M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin fits neatly into the pattern of his past movies, particularly his religious-themed alien-invasion thriller Signs. At its heart, Signs grapples with religious faith and doubt, and what it means to experience a life-changing conviction that other people don’t share. Knock at the Cabin takes those ideas in grim directions, funneling them through a home invasion thriller that pits a quartet of true believers against a terrified family who sees them as violent, delusional fanatics.
Much of the movie hangs on the kinds of big questions that have always dominated religious conversations: What’s true, what should we take on faith, and how should we live as a result? But like Shyamalan’s other films that touch on religion, faith, destiny, and supernatural intervention, Knock at the Cabin at least suggests that there’s some form of hope and catharsis in belief. It isn’t exactly an uplifting or optimistic movie, but it’s a fairly spiritual one, suggesting that while belief and doubt naturally go hand-in-hand, it’s better to have faith than surrender to cynicism.
All of which is radically different from Paul Tremblay’s 2018 novel The Cabin at the End of the World, which Shyamalan and screenwriters Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman adapted for the movie. That book has a much darker ending — and a radically different message.
[Ed. note: End spoilers ahead for Knock at the Cabin and The Cabin at the End of the World.]
What happens in Knock at the Cabin?
Roughly the first half of Knock at the Cabin adapts The Cabin at the End of the World in almost line-for-line detail, with much of the dialogue transcribed directly from Tremblay’s book. Even the casting seems heavily inspired by Tremblay’s description of the characters.
Young couple Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Fleabag’s Ben Aldridge) are vacationing at a remote, rustic rental cabin with their adopted daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui), when a muscular, intimidating stranger, Leonard (Dave Bautista), approaches Wen and gently befriends her. He’s the first of four strangers who have come to the cabin to hold Wen and her fathers hostage and present them with a choice: One of them must voluntarily sacrifice themselves to prevent the apocalypse.
Leonard and the other three invaders — Redmond (longtime Harry Potter movie stalwart Rupert Grint), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), and Ardiane (Abby Quinn) — have all experienced visions of the impending disasters that they believe will destroy the planet if Eric, Andrew, and Wen refuse to make their sacrifice. The four outsiders lay out their backstories: They’re all ordinary people who seem to have been chosen as heralds by some unknown force. They’re all horrified by what they’ve seen and experienced, and while none of them want to terrorize Wen and her dads, they understand how unbelievable their message is. The first half of the movie is largely back-and-forth between the two groups, as Leonard’s team tries to convince the family that the threat is real, and Eric and Andrew do their best to debunk it and get the invaders to see reason.
In both versions, Eric and Andrew naturally refuse to believe the apocalyptic story, or kill each other. So the invaders, who are carrying weird weapons beaten together from common tools (a pitchfork, a series of rocking pizza cutters, and more), ritualistically murder Redmond, who fearfully but passively surrenders his life. Leonard claims his death has unleashed a fresh stage of the apocalypse, and tries to prove it by showing Eric and Andrew news reports on TV. The two men dismiss the events as coincidence. Eventually, they break free and wrestle with their remaining captors, with Andrew running to their car to get the gun he’s brought for self-defense.
But then the two stories veer in radically different directions. In the movie, the invaders also ritualistically execute Ardiane, launching another apocalyptic event, before Eric and Andrew escape. Andrew returns to the cabin with his gun and shoots Sabrina to death. Then the two men face Leonard and send Wen to hide in a nearby treehouse. Leonard eventually gets the gun from them but slits his own throat, telling the two men they have one last chance to make their sacrifice and save the world. Eric, who’s been experiencing visions of his own and has slowly come to believe Leonard is telling the truth, insists that he should be the sacrifice.
As planes plummet to Earth, the sky turns dark, and lightning strikes all around them, Eric lays out a vision of Wen’s future and says he’s willing to sacrifice himself to bring about a world that won’t exist otherwise. He presses Andrew’s gun to his chest, and one of them pulls the trigger. Eric dies, the lightning abruptly stops, and Andrew rejoins Wen and returns to town.
There, they find the disasters are reversing themselves one by one, and the apocalypse appears to have been averted. In the end, as they mourn together, a song comes on the radio that they’d all previously shared as a family sing-along. Viewers are left to interpret that moment for themselves — whether it’s meant as a sign or a coincidence, a bit of comforting grace from whatever force put them through this gauntlet, or a touch of contact from beyond the grave.
How does The Cabin at the End of the World end?
The book version of the story is much uglier. In Tremblay’s version, Eric and Andrew break free the morning after Redmond’s execution. Andrew fetches the gun and holds the remaining three invaders hostage, but Ardiane attacks him, and he shoots her to death. Leonard attempts to restrain him, and the gun goes off — and kills Wen.
