Content warning: this review briefly discusses the Delia Owens controversy and sexual assault.
When the novel Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens was published in 2018, it became one of the biggest and best selling books in recent years. Of course, it was only a matter of when it was going to get a movie adaptation. Our prayers were answered when the film version of the popular novel was developed and released on July 15, 2022. Since I reviewed the book over a year ago, I knew I had to do the same with the flick. And what do I think? Well…I find the controversy surrounding Owens to be a lot more interesting than the movie itself, but I still liked it.
Before I get into the review proper, let’s explore more of the elephant in the room. For the last few weeks, various outlets have talked about the controversy surrounding the author. For those who don’t know, Delia Owens was summoned by the country of Zambia to testify as a witness about a murder of a poacher that occurred in 1996 when she and her then husband Mark lived there. According to The Atlantic, that nation has no statute of limitations when it comes to homicide.
As a result, many people have flat out mentioned that they didn’t want to see the movie because of this situation. They say this because they don’t want to pay money to someone who was potentially involved in a murder.
In addition, it seems that many reviews divulge into the Delia Owens situation whenever they discuss the film, but why? None of the people participating in the movie were involved. Owens herself had no part in the making of the movie except for a cameo, yet she’s getting royalties out of it. I can certainly think of other things like how the main character Kya is the author’s self-insert who is also accused of a murder. However, there’s one aspect that will probably be overlooked: the film is so average that there’s not much to talk about.
But, because I’m a reviewer, I’m going to take a crack at evaluating Where the Crawdads Sing the movie. Ok, where to begin? Oh yes, the film is a faithful adaptation of the novel albeit with a few changes. The first one involves the black characters Jumpin’ and Mabel (played by Sterling Macer Jr. and Michael Hyatt). The novel tries to relate Kya’s struggles to theirs since it takes place in the 1950s and 1960s North Carolina. There’s even a scene, in which she throws rocks at some white boys after they call Jumpin’ the n word. Screenwriter Lucy Alibar wisely cut this out because of the white-savior narrative implications even though it still retains various white people reminding Jumpin’ and Mabel of their place in society. As a result, their involvement is reduced, but they still have the limited role of the helpful black people.
The second one involves the structure. The book switches timeline from the murder investigation to Kya’s life up until that point and vice versa almost constantly. The flick knew that it had to make a simpler structure, so it decided to condense the investigation and focus on Kya. Specifically, it emphasizes how she’s treated by the other people in Barkley Cove as well as the love triangle among her, Tate, and soon-to-be-dead-man Chase. It does this by having Kya (played by Daisy Edgar-Jones) tell her story to her lawyer Tom Milton (played by David Strathairn) before and during the trial. There are times that the movie focuses so much on the romance aspect that I almost forgot that there was a murder trial happening. At the same time, this makes sense because it was one of the two things about the novel that made it marketable (the other involving detailed nature descriptions wasn’t going to translate to the screen as well). This was a smart move overall because anybody who has read the book will know how the trial turns out.
Speaking of the predictable, let’s talk about the ending as much as possible. It’s still foreseeable, but how Tate discovers the truth of Chase’s death is more on the nose in the movie. In the novel, Tate uncovers some poetry that Kya wrote under a pseudonym that explains her involvement in Chase’s murder. In the flick, Tate finds a book that Kya was working on, which contains descriptions and drawings of that dead person. Despite how on the nose it is, this makes more sense as this is more in line with Kya’s character as she had written nature books with lots of drawings of the animals that lived in the marsh.
Oh, the acting was fairly good. Macer and Hyatt bring dignity (and plenty of side-eyeing) to characters that, according to various book reviewers, were denied that in the novel despite how small their roles were. Edgar-Jones embodies Kya with her whispers and her hunched back, but she’s able to be loud and vulnerable when the script calls for it. The chemistry between her and Taylor John Smith (Tate) and later Harris Dickinson (Chase) was fine. I certainly cared for her when the movie wanted me to. The standout was clearly Strathairn as the defense lawyer. I was delighted whenever he came on screen since he clearly conveyed how much his character cared for Kya’s wellbeing. The compassion and determination to have Kya go free was on the same level as Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird without impersonating the latter.
Despite its positives, the whole reason that the movie feels average is how marketable and predictable it is. Now, this is not entirely the film’s fault. The book contains many familiar tropes like the false accusation, an abandoned child, girls and women in awful situations, the coming-of-age story of an outsider, etc, and they are presented with a neat and sometimes fanciful blow on top. Director Olivia Newman replicates that almost to a tee with gorgeous wide shots of the evergreen marsh (when I mean green, it’s very green), lovely close-ups of various animals like the herons and egrets, shots of Kya running away from something and/or crying, the physical differences between the good and evil characters, and having Kya look pretty good with her bed hair and occasionally dirty feet even though she spent her entire life in the marsh. There’s even a song by Taylor Swift called “Carolina” that’s in it too (quick review of that: it’s what one excepts Swift to do for a movie during her folk era, and she emulates Lana del Ray at various points. It’s definitely been growing on me because of the instrumental and the main melody and how well suited they are to the film). All the major scenes in the book are in with very little surprises. Those who haven’t read it will probably be able to predict what will happen next. It felt so dull at times that I struggled to stay awake during the first half while watching it in the movie theater.
However, that’s not to say it was entirely uninspired. Along with the acting, there’s a scene in which Kya confronts Chase about his engagement that was well handled. At one point, he violates her. When that happens, the colors get muted, and the sound gets fuzzy before she hits him over the head with a rock. This made me more invested in the movie during the second half.
All in all, Where the Crawdads Sing the movie is what one expects a film adaptation of Where the Crawdads Sing to be. The scenes are played out in a way that’s predictable and deliberately marketed to a wider audience. A lot of the “problems” with it stem from the source material, which uses a lot of cliches. At the same time, it’s well made and acted. A C+ is the most accurate rating that I could give the movie. I would mainly recommend it for those who loved the novel. I wouldn’t necessarily advise others to see it not because of the Delia Owens controversy, but because of how average it is. I’ve said this once, and I’ll say it again: I find that case to be a lot more interesting than the film, but I still liked it.
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