Author Patrick Ness is an expert on teenagers. Not only has he written 12 Y.A. books about them, but he has also won numerous awards, each more prestigious than the last. Now, he has co-written the screenplay (with Christopher Ford) for Doug Liman’s dystopian action film Chaos Walking, based on his book The Knife of Never Letting Go.
It captures all the madness, hopefulness and angst of a teenager named Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland). Todd’s young life is thrown upside down when a mysterious teenage girl, Viola (Daisy Ridley) crashes her spaceship onto his planet known as New World.
Considering some of the best movies of all time are about teenagers, from Rebel Without a Cause, to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, to The Hunger Games, I asked Ness the secret to writing teen characters so authentically and clearly.
“I think if you could access what being a teenager is like day to day,” says Ness, “because we’re so trained to tune into the horrors and comedy of it all – if you really pay attention to the teenagers that you know, particularly if you’re not their parent or teacher, you’ll find they’re really interesting and full of contradictions and surprises. I really just want to make human teenagers.”
Going all the way back to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, there’s an inherent excitement in a teenager’s life. Everything is new and everything is a first experience – first time driving, first kiss, first time being independent – to name a few. We tend to gravitate to their stories, even as older adults, because it’s so invigorating to see life – the ups and the downs – through their eyes.
Ness agrees, saying, “There’s that great moment in your life when you step away from everything you know for the first time. You step away from your upbringing, your family and say, ‘I am separate from this. I am this new thing.’ It’s necessary, it’s a vital part of the growing up experience, but I’ve always argued that it’s a lonely step. That moment is so scary – but that’s why it’s so compelling to write about.”
In Chaos Walking, we discover that Todd (Holland) and all the other men around him are plagued by something called The Noise: an unfortunate condition where all their thoughts, yes, even the most private ones, are on heard and seen through a relentless cacophony of sound and visual display of lights that shimmer around the person’s head, revealing everything.
Ness’s first book in the Chaos Walking trilogy was published in 2008, just as social media was taking over the lives of teenagers who quickly became addicted to “likes” and “selfies.” Teens suddenly felt compelled to reveal everything big and small.
“The Noise a metaphor for social networking and having to share everything. We’re already obliged to share quite a lot of our lives. I wonder what would happen if we had no choice,” says Ness.
But it’s one thing to read a book about a person whose private thoughts are permanently exposed and another thing entirely to see it on film. Seeing and hearing each male character’s thoughts seems overwhelming at first, but quickly becomes the norm. Ness is excited about how The Noise is shown in the movie.
“There were a lot of conversations about how The Noise would look, but also about what its core basis is. I always argue that its core basis is emotional. So if that’s true, how does that affect what it looks like, how it’s shaped, how it shimmers, and all that. I found that really fascinating,” says Ness.
Maybe because we’re in a pandemic and we’re all at home bombarded by our own anxious thoughts that it’s not so strange to see it and hear it on screen.
“No one could have expected COVID, but these people in the movie are being presented with an unexpected environmental factor that has to be reckoned with. They make mistakes and people die, but they still keep trying. I think that’s why the movie ends hopefully. That Todd and Viola have kept trying to connect and maybe they are the way out of it. With COVID, we’re still trying to find ways to connect. There’s Zoom…but I think the hopefulness comes because of the fact that we just keep trying to connect with each other,” he says.
I asked Ness what advice he has for screenwriters working in the sci-fi genre: “Establish your world with authority. Don’t ask permission. Don’t ask, ‘Is this okay?’ Say, ‘This is the world, and this is the story in it.’ It’s that authority that I want as a viewer. I want to really trust that they know what they’re doing, and they know the world they’ve made. Go in with gusto.”
He adds that now is the time for very personal sci-fi movies. “Smaller ones – those, to me, are really interesting and deep, how you can use a huge sci-fi palate to tell a tiny human story. Those are always the ones we love the best.”
Ness cites films like Ex Machina, Her, Eternal Sunshine, even E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, laughing as he realizes the last one is from 40 years ago. But E.T. has endured for all the reasons he mentioned.
“I love a big space opera too, but the way you can tell a small story though sci-fi is amazing,” he says.
He hopes people will come away from Chaos Walking with the idea that, “Human connection is the thing we absolutely have to have above everything else. No matter what border is put in our way, we have to connect or we don’t survive. The way that Todd and Viola connect against some huge odds, I think is a really hopeful message.”
Chaos Walking begins streaming today, March 5.
Inspired to write your own dystopian sci-fi script? Enter the ScreenCraft Sci-Fi & Fantasy Screenwriting Competition, which is NOW OPEN until May 31, 2021.