Review: ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ is the latest literary sensation turned ho-hum movie

Daisy Edgar-Jones and Taylor John Smith in "Where the Crawdads Sing."

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In 2018, retired zoologist Delia Owens, the author of the bestselling 1984 memoir “Cry of the Kalahari,” published her first novel at the age of 69. “Where the Crawdads Sing” is set on the North Carolina coast in the 1950s and ’60s, threading romance and murder mystery through the life story of a young, isolated woman, Kya, who grows up abandoned in the marsh. The story is a bit far-fetched, the characterizations broad, but there’s a beauty in Owens’ description of Kya’s relationship to the natural world. Her derisive nickname, “the Marsh Girl,” ultimately becomes her strength.

“Where the Crawdads Sing” has become a legitimate publishing phenomenon, one of the bestselling books of all time, despite a controversy bubbling in Owens’ past — a connection to the killing of a suspected animal poacher in Zambia. Reese Witherspoon bestowed the book with her book club blessing, and as she has done with other titles from her club, like “Big Little Lies,” Witherspoon has produced the film adaptation of “Where the Crawdads Sing,” written by Lucy Alibar, directed by Olivia Newman, and starring Daisy Edgar-Jones as the heroine, Kya.

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The film is easily slotted into the Southern gothic courtroom drama sub-genre — it’s like “A Time to Kill” with a feminine touch. While the nature of adaptation requires compression and elision, the film dutifully tells the story that fans of the book will turn out to see brought to life on the big screen. But in checking off all the plot points, the movie version loses what makes the book work, which is the time we spend with Kya.

Kya is a tricky protagonist whose life story requires a certain suspension of disbelief. Abandoned by her mother (Ahna O’Reilly) and siblings escaping the drunken abuse of her father (Garret Dillahunt), who later disappears, young Kya (Jojo Regina) survives on her own, selling mussels to the proprietor of the local bait and tackle shop, Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer Jr.). His wife, Mabel (Michael Hyatt), takes pity on Kya and offers her some clothes and food donations, but it’s an exceedingly tough existence, something that the film does not manage to fully convey.

As a teen, Kya forms a friendship with a local boy, Tate (Taylor John Smith), who teaches her to read, and though their relationship turns romantic, he ultimately leaves her for college. Abandoned once again, she seeks companionship with popular local cad Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson). It’s his death, from a fall at the rickety fire tower, that sees Kya on trial in the town of Barkley Cove, which ultimately becomes a referendum on how she’s been harshly judged over the years by the townspeople.

The only reason Kya works in the book is the amount of time the reader spends with her in the marsh, understanding the tactics she uses to get by, and getting to know the natural world in the way that she does, observing the patterns and life cycles of animals, insects, and plants. The deep knowledge of her environment and ad-hoc education from Tate helps Kya overcome poverty, as she publishes illustrated books of local shells, plants, and birds. But in the film, which sacrifices getting to know her in order to prioritize the more scandal-driven twists and turns, Kya comes off as somewhat silly, a bit easy to laugh at in her naiveté and guilelessness.

There’s also the matter of plausibility, and the shininess with which this rough, wild world has been rendered by Newman and cinematographer Polly Morgan. The marsh (shot on location in Louisiana) is captured with a crisp, if perfunctory beauty, but it’s hard to buy English rose Edgar-Jones in her crisp blouses and clean jeans as the near-feral naturalist who has been brutally cast out by society. Everything’s just too pretty, a Disneyland version of the marsh.

The whole world feels sanded-down and spit-shined within an inch of its life, lacking any grime or grit that might make this feel authentic, and that extends to the storytelling as well. It feels exceedingly rushed, as the actors hit their marks and deliver their monologues with a sense of obligation to moving the plot along rather than developing character. Hyatt, as Mabel, and David Strathairn, who plays Kya’s lawyer, Tom Milton, are the only actors who deliver grounded performances that feel like real people — everyone else feels like a two-dimensional version of an archetype spouting the necessary backstory or subtext to keep the plot churning forward.

