We all knew that a review of the highly anticipated film Where the Crawdads Sing was going to make its way to my website after I raved about the novel last year. The adaptation of Delia Owens’ debut novel – also titled Where the Crawdads Sing which topped the New York Times best seller list two years in a row in 2019 and 2020 – was always going to cause a stir, which meant the production company had a tough audience to impress.
The film was picked up by Reese Witherspoon’s production company Hello Sunshine, directed by Olivia Newman and scripted by Lucy Alibar, featuring the now household name, Daisy Edgar Jones (previous star of BBC’s adaptation of Normal People), Taylor John Smith, Harris Dickinson and David Straithairn, amongst others. With Witherspoon and Edgar Jones lined up there was always going to be a certain expectation with the film, especially as the novel sold over 12 million copies worldwide.
Personally I adored the novel, it felt like a warm hug and transported me elsewhere during the pandemic. I wanted to feel that same warmth translated on the screen, understanding that as a viewer of the events, I was one of the only ones to have an understanding with the main character Kya Clark. Did it quite hit the mark? I’m not so sure.
The film was beautifully shot as cinematographer Polly Morgan was an expert at capturing the sprawling shots of the marsh, the intricacies of nature and the tones of the wilderness. In that sense the visuals matched the real appreciation you have of the marsh in the novel; you respect it and love it and appreciate it for what it gives to Kya and how Kya treats it. I respect the fact they chose to shoot the film on location in Louisiana in marshes located in Louisiana’s Fontainebleau State Park in Mandeville, and Fairview-Riverside State Park in Madisonville. Without that, they’d be doing the novel a disservice.
Edgar Jones’ casting divided me massively; on one hand I knew she had the quirkiness and shyness to pull off the role, there was no doubting her acting skills. However, her pristine looks and the fact she was not disheveled or remotely affected by isolation, gave the story a certain inauthentic feeling.
I expected her to act less like a child when she encountered Tate Walker as a teenager, in fact the awkwardness and sometimes dumbfounded expression made me cringe. For someone thrusted into the harsh reality of adulthood and responsibility, Kya appeared too untouched by reality. That is not to say Edgar Jones did a bad job, I definitely think she embodied Kya but the characterisation lacked what was found in the book and for that, I will always be hoping for just that bit more.
The film follows a structure that I found particularly odd. It opened at the trial so there was no sense of surprise for what was to come, they eradicated a lot of Kya’s relationship with her parents – to the point that the one with her mother felt idealised rather than sincere – and the one with her siblings felt sidelined and unimportant. However, what affected me the most was the eradication of Jumpin’s story. The racism found in the novel, which was highly prevalent at the time, was erased and thus it felt that the connection between Kya and Jumpin was nowhere near what was found in the book. Because I knew what existed in the novel, all I could think about was that the glorification of a white girls story in Louisiana who did face prejudice for being an outsider was preferred, while the deep set prejudice for the Black community in the South at the time, which happened whether you were rich or not, unlike Kya was ignored. Her prejudice was one she could escape if she wanted to, whereas Jumpin could not. In that sense, it was a disservice to the depth of the novel that they did not go beyond a love triangle in the film.
The connection between Kya and Jumpin is what deepened my empathy for Kya and enforced the trope that parents are not necessarily the ones you are born with, but are the ones that take the time to care for you and nurture you. This was prevalent to a certain degree in the film but the emotional element you felt at Jumpin’s demise was left on the pages of the book rather than on the screen.
It’s become apparent rather quickly that the film was not met with positivity from most critics, with 2-3 star ratings hitting the likes of The Guardian and The Independent alongside a measly 34% on Rotten Tomatoes. As, Clarisse Loughrey states in her review, ‘Where the Crawdads Sing, in short, treats rural poverty as if it were a desirable aesthetic, the ultimate way to reconnect with nature.’ In that respect, the film has hit the wrong note completely and it doesn’t stop there.
It has been revealed that the author, Delia Owens, is currently wanted for questioning by the Zambian authorities after ABC footage showcased the shooting of an unidentified poacher on a wildlife reserve overseen by Owens and her husband, Mark. Separating the two can be quite difficult when so much of Owens’ life as a conservationist is apparent in her novel, especially as the two both have connections with the law and death.
However, there are also positives to be drawn from the representation of Kya not being taken down by her circumstances and using her passion for the marsh and nature to remove herself from hatred and poverty. She is an independent woman, making a life for herself, and Tate only supports that and nurtures it. As Kya is a woman in science, I think it’s incredibly important for that to be shown in all its glory.
Nevertheless, the unabashed emotional turmoil and depth of character, the focus on connection and feeling, and the placement of nature and racism at the focal point of the story, is missing from this surface level adaptation. This novel was never just about love but the film is and that’s a real shame.
I wouldn’t say I left the cinema feeling let down by the representation of the novel, but I definitely felt like I could have done with a lot more, in all aspects. It wasn’t perfect and it certainly did not hit anywhere near the mark of the book but if you want a film to switch your brain off to, then maybe this is for you.
Let me know what you thought of the film in the comments below.