From there, everything about the story is radically different. Sabrina, gripped by doubt and fury over what she’s done, switches sides and helps Eric and Andrew tie up Leonard, who she executes with one of the invaders’ weapons. It becomes clear that something is literally taking over her hands and voice, making her do things she has no control over, and that her companions experienced the same thing.
Sabrina tells the two men that because Wen’s death was an accident, it “doesn’t count” for the purposes of supernatural sacrifice — she can still feel the apocalypse coming. Eric and Andrew have separate breakdowns, but reluctantly follow Sabrina to dig up the keys to the invaders’ truck, which she finds along with a hidden gun. Very clearly against her will, she warns them that they have to choose which of them will die, and then she fatally shoots herself.
In the end, Eric — far more clearly a religious believer in the book than in the movie — wants to kill himself in case what they’ve been told is true, but Andrew prevents him, and takes the gun away. Together, the two men decide neither of them will die, and that they’ll navigate the coming apocalypse together, even if everyone else in the world dies as a result. While a possibly supernatural storm rages around them, they decide to just go on down the road together, with the body of their daughter.
What does the ending of Knock at the Cabin mean?
While Andrew clearly still has doubts in the movie version, and the story still leaves philosophical questions behind — why does the world require an innocent sacrifice to prevent its destruction, and who sent the visions to Leonard and his group? — Shyamalan and his co-writers give the characters some sense of grace and catharsis. It’s fairly clear that Eric did save the world by dying, that the invaders were in contact with some higher power, and that their visions were true. There may be a malign and predatory order to this universe, but at least there is some form of order.
That fits with Shyamalan’s previous movies about the supernatural, where characters may doubt and debate their visions or compulsions, but there always seems to be an ineffable plan at work, one they just can’t see with their limited understanding. Graham, the protagonist of Signs, has lost his faith, but by the end of the story, he sees God’s intervening hand in his son’s asthma and his daughter’s habit of leaving glasses of water all over the house. Malcolm in The Sixth Sense believes his young patient Cole, who claims he can communicate with the dead, is delusional — but by the end of the film, it’s become clear that Cole has been given a supernatural gift that he’s using to avenge the helpless and save people who seem past salvation.
Shyamalan’s sense of an orderly world where things fall together according to a higher power sometimes comes in the form of traditional fantasy: In Lady in the Water, protagonist Cleveland Heep has to accept his role in a ridiculously stylized narrative in order to save the future. In that movie, fate and symbolism take precedence over divine intervention. But Lady in the Water’s universe once again is arranged around a specific order, and the sense that everyone has a duty to accept their arbitrarily assigned place in it. As with Knock at the Cabin, the characters aren’t permitted to question who designed the mysterious system that’s demanding things of them — they just all have a set part to play to prevent disaster.
In The Cabin at the End of the World, that sense of a cosmic plan and a higher force that controls it is thrown to the winds. The one figure in the story who everyone most wants to protect dies in an abrupt, unforeshadowed accident. There’s a sense in both book and movie that all the characters are fundamentally innocent, forced to do things they don’t want to do by forces they don’t understand. It’s a rich metaphor to explore and debate. But as a sweet 8-year-old who just wants everyone to be nice to each other, Wen is particularly innocent, and her arbitrary and useless death feels like an exceptionally savage twist.
Add on the fact that her death doesn’t even serve a purpose, and it seems even crueler. In Shyamalan’s version of this world, seemingly good people are forced into terrible choices, but those choices ultimately appear to have meaning. Sabrina’s fate in the book makes it clear that choices are ultimately meaningless, once Tremblay’s mysterious and possibly malign higher power is involved. Sabrina doesn’t choose to kill Leonard, or herself — both things are forced on her. The invaders make it clear that they didn’t even choose to believe their visions and come to the cabin — they just found themselves en route to the site against their wills.
And the one choice that does seem to matter — Eric and Andrew both deciding to let the apocalypse happen — feels like a particularly cynical one. In the depths of their grief and frustration, it seems believable enough: They’re both ready to let the rest of the world go hang, as long as they don’t have to be separated. It’s a selfish choice, but one made consciously out of a feeling that a world that would take Wen away from them so senselessly isn’t a world worth saving.
But it’s still tragic, and consciously grotesque, for them to shut out everyone else in the world and choose their mourning over any other kind of future. Shyamalan’s version at least has some faith in humanity, and in ordinary people having the strength to put other people’s needs ahead of their own.
But then, the movie version gives Eric something worth dying for, and a reason to want the world to go on. Knock at the Cabin is a dark, tragic movie, full of awful decisions and ugly sacrifices. But it’s a much more optimistic and hopeful vision of the world than the book it was based on. Which doesn’t make either version better than the other. It’s just a further reminder of Shyamalan’s specific tastes: He enjoys watching his characters navigate questions about belief and their sense of purpose, but ultimately, he’s an idealist who’d rather not see his worlds burn.