“Where the Crawdads Sing” loses the details but keeps the heart of a tragic story

Aug. 16, 2022, 8:18 p.m.

Adapting a novel for the big screen has always been a tricky task. Delia Owens’s murder mystery coming-of-age novel “Where The Crawdads Sing,” which has sold over 12 million copies and was chosen for Reese Witherspoon’s book club selection, set expectations high. Though the movie vividly reflected the book through its talented cast, setting and amazingly composed soundtrack, it omitted some important plot details.

Owens’s book tells the story of Kya, played by Daisy Edgar-Jones, who suffers the abuse of her alcoholic father that drove her mother and siblings away. When her father disappears, she’s left to survive in the marsh, alone and shoeless. Kya eventually learns to read and write from her lover Tate, portrayed by Taylor John Smith, and later publishes a book. She’s mocked as the “Marsh Girl” for her wildness, a label that ultimately affects her trial for the murder of Chase Andrews, her former lover.

Similar to Kya’s story, Owens has been wanted for questioning as an important witness and accessory to felonies in a murder case of an alleged poacher, back when she moved to Zambia with her husband to continue her work on preventing poaching of wildlife. Though Owens still denies all the accusations on behalf of her and her husband’s part in the murders, people testify that Mark Owens was someone who bragged about killing poachers. After Owens published her book, “Where The Crawdads Sing,” some believed it was actually a story based on her time in Africa, since she has drawn parallels between her experience living in the wilderness and a nature admirer like Kya.

 “It’s about trying to make it in a wild place,” she said in an interview with The New York Times. Lingering questions about what really happened in Zambia make up part of the publicity of both the book and the movie.

Owens’s book starts at Kya’s tragic childhood and ends at the trial. But the movie’s director, Olivia Newman, follows a different storyline, beginning with Kya’s arrest and interspersing scenes of the trial with flashbacks that reveal how people have failed her throughout her life. Though I’m usually not a big fan of this flashback method, I liked the way Newman used it. Rather than confusing me, it connected the dots and created a well-paced movie. Flashbacks such as Chase giving Kya the shell he found on the beach — which she later turned into a necklace and gave him as a present only to take it back when she killed him — remind you to focus every clue on the murder like a detective.

When I heard that the charming Edgar-Jones was going to play Kya in the movie, I thought it was a miscast, that she didn’t look like the character. But I was wrong: Edgar-Jones’s multilayered depiction of emotions, such as her straight-faced shyness, is brilliant throughout the movie. David Strathairn’s performance as Kya’s lawyer, Tom Milton, was similarly outstanding with his polite yet determined lawyer portrayal. His performance exuded hope, providing the audience with the realization that there are people like him out there who just don’t give up on people like Kya when society already has. 

I especially appreciated Milton’s touching yet empathetically reproachful closing statement at the end of the trial about how the townspeople excluded Kya and have forgotten about her. His sentiment on the fact that she is a person with feelings — which eventually led her to go into her shell and isolate herself — provided a realistic explanation for Kya. “We labeled and rejected her because we thought she was different. But, ladies and gen­tlemen, did we exclude Miss Clark because she was different, or was she different because we excluded her?” was one of the greatest lines in the movie, painting a picture of how society shaped her. 

Every single one of the movie’s soundtracks evoked the warm sunlight of the marsh, connecting me with every scene. The movie’s original soundtrack “Carolina,” penned by lyrical genius Taylor Swift, made me stay and sob to the credits. The lines “Lost I was born, lonesome I came / Lonesome I’ll always stay” and “Carolina knows / Why for years they’ve said / That I was guilty as sin / And sleep in a liar’s bed” perfectly sum up Kya’s story. Other songs on the movie’s soundtrack are composed by Golden Globe and Oscar winner Mychael Danna. I loved every single one of them as each created the natural atmosphere that transcended the story on the screen.

One thing disappointed me — the movie was too focused on Kya’s romance. Despite its theme of social ostracism and its 1969 North Carolina setting, it failed to address the issues of racism and anti-Blackness, whose effects were felt acutely by the characters Jumpin and Mabel in the book.

The movie also glosses over the sibling bond between Kya and her brother Jodie (Logan Macrae). Their reunion gets lost between the trial and flashbacks, and at the movie’s conclusion, it’s unclear how the siblings got so close with only one meeting. In the book, by contrast, Kya and Jodie share an obvious bond. Jodie gives Kya advice — for example, he urges Kya to forgive Tate after Tate breaks a promise to her. And Mabel and Tate’s support during Kya’s first period would’ve made much more sense had their relationship dynamics been more deeply explored. The movie’s omission of those details left many plot points unexplained. Like every book and adaptation pair, the book version of “Where the Crawdads Sing” reigns superior.

“Where the Crawdads Sing” is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. Despite the missing details, I loved most parts of the film, from the story to the soundtrack. But if you’ve only watched the movie, I definitely recommend reading the book. While the movie is excellent, the book elevates the story with its beautifully-written details on the tragic and unfair coming-of-age of a woman who survived.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.

Aslıhan Alp is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop. Contact them at workshop 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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