The long-awaited film adaptation of Delia Owens’ first novel, Where the Crawdads Sing, hit the screens July 13 and grossed $17 million on its first weekend, hastening her novel back to the top of the New York Times best seller list.
The e-book and paperback has been on the list for 168 weeks, the longest of any paperback trade fiction.
The challenge of adapting this near-perfect novel into a 2-hour-and-5-minute movie is irrefutable. Executive Producer Reese Witherspoon (The Morning Show, Little Fires Everywhere, Wild), assembled a team of women co-creators soon after she read the novel and assigned it to her Reese Book Club.
It’s not a perfect adaptation. Screen writer Lucy Alibar (Beasts of the Southern Wild) watered down some of the most harrowing moments, seeming to trust that many viewers had familiarity with the hardest parts, and those who didn’t wouldn’t miss them. Judging by the overwhelming popularity of this screen adaptation, this was a winning strategy. Still, there are some critics and purists who were left disappointed. This reviewer is not among them.
Intertwining the two narratives
Like the novel, the film follows two intertwining narratives and timelines. The first narrative is a murder mystery. It’s 1969 and two young boys have discovered the body of Chase Andrews, played by Harris Dickinson (The Kings’s Man, 2021). Andrew was a local hero and star quarterback who suspiciously fell to his death one night from a fire tower.
The second and most compelling narrative details the life and influences of the woman accused of the murder, Catherine Danielle Clark, nicknamed Kya.
She and Andrews had an uneasy romantic relationship, marred by his disloyal deception and sexual violence. Kya was driven by loneliness to engage with Andrews after Tate Walker, her first love, left for college and did not return as promised. You might say Tate Walker taught Kya to love, and Chase Andrews taught her the opposite.
While together, though, Tate and Kya shared an immense love of the marsh. Seeing her inherent intelligence, he was able to teach Kya to read and write. Kya had no formal schooling, but she was a quick study. He loved and encouraged Kya like no one in her life had before, and her curiosity and drawings of the marsh and its creatures excelled.
Soon after she was charged with murdering Andrews, a kind-hearted local defense attorney named Tom Milton, played by David Stratharin (Nomadland, 2020) came out of retirement to defend her.
He had watched her through the years be mocked as “marsh-girl” and ostracized by the small-minded community of Barkley Cove, the town nearest the North Carolina marsh where Kya and her family lived. Milton believed in her innocence.
At first Kya is withdrawn and mistrustful of him, but then through kindness he persuaded her to tell him more about herself so he could help her.
As she recounts the details of her life to him, we are transposed back to her early 1950s childhood. We remained in her story for most of the film, with occasional flash-forwards to the trial and beyond.
Kya’s arc, from adult to little girl and back
Daisy Edgar-Jones (Normal People, mini-series 2020) is raw and beautiful in this role. Her portrayal of Kya from adolescence to womanhood is rich, and it unfolds with organic ease. The on-screen chemistry she shares with Walker is magical, rife with hope and possibility.
Young Kya is played by 11-year-old JoJo Regina. She is a tremendous actor. Keep her in your sights, it will be great fun watching her develop through the years.
Young Kya’s family life is tragic. Her father is a raging, violent alcoholic, and one by one, starting with her mother, each member of her family takes leaves to escape her father’s drunken abuse. Kya is left behind to somehow synchronize her childhood around staying safe from her father. These lessons serve her well when trouble comes later. For years, Kya waits and watches longingly for her mother’s return.
“Until at last, at some unclaimed moment, the heart-pain seeped away like water into sand. Still there, but deep. Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.” From Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing.
From the opening scenes to the very last, cinematographer Polly Morgan (Lucy in the Sky, 2019) films the marsh wide around Kya, like a blanket of green that held her and never let go. Kya’s relationship with the boggy, rich marsh was her most enduring love. Author Owens, herself a well-know wildlife biologist, used her knowledge and experiences with nature to draw us in, and Morgan followed closely.
There is a period of several years when Kya’s father appeared not to be drinking. During this interval he teaches Kya to fish and gives her his old Army backpack to hold her swamp treasures, mostly shells and feathers. Kya finds some watercolors left by her mother and begins drawing and painting and studying the shells. Kya is a dedicated learner and gifted artist. This turns out to be her saving grace.
At age 10 Kya learned to survive by digging mussels and selling them for food and supplies them to local storekeepers Jumpin’ and Mabel. Jumpin’ was played by Sterling Macer Jr (Double Down, 2020) and Mabel by Jamaican actress Michael Hyatt (The Little Things, 2021). Together they looked out for her as much as possible, and as time passed became like chosen family to Kya. They are the heart of the film.
Taylor Swift’s haunting end-credit ballad Carolina is Oscar-worthy. It is written from Kya’s perspective, telling the story of a woman always on the outside, looking in, whose fierce independence carries her through.
Where the Crawdads Sing was published in March 2021 to a COVID-19-captive audience and struck a chord of resilience and gentle patience with time passing. The film is a slow-burn toward freedom from hardship and provides a well-timed reminder to look around at all we do have.