. Some have dubbed the film a return to the director's glory days (especially in how it often evokes "Signs"), but creatively it is also an odd one out in the new, self-financed stage of the director's filmography. Based on the novel "The Cabin at the End of the World" by Paul G. Tremblay, the film was born from an initial draft by Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman instead of one developed by Shyamalan from the ground up.

At first, Shyamalan wasn't going to direct the film, instead, he was just going to take a producer role and let the screenplay land in the hands of a worthy director — but after numerous attempts to get the project off the ground, Shyamalan eventually decided he couldn't risk the temptation to make this story his own. After his experience as a showrunner on Apple TV+'s "Servant," he became more open to the collaborative process and working off of other people's writing. Eventually, he became obsessed with the specific images he wanted to film in "Knock at the Cabin," so he rewrote Desmond and Sherman's screenplay to his liking and decided to make it his own.

For the most part, "Knock at the Cabin," stays very faithful to most of the original novel — the characters and their dynamics are mostly the same, and there are no major changes to the story in the first two acts. Shyamalan is a great fit for the material, capturing something equally enigmatic and existential ... until the third act.

The rules are largely the same

"Knock at the Cabin" and "The Cabin at the End of the World" both follow Andrew (Ben Aldridge), Eric (Jonathan Groff), and their 7-year-old daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) on vacation in their secluded cabin in the woods. While Wen is catching and studying grasshoppers, she's approached by an intimidating but soft-spoken man named Leonard (Dave Bautista), who seems to also be joined by three others wielding strange weapons. Wen runs off to warn her Dads, and after a struggle barricading their home from their intruders, Leonard and his associates, Redmond (Rupert Grint), Adriane (Abby Quinn), and Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird) announce that they've all been united at the cabin by their strange visions and that one member of their family unit must be sacrificed in order to prevent the apocalypse.

The rules are the same. The sacrifice must be a decision made with a clear mind, and it cannot be a suicide or an accident. The more Andrew and Eric refuse to come to a consensus, the group of four strangers is forced to sacrifice each other with their weapons, turn on the TV and witness a brand new atrocity happen on Earth. When there are no strangers left, the end of the world begins. Of course, this is a huge cross to bear for the parents, and in the middle of the woods with no cellular connection to the outside world — how are they to trust the word of these mysterious visitors?

As soon as Andrew gets a hunch that these visitors might have some other ulterior motive, he escapes and attempts to get the gun out of his truck. It's here where the narrative starts to take a different shape.

The novel's ending is ambiguous and cynical

At first, the changes are more about reorganizing the plot, but soon, major events featured in the novel are left out of the film. In the book, right before Adriane is sacrificed, Andrew escapes and gets his gun from the truck, then shoots Adriane. In the film, this doesn't happen until after Adriane is sacrificed by the intruders, giving her time to explain her perspective and beg for the couple's consensus. Alternatively, Sabrina is the one that is shot in the film, and Leonard serves Sabrina's role in the novel as the last survivor who commits a slow suicide, allowing time for Andrew and Eric to make their final choice.

Leonard is much more of a direct threat in the novel. After Adriane is shot by Andrew, Leonard fights Andrew over the weapon and they accidentally shoot young Wen in the process. Crucially, as it was an accident instead of an intentional decision, this does not count as a decision that saves the world. The novel's version of Sabrina decides to give up on her quest after Wen's death, killing Leonard and leading Andrew and Eric to help bury their child before guiding them to their final choice.

With their child gone and little desire to live in a world without one another, the novel ends with the couple facing their decision to stay with each other, driving off with their child's body into the storm — whether or not the apocalyptic prophecy turned out to be true was entirely up to the reader's interpretation.

Shyamalan's ending turns this into a whole new story

Obviously, if you've seen the film, you'd know M. Night Shyamalan made a huge departure from the source material specifically in the third act. Wen is safe in his version of the film. When Leonard's life is on the line, he passes peacefully and willingly, telling the couple they still have time to make their choice. Eric, as the more emotionally intuitive of the couple, admits he does believe in the prophecy and that tells his partner that he should be the one to die — that Andrew should be there to raise Wen in a world where there is still promise and community instead of desolation. In an emotional moment, Andrew honors Eric's wish and shoots him in a cut to black.

Importantly, it's here where the ambiguity of the novel is largely swapped out in favor of a more definitive ending. Andrew climbs up the tree house Wen is hiding in, and they drive together to a nearby diner. The news reports seen throughout the film turn out to be real, but now survivors are being found in the wreckage, and the storm seems to finally clear out. The strangers were telling the truth, not just about the apocalypse, but about everything — their identities, visions, and lives before this story's events.

Andrew and Wen drive off together, and in honor of Eric's sacrifice, will keep living in his memory. Hopefully one day, Wen grows up to be the accomplished woman Eric sees in his vision, and Andrew will be there every step of the way.

One story turned into two distinct works

Obviously, these two endings could not be more different and it's going to be expected for fans of the novel to naturally be upset with Shyamalan's changes. After all, the film is mostly very loyal to the vision and themes of the book up until the final third act, which transforms "Knock at the Cabin" into a different story entirely. However, I think this is ultimately intentional, and one should look at it as Shyamalan taking the original novel and making his own conclusions from the same bones of the story. Adaptations, after all, are not just supposed to be copies, but rather the artist having an active conversation with the source material.

Paul G. Tremblay's ending, while it certainly has its own merits, is much more cynical than Shyamalan typically writes. Instead of giving audiences closure, it's much more concerned with telling the story of two parents who have lost their child. If god planned this to happen, then he is a cruel god. The decision for the novel's version of Andrew and Eric to ride into the storm, even if it means the end times, is a lovely decision that reclaims their own fate in their grief. It's deliberately faithless, it is a novel made to express the dread of disillusionment.

Logic or emotion? Andrew or Eric? Tremblay or Shyamalan?

On the other hand, Shyamalan is a man of faith, and it's a recurring theme in his entire body of work. Tremblay's ending wouldn't have jived with his filmography, of movies that are certainly scary and thrilling, but ultimately are sentimental and brimming with hope.

As sweet as Andrew and Eric still having each other in Tremblay's ending is, there's a tinge of irony marked on their path home. Instead, Shyamalan lets us feel the weight of tragedy but doesn't let us forget about hope. Eric is dead, yes, but the apocalypse is over and there's hope that Wen will grow up to be an accomplished woman thanks to his sacrifice. Andrew, a man who has been embittered by his life of experiencing prejudice for his sexuality and observing the worst of humanity, has evolved — finally seeing a reason to believe that there are people worth saving outside of his clan. In Shyamalan's version of "Knock at the Cabin," he makes a bold statement that humans are uniquely good and honorable, even in a tumultuous time to exist.

While they're grown from the same tree, "Knock at the Cabin," and "The Cabin at the End of the World" are indeed separate works and should be treated as such. Your love for one of these endings doesn't have to diminish the weight of the other. Just like Andrew and Eric, the two versions of this story represent two viewpoints on god, fate, and humankind. 

Are you a Tremblay or a Shyamalan?