On November 13, the world got its first peek at the Lionsgate movie poster for Chaos Walking, the long-gestating, estimated $100 million feature film adaptation of The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first book in American-British author Patrick Ness’s award-winning sci-fi YA trilogy. Directed by Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) and starring Daisy Ridley (Star Wars), Tom Holland (Spider-Man), and Mads Mikkelson (Casino Royale), the film is slated for a March 5, release in theaters and IMAX. Chaos Walking’s official trailer, which additionally showcases supporting actors David Oyelowo and Nick Jonas, debuted on November 19, and has racked up nearly eight million views on YouTube to date.
Enthusiasm for the project has been building for a while now. Fans of Ness’s work will recall that The Knife of Never Letting Go, Ness’s first book for young readers, was published in 2008 (by Candlewick Press in the U.S. and Walker Books in the U.K.) and won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Award in the U.K. that same year. The dystopian tale set on another planet follows Todd, the only boy in a town of men where the thoughts of every creature are audible, as he flees after discovering a secret—and the first girl he’s ever seen. Two sequels followed in quick succession, The Ask and the Answer in 2009, which won the U.K.’s Costa Children’s Book of the Year Award, and 2010’s Monsters of Men, which was awarded the U.K.’s Carnegie Medal (for which the previous two books were also shortlisted).
The Chaos Walking trilogy sprung from what Ness calls “a big serious idea and a big stupid idea. The big serious idea was about information overload,” he said in an interview with PW. “The book was written in 2007 and even then the amount of information flying at us every second was enormous. I just wondered what impact sharing your life all the time has on a young person. Particularly when that’s the age you kind of need privacy the most because you’re trying out all the new bits of who you are.” He noted that it’s hard to make a mistake “if you know everyone’s going to film it and upload it. I wanted to ask the questions: what if you had no choice? What if you had to share everything? What would the world be like? It feels like just a slight step beyond where we are now. How do you grow up, how do you take a step into adulthood with all of that coming at you?”
And the so-called big stupid idea incorporated into the story, Ness said, “is that I never liked talking dogs in books. They’re not little humans, they’re dogs. They’re going to talk about dog things. Somehow these two ideas kind of went together.”
Lionsgate, the studio home of the Hunger Games movies adapted from Suzanne Collins’s bestselling trilogy, acquired worldwide rights to the Chaos Walking books in 2011. According to Ness, producer Doug Davison of Quadrant Films was among the team from Lionsgate who flew to the U.K. on the day Ness received the Carnegie Medal for Monsters of Men. “They saw me give the speech,” he said. Soon after that celebration, the parties negotiated an agreement for adapting the three Chaos Walking books for film. In his contract, Ness noted, “certain events had to happen [in the adaptation]. Only a few, but they’re spoilers, so I can’t mention them.”
By early 2012 Lionsgate had secured Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; I’m Thinking of Ending Things) to adapt The Knife of Never Letting Go. And Robert Zemeckis (The Witches; Back to the Future) was attached to direct in 2013. That lineup changed when Jamie Linden (We Are Marshall) worked on a new version of the script in 2014. Things shifted again as Liman took the helm as director in 2016 and the casting of Ridley and Holland was announced. In the end, Ness himself was one of two credited screenwriters; the other is Christopher Ford (Spider-Man: Homecoming).
“The process of making a movie is as long as a piece of string,” Ness said. “It can be short, it can be very long. This one took a while.” Getting the screenplay right and getting a director on board “took a couple of years,” he added. “Then we ended up casting the two biggest stars on the planet at the moment, so that was a bit of luck.”
Ness believes that some press outlets have been “a little unfair” in their reporting on production delays. He explained that some of the holdup was actually built into the director’s timeline. “Doug Liman has a process that is different than many directors,” Ness said. “He shoots in an exploratory way, finding what works and what doesn’t, and then there’s always a section where they go back and shoot some more. That’s expected.”
But while following Liman’s process, Ness said, they ran into a different type of scheduling problem. “We did all the first bunch of shooting exactly as planned and then to do the second set of shooting was difficult when one of your stars is in Spider-Man and one of your other stars was in Star Wars. They were both very, very busy for a very long time. Then we finally got to go back and finish it up as we had long planned. We were a victim of the success of our leads and that’s a great problem to have.”
In contrast to Chaos’s timeline, Ness has also been on the shorter side of his movie-making string analogy, with his novel A Monster Calls (2011), which was made into a movie in 2016. “A Monster Calls was written after [the Chaos Walking books], adapted, shot, and released in the entire time that it took for this production.”
Of course, the pandemic has played a role in pushing back Chaos Walking’s release date as well. But with things back on track, Ness says he’s pleased with the film’s final cut, and is looking forward to the March release. “I think that the role of the author in this process is just to be sane and helpful,” he said. “It’s not my millions of dollars that’s being spent. The best that I can do is option the book to somebody who’s the most excited about it. Lionsgate has never stopped being excited about it and wanting to make the best thing they could.”
Grateful for the level of involvement he’s been afforded on the project, Ness said, “I’ve been there every step of the way and have given feedback on everything from very early scripts to the trailer.” He also feels lucky that his books were adapted at all, no matter the outcome. “The book remains,” he said. “It isn’t erased. Even if a movie doesn’t do well, it still makes a lot more people read the book, and that’s OK. I love to see what someone else makes of my stuff. Yeah, it’s been a longer road, and a different experience than A Monster Calls. It’s a much bigger production, with so much more money in it. Tom and Daisy are fantastic. It’s ridiculous how lucky I am. I am a happy man.”
Lionsgate hopes to build even more excitement for the new film with The Chaos Walking Official Book Club (#ChaosWalkingBookClub), launching February 5 on the movie’s Instagram page. Participants can attend the book club each Friday at 10 a.m. PT to hear Ness and special guests read excerpts from Chaos Walking: The Knife of Never Letting Go and answer questions that have been submitted by readers in advance. The club will run each Friday through March 5. In addition to the book club, fans can enter a book giveaway until February 9.