What makes a good book adaptation? Fans of the book itself are often quick to praise or disown these films for their accuracy (or lack thereof). Just look at something like the adapted works of JRR Tolkien; The Lord of the Rings is accurate and praised, The Hobbit is semi-accurate and polarizing, and the LOTR Amazon series seeks to tell its own story and has fans of the expanded Middle Earth lore practically rolling on the floor in fits of torment… and it hasn’t even been released yet! There is such a blatant witch hunt for detail-altering book adaptations that they can be considered failures even before their release.
The flip side is equally true, as “loyal adaptation” has generally become synonymous with “good film.” Keeping that in mind, I would imagine fans of Delia Owens’ bestseller, Where the Crawdads Sing, will be delighted to see it brought to the silver screen a mere four years after its release. Browsing some of the more positive reviews, it’s abundantly clear that this film is VERY loyal to its source material – having not read the novel myself, I can, of course, only rely on the apparent agreement on this point. If you like the book, you’ll probably like the movie.
The story follows a reclusive girl named Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones), who, after being abandoned by her family one-by-one because of her abusive father, resides in a small shack in the middle of a marsh. The marsh itself is right next to a town, the residents of which treat Kya (whom they disdainfully nickname “Marsh Girl”) as prime consumption for the rumor mill – the kind of person you whisper about if you were ever to see her. It’s no surprise then, that the death of a local boy named Chase (Harris Dickinson) – with whom Kya had an acquaintance – sees the town very hastily turn on the Marsh Girl. Soon, Kya gets arrested, put on trial, and must recount her side of the story to her lawyer (David Strathairn) to prove her innocence.
Here’s the thing… I’m not reviewing the film based on its loyalty. Quite frankly, if this is the end product we get, I can’t help but feel that it should have taken more creative liberties. That’s also not to hate on the novel (which I can only imagine is pretty good considering it was a #1 bestseller), but rather, the transition from book to screenplay relies more on copying and pasting than on utilizing the change in format. Unfortunately, the filmmakers play it painfully safe in making the transition to the screen. Instead of incorporating more visual storytelling or subtext, given the medium, they opt to over-explain everything, which leads to dialogue feeling corny and on-the-nose.
Any time the filmmakers DO use pure visual cues (very seldom), the actors approach them with all the subtlety of a WWE wrestler; I think of moments like a man furiously flopping the clothes of his runaway wife into a bonfire, or the cliché “asshole guy” trying to intimidate the cliché “nice guy” by speed walking up to him and then stopping an inch from his face. There’s no nuance here; you might as well have a David Attenborough narration with how spoon-fed the whole thing already is. The cast tries their best to wipe the cheese off their scripts, but it’s so thick that it makes every performance over-the-top; something especially frustrating considering the addition of someone like Daisy Edgar-Jones (great in this year’s Fresh). Also notable is the fact that all the film’s characters – save its core three stars – are more plot devices than anything actually substantial.
Where the Crawdads Sing tries its best to be a really good film, but winds up as melodramatic drivel which worships at the feet of its source material yet has zero incentive to create something for itself. If you’re a die-hard fan of the book… sure, go see it… you’ll probably disagree with my take, but I found it to be a mess. Kya tells us that “the marsh knows all about death and doesn’t necessarily define it as a tragedy,” and while that may be true, I would certainly define this film as one.
Overall rating: 4/10