When a Troubling Book Gets a Hollywood Makeover

A slick movie adaptation of Where the Crawdads Sing doesn’t just sanitize the story; it obfuscates the questionable morality at the novel’s center.

A young girl in front of a shack in a still from 'Where the Crawdads Sing'
Sony Pictures

In the best-selling 2018 novel Where the Crawdads Sing, the author Delia Owens describes the marshlands surrounding a fictional North Carolina town vividly and reverently. They’re a dangerous setting teeming with wildlife, and they toughen up their human inhabitants, including the young Kya. Abandoned by her family, Kya endures one “stinky-hot” day after the next alone, living in a shack with “greenish-black veins of mildew … in every crevice.”

In the film adaptation, out in theaters today, the marshes look far from the “wasteland bog” Owens describes. The opening scenes feature a great blue heron rendered in CGI, guiding the camera through an apparently idyllic weekend-getaway destination, all lush green grass and untouched beaches. Kya’s shack may 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 People’s Daisy Edgar-Jones, seems to rarely touch mud: Her clothing is typically spotless, and her hair photoshoot-worthy. Indeed, no one seems to sweat in the southern heat.

Like many big-screen takes on popular novels, Where the Crawdads Sing has received the glossy Hollywood makeover. Directed by Olivia Newman (First Match), the movie softens the brutality of Kya’s world until it looks pleasing enough for Instagram. It treats the plot the same way. Though a murder mystery propels the narrative—as it does in the book—the script focuses on the melodrama of Kya’s romances over the crime for which she’s the primary suspect. That allows it to avoid the apparent moral justifications of the novel, in which Kya’s closeness to the land underscores her goodness, and her code of survival trumps human laws. The film also removes much of Owens’s 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 happening here. But in Where the Crawdads Sing, streamlining Owens’s work has additional effects.

As The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, has reported, Owens is wanted for questioning as a possible witness, co-conspirator, and accessory regarding the 1990s murder of an alleged poacher in Zambia that was captured on camera for an ABC News documentary. The novel’s parallels, given that context, are striking: Kya is a devoted naturalist, much like the writer. She feels more comfortable living in the wild than among society—a claim that has also been made about Owens. Moreover, Owens emphasizes that Kya’s deep ties to her environment elevate 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 righteousness of the book’s message.

The movie adaptation, produced by Reese Witherspoon, also simplifies a somewhat messy plot. The book awkwardly threads together two busy timelines that require a high suspension of disbelief: One begins in 1969, when the body of a local beloved cad named Chase is found in the marsh, and the bigoted townspeople suspect Kya of involvement. The second flashes back to Kya’s coming-of-age as the “Marsh Girl,” who survives against all odds, grows into a beautiful pariah, and publishes several celebrated books about the marshlands. Layered atop the bildungsroman–slash–murder mystery is a courtroom drama, wildlife commentary, and a cast of thinly drawn supporting characters.

But if the novel tried to be everything at once, the film focuses on the book’s most marketable element: Kya’s lustful dalliances with locals in her teenage years. Kya’s crushes and heartbreaks are some of the only parts of Where the Crawdads Sing that are close to believable. The film plays up her romances first with a boy named Tate (Taylor John Smith), and later, Chase (Harris Dickinson). The former is the dream boyfriend, sweet and bland and into nature. The other is a smarmy nightmare who can’t believe that Kya is able to identify species of scallops. In focusing on the love triangle, the film breezes past the ludicrousness 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’s making out with Hunk No. 1 in a vortex of leaves!

Turning Kya’s story into a down-tempo YA romance unexpectedly gives Where the Crawdads Sing a new dimension. Of course the slick, golden-hour-soaked marsh looks perfect if the manic pixie marsh girl is living in a fantasy. And by giving her a voice-over and framing her flashbacks as stories she’s telling her lawyer, Tom Milton (an ever-dependable David Strathairn), the film raises other questions: Why does Kya, who has come to fear abandonment, risk getting to know anyone else? What is the appeal of human connection at all?

Yet the film’s script ultimately bounces between a knowing artificiality and a frustrating dutifulness. In a way, that’s apt for an adaptation of a novel with both an outlandish plot and a troubling backstory. If the film leaned all the way into its melodrama, it could have been something different: the rare mainstream, studio-produced summer romance made for female audiences, with rich imagery worthy of the big screen. But its source material’s blemishes were always going to be hard to avoid.