In M. Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of Paul Tremblay’s bestselling novel The Cabin at the End of the World, the narrative crafted by a novelist is overtaken by the more conventional hands of a Hollywood director. While some of the issues I had with the novel are remedied in the film version, it does so by eschewing the murkier, more complex finale Tremblay designed.
The setup is the same: a family on vacation in a cabin in the woods is approached by four strangers wielding strange weapons who claim that unless the family chooses one of its members to die and—even worse—actually does the killing themselves, the world will end in fiery, plague-ridden anguish. The strangers, though initially menacing, turn out to be kind of regular people. Leonard (Dave Bautista), the de facto leader, teaches second grade. Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird) is a nurse. Adriane’s (Abby Quinn) a line cook with two cats named Riff and Raff. The fourth, Redmond (Rupert Grint), is an ex-con who works for the gas company.
Though they didn’t know each other until very recently, they’ve all had visions of the apocalypse so specific and vivid and relentless that they were compelled to follow what the visions told them, which was that they must go to this cabin in the woods and make this family bear the burden of the entire world. The strangers make a stab at explaining their intentions—by turning on the TV to news channels reporting increasingly apocalyptic events—but they seem to believe that their earnestness, their “everydayness,” and, mostly, how disturbed they are by what they’ve seen, will suffice.
Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) even ask the strangers to elaborate: “Talk to us,” Eric says to Leonard, “tell us more about what you were shown. Who gave you the nightmares?” But no straightforward answers are forthcoming, which makes the strangers’ behavior even more frustrating, as every time the family refuses to choose, one of the four must die. Redmond is the first to go.
The dramatic tension is between the world and Wen (Kristen Cui), Eric and Andrew’s daughter. The strangers want to protect humanity, the macro, while Eric and Andrew want to protect their own little world, the micro. As Andrew says to Leonard, “I would watch the world die a hundred times over before” sacrificing a member of his family.
Shyamalan and his co-screenwriters take Tremblay’s premise down a more conventional path than Tremblay did in his novel. The tense narrative unspools like a taut spring, never veering course. Shyamalan’s version has none of the nuance or originality of the novel, but it’s more dramatically satisfying. As I sat in the theater, waiting to see if Shyamalan would go through with it and kill Wen with a third of his movie still left, there was an undeniable feeling that if he did it—if Wen died—the audience was going to be super pissed about it.
Shyamalan saves the day by throwing out the plot twist in his movie, and maybe that’s the twist: that there is no twist. He takes us down a road most taken—which in this case, was the right one. As the sky darkens and lightning blazes the surrounding forest, Eric and Andrew tell Wen to wait in a tree house while they have an emotional debate about what to do next. In the end, they refuse to make a sacrifice to an entity as cruel as that, and they’re left to wander the ever-darkening earth together.
Shyamalan’s old-fashioned, Spielbergian sense of filmmaking led him down the road most taken—which is, paradoxically, hardly ever the correct path to take a story down, but in this case, it was the right one. His version may lack Tremblay’s nuance and originality, but it’s more dramatically satisfying and provides a natural conclusion for this story. It’s a reminder that sometimes taking the road most traveled can lead us to our destination after all.