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'Where the Crawdads Sing': Into Hollywood’s waters

This review contains minor spoilers.

Where the Crawdads Sing” investigates a mystery on the nature of self-defense and murder – how animal instincts, when drowning, can deepen to human evil. 

The worldwide bestselling novel by debut author Delia Owens set out for the big screen after becoming one of producer Reese Witherspoon’s favorite selections from her Book Club. It even inspired Taylor Swift, who performed her original theme “Carolina” for the soundtrack.

The movie is worth watching for its verdant setting alone, but it abandons Owens’ impressively lucid imagination on the page. Readers especially develop a closer bond with her coming-of-age main character Kya, whereas movie viewers see the key incidents of a childhood mostly cut for screen-time.

However, screenplay writer Lucy Alibar is forgiven in view of her fresh insight into the tragic history of Kya’s abusive father, Pa, which makes his role in her early life more conceivable than it is in Owens’ novel. Costume designer Mirren Gordon-Crozier redeems the quick pace of Kya’s growth as well, covertly metamorphosing the church frock of her vanished mother, Ma, into the feminine style of a stereotypical, secure young woman.

Kya’s full truth is portrayed solely by the masterful Daisy Edgar Jones, who perfectly embodies a plain-faced but devious survivalist camouflaging her untamed inner child from the formidable outside world. Through an incisive interpretation of the script, Jones prioritizes the awkward physicalities of the adolescent inside Kya, then evolves her into a graceful yet still guarded adult.

Jones’ acting enhances the plot and its later reveal, leaving clues in the form of a twitching eye, fleeting stance, or her wild and wind-tossed hair. She regenerates the vulnerable young Kya that was lost to the novel, convincing the audience of her innocence.

Though usually in tandem with Owens’ steady composition, Jones’ approach is slightly misdirected during Kya’s sexual encounters, where she hungers maturely rather than feeling out her curiosities with apprehension. The experience is more intimate in Owens’ version, never sacrificing Kya’s naivety for a sensational scene. 

Other standout performances include Michael Hyatt and David Straitharn, who played Mabel and Mr. Milton, respectively, and provided Kya exactly what she needed: warmth from a solid matron and reliability from a preacherly lawyer. Strathairn infers his responsibility of dismantling prejudice within the jury, leaning into a fearlessness compulsory of the infamous Marsh Girl’s only willing defense.

Unfortunately for Strathairn, director Olivia Newman’s ill-timed procession of wide and unmoving shots, plus a monotony of case facts from Alibar, slowed the momentum of his courtroom scenes and impeded the movie’s climax. Otherwise, Alibar’s structure is superior to Owens’, sustaining the drama for longer by fusing the murder evidence with the building of Kya’s story instead of burning the two plotlines parallel to each other.

The murder narrative is more believable in the movie, because Kya’s friendship with its later victim, Chase (played by Harris Dickinson), is better emphasized before he betrays her. Alibar satiably explores the mutations of his character, advancing an analysis on morality and its primal challenges.

Despite what is ultimately an authentic restocking of the novel, with realistic, comfortable dialogue, Alibar’s adaptation fails to represent the societal pressures that originally broke Kya’s family. The movie then neglects her golden age in their absence, when she adopts a passion for art and the friendly kid who showed her what it was.

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Viewers scarcely feel Owens’ parental affection toward Kya’s love interest, Tate, because Taylor John Smith is too old – they hardly learn how Tate taught Kya everything she knows, helping her find humanity when he was just a boy. 

Jones softens decently to Smith anyway, but the exposition to their long-lasting relationship and the secrets of Kya’s youth amount to less in the movie.

Resolving that missing content differently but at least endearingly, the film grants Kya a lifetime of peace beside Tate before she meets the spirit of her late mother finally returning home. 

However, one recurrent yet seemingly insignificant detail exclusive to the novel eventually becomes its central clue, revealing Chase’s murderer in a much more shocking finale.

Readers have greater supervision over the rejected little girl, vying for her strength as if through the Carolina wilderness herself. Owens’ prose is special and deserves to be read, with depictions so vivid that one could romanticize the dark.

The movie pictures a hushed yet captivating marshland, its creatures hoping against an unsympathetic circle of life. The novel compels the reader to wonder whether or not a protagonist is always prey.

Only way out past “Where the Crawdads Singcan one protect themself from their predator – someplace only Carolina will ever know.

Novel Rating: 9/10

Movie Rating: 7.5/10

stefanec@miamioh.edu

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