In the 2018 bestselling novel Where the Crawdads sing, author Delia Owens describes the swamps surrounding a fictional North Carolina town in a vivid and respectful way. It’s a dangerous environment teeming with wild animals and they toughen up its human inhabitants, including young Kya. Abandoned by her family, Kya endures one “stinky” day after the next alone, living in a shack with “veins of greenish-black mold…in every crevice”.
In the film adaptation, in theaters today, the swamps seem a far cry from the “wasteland bog” described by Owens. The opening scenes feature a great blue heron rendered in CGI, guiding the camera through a seemingly idyllic weekend destination, all lush green grass and untouched beaches. Kya’s cabin might as well be an Airbnb furnished by Wayfair. And Kya herself, played as a child by Jojo Regina and as a teenager and young adult by normal peopleDaisy Edgar-Jones, rarely seems to touch the mud: her clothes are generally immaculate and her hair worthy of a photo shoot. Indeed, no one seems to sweat in the southern heat.
Like many popular big-screen novels, Where the Crawdads sing received the shiny Hollywood makeover. Directed by Olivia Newman (First game), the film softens the brutality of Kya’s world until it’s enjoyable enough for Instagram. He treats the plot the same way. Although a murder mystery propels the narrative – as it does in the book – the storyline focuses on the melodrama of Kya’s romances about the crime for which she is the prime suspect. This allows him to avoid the apparent moral justifications of the novel, in which Kya’s closeness to the land emphasizes his goodness, and his code of survival trumps human laws. The film also cuts out a lot of Owens’ esoteric language about Kya’s connection to wildlife, making the material feel like a Nicholas Sparks project. Such an approach usually flattens the original story, and that’s certainly what’s happening here. But in Where the Crawdads singthe rationalization of Owens’ work has additional effects.
As AtlanticEditor Jeffrey Goldberg, reported, Owens is wanted for questioning as a witness, co-conspirator and possible accomplice in the 1990s murder of a suspected poacher in Zambia who was filmed for a documentary by ‘ABC News. The novel’s parallels, given this context, are striking: Kya is a dedicated naturalist, as is the writer. She feels more comfortable living in nature than in society – a claim that has also been made about Owens. Additionally, Owens points out that Kya’s deep connection to her surroundings elevates her beyond the law. By treating the story as a soapy melodrama rather than an exploration of morality, the new film, whether deliberately or not, avoids addressing the correctness of the book’s message.
The film adaptation, produced by Reese Witherspoon, also simplifies a somewhat messy plot. The book awkwardly connects two busy timelines that require a lofty suspension of disbelief: one begins in 1969, when the body of a beloved local cad named Chase is found in the swamp, and the bigoted townspeople suspect Kya of ‘to be involved. The second recalls Kya’s coming of age as the “Marsh Girl”, who survives against all odds, becomes a beautiful outcast, and publishes several famous books about the swamps. At the pinnacle of the bildungsroman-slash-murder mystery sits courtroom drama, wildlife commentary, and a cast of finely drawn supporting characters.
But while the novel tried to be all at once, the film focuses on the book’s most marketable element: Kya’s lustful alliances with the locals during her teenage years. Kya’s crushes and heartbreaks are some of the only parts of Where the Crawdads sing which are close to believable. The film first plays up her romances with a boy named Tate (Taylor John Smith), and later, Chase (Harris Dickinson). The first is the dream boyfriend, sweet and bland and in nature. The other is a smarmy nightmare who can’t believe Kya is able to identify scallop species. By focusing on the love triangle, the film goes beyond the ridiculousness of Kya’s story: that a little girl traumatized by her abandonment survived in a rusty shack with no running water or electricity, because look, she kisses with Hunk No. 1 in a whirlwind of leaves!
Turning Kya’s Story Into A Slowed-Down YA Romance Gives In Unexpected Ways Where the Crawdads sing a new dimension. Of course, the slick, soaked golden hour swamp looks perfect if the maniacal pixie swamp girl is living in a fantasy. And by giving her a voiceover and framing her flashbacks as stories she tells her lawyer, Tom Milton (an ever-reliable David Strathairn), the film raises further questions: Why Kya, who has come to fear abandonment, does she risk knowing someone else? What is the appeal of human connection?
Yet the film’s script ultimately oscillates between conscious artificiality and frustrating duty. In a way, it’s fitting for an adaptation of a novel with both a wacky plot and a disturbing backstory. Had the film leaned all the way into its melodrama, it might have been something different: the rare studio-produced mainstream summer romance aimed at female audiences, with rich imagery worthy of the silver screen. But the flaws in its source material were always going to be hard to avoid.