It feels odd to see a movie like Where the Crawdads Sing in the theater in 2022. Not necessarily in a bad way — this is just the kind of film that has “adapted from the best-selling novel” written all over it from the very first frame. It calls to mind a particular era of heady, romanticized, “prestigious”-feeling movies like The Prince of Tides, Fried Green Tomatoes, and White Oleander. It feels like the kind of film you’d catch on cable on a lazy afternoon, back when you had cable, or check out from the library to compare to the book. It opens and closes with flowery and vague voiceover, representing what I assume (not having read it, full disclosure) are the novel’s most famous or memorable pieces of prose.
Thankfully, this kind of subgenre is basically catnip for me, whether I’ve read the source text or not. Knowing a film is based on a popular book, and this being obviously the reason for its transition to the screen, brings a kind of secure knowledge that the storyline has been vetted by the masses and deemed worthy. Even if it turns out to be trashy or unsatisfying, it gives the feeling of participating in culture, and perhaps camaraderie with readers if the adaptation is poor; if it accurately replicates the novel’s pleasures enough, you have a new book to check out in order to experience the story more fully.
During this film, I mainly found myself wondering how the book is structured by contrast. Opening in the late 1960s, in the North Carolina town of Barkley Cove, we see a body being discovered and the start of a murder investigation. A slim thread of evidence leads to the local outcast, “marsh girl” Kya Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones). After her arrest, she begins to tell her story to a kindly defense lawyer played by David Strathairn, and the rest of the film cuts between flashbacks telling the story of Kya’s life, and her present-day murder trial. This has the effect of creating a sense of anticipation in some ways, and an odd sense of anti-climax in others.
Lost in adaptation.
The first two acts do a solid job of providing context for the opening scenes, while also forgetting about the trial and possible murder for such long periods, that the film’s sense of pace feels pretty slack at times. The dead man barely appears in the first half of the film, which creates curiosity but also impatience. As the plot thickens, the film has to balance between romance, introspection, and courtroom drama, a heavy task that the editors pull off admirably in the short term, with no individual scenes feeling out of place. The film as a whole, however, could probably have used some tightening.
Daisy Edgar-Jones, moving out of a high-class run of popular television shows including Normal People and Under the Banner of Heaven, has the emotional range and magnetic qualities needed to portray Kya, though I questioned some decisions the film makes with regards to her character. For much of the first act, Edgar-Jones barely appears; Young actor Jojo Regina does fine as a young version of the character, but she’s easier to sympathize with than she is to fully connect with, giving the film a renewed shot of energy when Edgar-Jones does finally show up in the flashbacks.
While the central performance is strong and considered, Kya as written sometimes feels generic, like an extremely palatable, accomplished, and even mildly glamorous white woman who is put-upon and treated horribly by society for reasons no one watching would be able to justify. Her decisions are rarely interesting, even when they are intended to be actively surprising, because she is so easy to root for and even project onto. This is a character who does face genuine abuse and injustice, which the film could have used to give her some texture and sharper edges. Instead, she simultaneously lives a difficult and yet quite romanticized life, creating some tonal confusion.
The obligatory love triangle.
The two leading men, Taylor John Smith and Harris Dickinson, threaten to sink the film into blandness. Smith has an appealing warmth that stops just short of feeling like condescension, as he teaches Kya to read and write while proving an appealing first love in a lengthy section of the film’s flashback story arc. Unfortunately when he reappears later in the story, he doesn’t manage to imbue the character with anything new, any sense of personal growth. Dickinson, meanwhile, is so convincing as a manipulator and suspicious character, that his initial ambiguity and desirability doesn’t really play as strong as I assumed it was supposed to. He just comes off as bad news from the beginning.
As the flashback structure of the movie continues on, this becomes the kind of film where everything hinges on the conclusion. You’re kept in a reasonable amount of suspense, waiting to see if the resolution makes the whole experience worth it. I won’t spoil it here, but mileage will almost certainly vary on that one. To me, it felt unsurprising, but just compelling enough that I didn’t regret watching the film. There have definitely been worse conclusions to stories like this, as well as better ones. The emotional acting in the final scenes, including one of those “powerful closing courtroom speeches” from Strathairn, keeps things energetic enough, even as it feels like the story’s themes have perhaps been shrugged aside for the sake of eliciting a reaction or trying to spark a debate or conversation heading out of the theater.
The bottom line.
In many ways, Where the Crawdads Sing is a solidly made, very watchable and engaging picture, but in few ways is it a fully exceptional one. Mychael Danna’s score is as haunting and swoony as you could ever want; the cinematography captures the marshland with a keen and crisp eye, never moving out of prestige gloss, but giving the sense of a real, breathable environment. The actors look like actors, but their performances have the ring of truth where it counts most. It’s a film destined to find its groove on library shelves and in the rotation of free-with-ads streaming services (the new cable). If not for the most surprising and unsettling thing about it, as this may be the only film adaptation of a popular novel centered around a mysterious murder where the author herself is wanted for questioning in an ongoing murder investigation.
Much has been written recently about Delia Owens’ shady past, by people more knowledgeable than me, so this probably isn’t the place to get into it too deeply. But knowing about the situation does change my perception of this otherwise fairly explicable and surface-level film. I have no idea if the main character is meant to be similar to the author who created her, but the way that character is depicted (as the subject of a Completely Unfair murder investigation, and as a talented author to boot) sure lends an odd comparison point to the real life events Owens was involved in.
Is this bizarre, disturbing, art-potentially-imitating-life circumstance enough reason to seek the film out, or avoid it? Of course, that’s subjective. If you enjoy this kind of literary adaptation drama film, Where the Crawdads Sing is an effective enough entry in that subgenre to be satisfying, even if the controversy leaves a bad taste. On the other hand, if the whole thing doesn’t sound appealing on paper, the film doesn’t rise above what a moviegoer might expect of it in basically any way except maybe the soundtrack, and thus should be easy to dismiss. If you’re mildly curious, but unsure if you feel comfortable putting money in Delia Owens’ pocket? Well, maybe check it out from the library in a few years.
Where the Crawdads Sing is now playing in theaters. Watch the trailer here.