New from Sarah Welch-Larson on Substack: 10: Literary Adaptations

Two literary adaptations were released this weekend: the new Persuasion on Netflix, and Where the Crawdads Sing in theaters. I’m rereading Persuasion now, and judging by the critical reaction to the Netflix adaptation, I’m going to have some strong opinions about it. I want to give Jane Austen the time she’s due, so for this week, I’m focusing only on Where the Crawdads Sing.1

If you’re not familiar: Where the Crawdads Sing was a wildly popular novel when it was published in 2018, thanks in part to being included in Reese Witherspoon’s book club. It’s about a girl named Kya who is forced to raise herself in the marshes of North Carolina after her family abandons her. The nearby town dubs her “the marsh girl,” treating her with suspicion simply because she chooses to continue living in the house her family left behind. She retreats into the wilderness and becomes a naturalist; she only comes out of hiding to trade oysters for groceries, and when two young men about her age come calling. When one of her suitors turns up dead in the marsh, Kya becomes the prime suspect. The story’s part romance, part courtroom drama, part mystery, with a general theme of “nature” seeping in from all sides.

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The movie isn’t good. It’s the kind of literary adaptation that strips out a few complicating details for time’s sake, but that also tries to remain as close as possible to the plot of the book, so as not to anger the book’s fans. There’s a little rearranging of the structure from book to movie, using the court case as a framing device instead of keeping it in the back half of the story, but otherwise it’s a pretty faithful adaptation. The result is a two-hour-long movie that feels hollow, swept clean of any complications that the details in the book might have provided. (For the record, I’m not a fan of the book either, but I’m more interested in the way the movie in particular presents its story.)

Tidiness permeates the entire film. Readers of the book might be able to picture the mud and damp as they read, but the movie adaptation strips away even the possibility of dirt. Kya traipses around the swamp in pale, gauzy blouses that never seem to pick up any dirt; she’s barefoot, but her feet are perfectly manicured. Her house has the appearance of false ruggedness that could be picked up from farmhouse primitive style decorations purchased at Michael’s Crafts—raw gray wood that’s been cut to look a little ragged around the edges, but that’s never once needed to be swept or dusted, let alone cleaned of cobwebs. The film romanticizes nature in a way that doesn’t understand it. Kya talks about predatory female insects—praying mantises and lightning bugs—with admiration, aligning herself with the idea of “nature red in tooth and claw,” but the movie isn’t willing to show the ruthless reality of nature. Instead, we’re given CGI herons and geese, cut and pasted into the reeds of the marsh, picture perfect and ethereal—the opposite of Kya’s repeated dialogue about the amoral carelessness of the environment she loves.

The movie also seems unable to understand Kya as a character in her own right. She’s almost more plot device than person; the movie keeps trying to compare her to a force of nature, but the decisions she makes are too clean, and the situations she finds herself in are too conveniently solved. She needs to pay back taxes on her land to keep developers from coming through, and she’s able to make the money by publishing her illustrations of marsh wildlife; she needs to learn how to read, and an admirer from the nearby town befriends her. It’s all conflict/resolution, conflict/resolution, in fifteen minute bites, with very little friction in the in between. It’s all very clean and modular—the opposite of what the movie tells us nature is.

The only lingering conflict is the question of the murder at the story’s heart, and even that slots neatly into a single courtroom speech by Kya’s lawyer. He lays out her alibi, and the dearth of evidence against her; he asks whether the town rejected “the marsh girl” because she was different, or if she became different because the town rejected her. The question of the murder and who committed it is elided entirely, made extraneous by the movie’s attempts to humanize a character that up until this point had been framed as more a force of nature than an actual person. The film then goes on to undermine its own questions by tying up the answer of who did it in a neat little twist, a bow in a setting that should have rendered the flourish irrelevant.


What I talked about:

On this week’s episode of Seeing & Believing, we reviewed the Telegu smash hit RRR. It was my first Tollywood movie! Kevin kept the buddy action movie theme going by introducing me to Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Bury me in S. S. Rajamouli’s action sequences, and in the way Robert Downey, Jr. lights a cigarette.

What I watched:

What We Do in the Shadows is back, baby! Watching the show weekly is a summer tradition at House Welch-Larson, and it feels good to return to the petty sitcom world of dirtbag vampires from Staten Island.

What I’m reading:

I’m about halfway through The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher. It’s the kind of slow-burn horror where I spent the first quarter of the book thinking, “this is nicely written but not at all scary,” and then the screws suddenly tightened and now I have to flip on every light in the house if I want to go downstairs at night. I don’t yet know if it will stick the landing, but I’m having fun with it so far.

1

Delia Owens, who wrote the book, is wanted for questioning in the murder of a poacher in Zambia in the 1990s. I’m not going to get into it, but the parallels between her book and her real life are at best suspicious, and you really should read more about it in this Atlantic article.

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