A Faithful Adaptation, But a Disappointingly Mediocre Result
There is a common saying that life imitates art. In the case of Where the Crawdads Sing, it may be the opposite. When digging deep into the novel’s origins, one necessarily learns about author Delia Owens’ history. She and her family, as American conservationists, were allegedly involved in the shooting of poachers in Zambia that left one person dead. Owens and her family fled to America as they were wanted for questioning by the Zambian government. To this day, the case remains unsolved, and we may never know the full details (You can read more information about the case in Jeffrey Goldberg’s article The Hunted in The New Yorker). Perhaps the answers can be found in the novel. Either way, the real-life story proves more compelling than Olivia Newman’s film adaptation of Where the Crawdads Sing.
In the small town of Barkley Cove, North Carolina, there is a local story of the Marsh Girl. Various rumours spread through the community: she’s a wild creature, a feral animal, a monster, a murderer. These things couldn’t be further from the truth. Her name is Kya Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her story is that she and her family were abused by her alcoholic father (Garret Dillahunt) before being entirely abandoned. After learning how to survive and raise herself in the marshes, she resists the crushing social norms of Barkley Cove while befriending the ostracised black owner of a gas station, Jumpin (Sterling Macer, Jr.), and his wife, Mabel (Michael Hyatt). As Kya grows up, she develops a relationship with her childhood friend, Tate Walker (Taylor John Smith), who teaches her how to read and write before leaving for college. Eventually feeling abandoned by him, Kya falls into a relationship with local quarterback, Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), who exploits her for sex and things end badly between them. In 1969, Chase is discovered dead, having fallen from a fire tower, but evidence points to foul play, and Kya is immediately suspected in his death. What ensues forces her to confront the prejudice, assumptions and trauma that have followed Kya her entire life.
It is worth briefly comparing Where the Crawdads Sing to Delia Owens’ novel as the source material, though the film should stand on its own. Nevertheless, it is true to the novel. Fans will be left reasonably satisfied. It makes a structural shift that loses focus on balancing its genre elements and makes me more appreciative of how Owens handled the switches between dual timelines in her novel. It lacks some of the compelling metaphors, poetry, social commentary and lush but admittedly self-indulgent prose of nature, most likely due to the constraints of adapting a novel into a film. But the same story is there, along with Kya’s characterisation. Much like the novel, Where the Crawdads Sing’s final twist trusts the audience to think of its logistics and fit the piece into the puzzle; a solid case of “show, don’t tell.”
But being a faithful film adaptation doesn’t automatically lead to greatness. Whenever Where the Crawdads Sing is shot on location, it looks great. Cinematographer Polly Morgan captures the beauty of nature and how that allows Kya to heal from her horrors, something Owens’s prose captured, and thus the style is not without merit. However, the look of Where the Crawdads Sing is too polished for its own good. The saturated colour grading makes sense when it establishes the Southern tropes of Barkley Cove to highlight the artificiality of social norms and how its unsuspecting nature disguises ugly secrets underneath the surface. But the forests and marshes look too tidy. Realistically, Kya should appear filthy. The locations appear too carefully organised, failing to capture the gritty textures and authentic realism of Owens’s writing, and with that missing, Where the Crawdads Sing lacks an entrenching atmosphere to get lured into.
What is also missing is a sense of tonal consistency. Where the Crawdads Sings struggles to interweave its coming-of-age, murder-mystery and courtroom drama elements. The film uses the past timeline to tell Kya’s harrowing story, and yet it’s missing an emotional impact, and not just because of its stale look. Lucy Alibar’s screenplay spends so much uninterrupted time with the past and even fails to build a tangible romantic mood within any of Kya’s relationships that it’s easy to forget a murder has taken place in the present. These awkward transitions between timelines are made worse by the choppy nature of Alan Edward Bell’s editing, and creating a further imbalance between the genre elements. So much of the murder-mystery aspect feels skimmed over, failing to present enthralling clues, evidence or investigation, and the courtroom scenes, reminiscent of 90s legal dramas, feel lifeless. Where there should be tension brewing within the community and in Kya’s life there is none, and the flow of events feels anticlimactic. For book fans, it will be engaging enough because of the fine direction by Olivia Newman, who is trying to find her voice amidst Where the Crawdads Sing’s unevenness. That’s also another massive problem. The direction is too fine to the point that it lacks a haunting vision. Such a simultaneously depressing and hopeful story does not have the specific emotional response it should be evoking, and it feels like a film anyone could have directed.
Regardless of Where the Crawdads Sing’s sloppiness, its target audience will find something to emotionally identify with that can be found in Kya’s characterisation. She stands out because she is given a personality more than any other character and there is an active interest in telling her story, which mostly remains intact. It leaves us to watch the traumatic wounds of abuse, prejudice, and abandonment deepen and linger in her childhood and her brutally isolated transition to adulthood. There are some of us like Kya. She’s a damaged soul, one who can’t heal in the presence of a judgmental society that never wanted to give her a chance. Only in the depths of nature can she find her place, resourcefulness, and strength. While the character relationships suffer from an inability to build emotional weight because the men in her life lack interesting traits, Kya’s story will rile up feelings in the audience: rage, shock, devastation, tranquillity, and warmth. Where the Crawdads Sing doesn’t successfully build and manipulate these emotions, but it infuses Kya’s past and present with a solid, acceptably familiar mixture of tragedy and hope.
Without Daisy Edgar-Jones’s performance, the essence of Kya’s characterisation would be missing. While Where the Crawdads Sing supports a solid cast, with Taylor John Smith and Harris Dickinson being serviceable co-stars and David Strathairn offering a sympathetic performance in his screen time, Edgar-Jones gives her all here. She’s tough but holds back on any primality, capturing her character’s emotional inexperience, her difficulties of staying afloat in a discriminatory world, and the sincerity of the connections she forms. When she cannot hold back on the anger, it’s unleashed in a raw manner. She sells her emotional reactions to the highs and lows Kya goes through, and it’s a performance that supports the structural core of Where the Crawdads Sing. It’s unfortunate that her strong acting is trapped in a middling mess of a film.
Even if Where the Crawdads Sing is faithful to its source material, which will leave readers and audiences pleased enough, it is let down by its disappointingly conventional nature. Daisy Edgar-Jones’ mesmerising performance and Taylor Swift’s original song, ‘Carolina’, do their best to fill in the missing emotional gaps. The uncertainty of committing to its genre or visual elements means the film is lost in a land of missed opportunities that try to elevate its source material into something special.