As a perpetual optimist, writing an honest review of the adaption of Patrick Ness’s brilliant internationally best-selling book The Knife of Never Letting Go is heartbreaking for me. All the subtlety, intelligence, and humor of the novel were lost. And in a story where the thoughts of all men, boys, and animals are heard, Manchee, the hero of Book One, has no voice at all.
Where to begin? I guess with a SPOILER ALERT. This review assumes you’ve read the books. And an apology, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you that “no, you shouldn’t watch.”
I’ve stated before that I’m completely okay with plot changes, character mergings, additions, subtractions, etc. in an adaptation if they serve the same masters of feeling-tone that the novel does. What matters most to me is that a movie evokes the same emotional journey that the book does even if liberties are taken with the way it is done. When done well, both the original novel and its adaptation can be thoroughly enjoyed and enhance rather than negate one another.
So, what were these touchstones in The Knife of Never Letting Go? And, why didn’t the movie resonate with them?
In the book, Manchee is a dog that Todd Hewitt doesn’t even want. He’s annoying and all he seems to care about is poo. As their adventures together progress, Manchee is a steadfast, loyal friend. Even when he loses part of his tail trying to defend Todd, he still happily tries to wag it as they continue their dangerous quest. Todd comes to appreciate and cherish Manchee and the reader loves him to death. Manchee is the sweetest most loyal dog in the world. When he sacrifices his life to save Viola, I was so upset I almost didn’t continue reading. I kept on hoping he would somehow be revived. I even hoped Hollywood would revive him so it would patch up the hole in my heart.
In the movie, Manchee has no personality. He’s just there. There is no relationship arc between Todd and Manchee, and we never get the chance to know him. When he dies, it isn’t because of his crucial role in the heroic plan Todd creates to save Viola. He just dies, and we don’t even care. What was an absolutely essential component of the book is ignored as if it doesn’t matter. But it does matter, in a world where people mistrust and hurt one another, Manchee is a symbol of pure, honest goodness. Even though he is a dog, he is the best part of Todd, and he represents hope for how the New World could be if people only cared for and protected each other the way Manchee does for Todd and Viola.
Ben, Cillian, and Viola
In the book, Todd ends up on the run with Viola because it isn’t safe for either of them in Prentisstown. Ben and Cillian, Todd’s adoptive parents, send him away without explaining why because they don’t want that information being broadcast in his Noise. They don’t meet Viola, but they know the emptiness Todd sensed in the Noise must be a girl or woman. It is a sign of their love for him and Todd’s trust in them that he leaves with no explanation.
In the movie, Viola is captured and held prisoner in Prentisstown. Ben explains that the Noise is something that was on the planet when they arrived and not a bio-weapon virus of the native Spackle as he’d been taught his whole life. This admission is meaningful because it is just one of many breadcrumbs that are all dropped at the beginning of the movie instead of being spread out in a tantalizing way as they are in the book. It’s why the movie becomes just one long chase scene that we aren’t even invested in.
New World’s Terrible Secret
In the book, there are several terrible secrets we don’t find out until the end. One is what I just mentioned – that it wasn’t the native Spackle who were responsible for the Noise, which means of course that there was no reason to kill them in the first place. We also don’t know that the Prentisstown men killed the women of the town until the novel is near over. The Spackle are blamed for that too.
In the movie, we know all the key mysteries right away. So yup, there’s no reason to watch.
In the book, Ben gives Todd a knife to take with him, one that he was meant to receive when he became a man at thirteen. The knife is significant because unbeknownst to him part of the ritual of turning into a man is to kill someone so you too share the blame in the hideous crimes of the men of Prentisstown. When Todd takes the knife with him, it is the chance to use it for survival and protection rather than killing. In fact, he can’t bring himself to kill Aaron when he has the chance to, a choice which later haunts him and causes him to kill a Spackle who isn’t even a threat. Viola encourages him to side with his innate goodness rather than this dark side. In the end, he does. We know Ness intended for the knife to be important because let’s face it, he put it in the title – The Knife of Never Letting Go
In the movie, the knife is just a knife Todd has, and there’s no mention of the killing rite. Todd kills a Spackle, but he’s portrayed as a threat, not as a gentle scared native creature. The knife has no soul, which makes sense in a movie that doesn’t either – though it pains me to say that!