Chaos Walking, the sci-fi movie starring Daisy Ridley, Tom Holland, and Mads Mikkelsen, is making its way to theaters on March 5. The origins of the film, however, go back 13 years to when the first book of Patrick Ness' Chaos Walking trilogy came out.
In both the book and the film, the story follows Todd (Holland), a young man who discovers Viola (Ridley) after her ship crash lands on his planet. Viola is the first female Todd has ever seen — all the women on the planet have been killed off, and all the men are afflicted by The Noise, a germ that puts all their thoughts on display. The mayor of Todd's town (Mikkelsen) has bad plans for Viola, and so she and Todd flee the town and find out everything is not what it seems.
SYFY WIRE sat down with Ness to talk about his books, the film adaptation — which he also co-wrote — and what readers and non-readers of the Chaos Walking trilogy can expect.
What things from the books did you want to make sure were included in the film, and how did you go about making sure those elements were included?
I had very tiny things in my book option contract, nothing big, but things that were important. The fate of a certain beloved character I said couldn't be changed, for example. The other thing was that there had to be two moons, but it turns out there are two suns, so that's fine. I thought that if somebody agreed to those two things, then they got what the book was about. You can't do that too much, because then you just look like a crazy author.
The other thing is to just stay helpful and friendly so people want your help — they want to know what you think, why you did stuff.
Can you speak more about why you didn't want the fate of that certain character changed?
Before I started books, I used to have three or four key scenes or images that really felt like they were speaking to me. They were something I was excited about. I felt if I was excited about them, that I was responding to something accurate about the story.
And so I write toward them while I'm writing, and they're the thing that makes it a book for me, and I felt with [spoiler!], I knew it was going to happen well before I started the book. I knew it was a destabilizing thing, because if [spoiler!] can go then so can everybody else.
One of the themes I really got from the film, and the books had this as well, is that there's an exploration of toxic masculinity. Can you talk about how you incorporated that theme into your work?
The book started with the idea about information overload — the first question it explores is, "What if you had to share everything? What would that cost you as a human being?" That's a premise though, it's not a plot.
So I just kept pushing, and one of the things that's always concerned me is how humans negotiate difference. We rarely see it as equal to us; we always put a value on it, that it's either better than us or worse than us. It's caused so many wars between people who are so similar except for maybe one little thing. And so I thought, "OK, what if a difference between men and women was in your face all the time, and had to be negotiated and reckoned with every single day and every single minute of every single day?" That felt really interesting because you have a scope of communities; some of them handled it well, some like Prentisstown handled it extremely badly, the very worst case.
In the 13 years since the book came out, we've had story after story about how women are not listened to. In this movie, they are effectively silent, and that has driven some men completely crazy because if you're pushing your own image of what a woman is onto a woman and not listening to them as a separate human being, that's the first step to dehumanization. It's an easy step to misogyny, which is an easy step to genocide. It's not as long a road as it very much should be.
The movie shows The Noise in a really interesting way. Is that what it looked like in your head when you were writing the books?
Pretty much, and I feel quite lucky about that.
There's a scene, it's just a short scene where Daisy Ridley is walking up a hill and Tom Holland is behind her. And he's thinking grumpy thoughts, and they're just flying off the back of his head into the camera. That, to me, is perfect. It shows how messy a thought is, how ephemeral thought can be.
What about the Spackle aliens? Are they what you imagined they'd look like as well?
It's actually rather better than what I imagined. It's difficult when you're writing an alien and they're humanoid and bipedal, and suddenly they become very Area 51, and you're like, "Oh no, that's not it."
What I'm most happy about in the film is how idiosyncratic they look. It looks like an individual, it doesn't look cookie-cutter, like they all look the same. This looks like a creature with a personality, who has been through some stuff. The other big theme of the trilogy is, if we were to colonize space, would we make the same mistakes we did in America and in Australia? And my argument is, "Yeah, probably." And so it was really important to me that the native species is at least glimpsed as a fully functioning society that we have not treated particularly well.
I know a lot of authors like to fancast their characters. When you wrote the books over 13 years ago, Daisy Ridley and Tom Holland weren't on people's radar. Did you do any fancasting yourself back in the day for Todd, Viola, and Mayor Prentiss?
The idea of casting I find deliriously funny. I tend to not do that because it makes me laugh, because it's so ridiculous. I also don't want to say another actor because I don't want to disrespect the people who got it in any way.
But, before I was familiar with the work of Mads, because this was 13 years ago, I thought about somebody like Tom Hanks playing a villain. But Mads is fantastic — that presence he has! So thank God I didn't get to choose.
Is there anything specific that readers of the books will especially enjoy when watching the film?
They are going to love Cynthia Erivo, as Hildy was a beloved character in the book. She's great. And there is a very funny, wonderful, sweet scene in the movie that is not in the books that I love. If I were writing the books now, I would put it in the books. It's the scene that starts with Tom and Daisy hiding in the rain under a tarp. I don't want to give it away, I'm not going to spoil, but it's really funny. I love it.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Chaos Walking premieres in theaters on March 5.