Though it is faithful, “Where the Crawdads Sing” is lacking the essential character and storytelling connective tissue that makes a story like this work — an adaptation such as this cannot survive on plot alone.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

'Where the Crawdads Sing'

Rating: PG-13, for sexual content and some violence including a sexual assault Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes Playing: In general release July 15

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‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ Review: A Wild Heroine, a Soothing Tale

Daisy Edgar-Jones stars as an orphaned girl in the marshes of North Carolina in this tame adaptation of Delia Owens’s popular novel.

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Daisy Edgar-Jones’s Kya is an irresistible if not quite coherent assemblage of literary tropes. Abused and abandoned, she is like the orphan princess in a fairy-tale.

By A.O. Scott

“Where the Crawdads Sing,” Delia Owens’s first novel, is one of the best-selling fiction books in recent years , and if nothing else the new movie version can help you understand why.

Streamlining Owens’s elaborate narrative while remaining faithful to its tone and themes, the director, Olivia Newman, and the screenwriter, Lucy Alibar ( “Beasts of the Southern Wild” ), weave a courtroom drama around a romance that is also a hymn to individual resilience and the wonder of the natural world. Though it celebrates a wild, independent heroine, the film — like the book — is as decorous and soothing as a country-club luncheon.

Set in coastal North Carolina (though filmed in Louisiana), “Where the Crawdads Sing” spends a lot of time in the vast, sun-dappled wetlands its heroine calls home. The disapproving residents of the nearby hamlet of Barkley Cove refer to her as “the marsh girl.” In court, she’s addressed as Catherine Danielle Clark. We know her as Kya.

Played in childhood by Jojo Regina and then by Daisy Edgar-Jones (known for her role in “Normal People” ), Kya is an irresistible if not quite coherent assemblage of familiar literary tropes and traits. Abused and abandoned, she is like the orphan princess in a fairy-tale, stoic in the face of adversity and skilled in the ways of survival. She is brilliant and beautiful, tough and innocent, a natural-born artist and an intuitive naturalist, a scapegoat and something close to a superhero.

That’s a lot. Edgar-Jones has the good sense — or perhaps the brazen audacity — to play Kya as a fairly normal person who finds herself in circumstances that it would be an understatement to describe as improbable. Kya lives most of her life outside of human society, amid the flora and fauna of the marsh, and sometimes she resembles the feral creature the townspeople imagine her to be. Mostly, though, she seems like a skeptical, practical-minded young woman who wants to be left alone, except when she doesn’t.

Kya attracts the attention of two young men. One, a dreamy, blue-eyed fisherman’s son named Tate (Taylor John Smith), who shares her love of shells, feathers and the creatures associated with them. Companions in childhood, they become sweethearts as teenagers, until Tate goes off to college, and Kya gets mixed up with Chase (Harris Dickinson), a handsome cad whose dead body is eventually found at the bottom of a fire tower deep in the marshlands.

Eventually but also right at the beginning. The movie begins with Chase’s death, in October, 1969. Kya is charged with murder, and her trial alternates with the story of her life up until that point. Her mother (Ahna O’Reilly) and siblings flee the violence of an abusive, alcoholic father (Garret Dillahunt), who eventually takes off too, leaving Kya on her own in possession of a metal motorboat, a fixer-upper with a screened-in porch and a curious and creative spirit.

“Where the Crawdads Sing” takes place in the ’50s and ’60s, which on the evidence of the film were uneventful decades in America, especially the American South. Kya’s hermit-like existence — she attends school for one day, doesn’t learn to read until Tate teaches her and has no radio or television — feels a bit like an alibi for the film’s detachment from history. The local store where she sells mussels and gases up her boat is run by a Black couple, Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer Jr.) and Mabel (Michael Hyatt), who nurture and protect her and seem to have no problems (or children) of their own.

Kya’s outsider status — bolstered by the presence of David Strathairn as her Atticus Finch-like defense attorney — gives the movie a notion of social concern. Equally faint is the hint of Southern Gothic that sometimes perfumes the swampy air. But for a story about sex, murder, family secrets and class resentments, the temperature is awfully mild, as if a Tennessee Williams play had been sent to Nicholas Sparks for a rewrite.

Where the Crawdads Sing Rated PG-13. Wild but tame. Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes. In theaters.

A.O. Scott is a co-chief film critic. He joined The Times in 2000 and has written for the Book Review and The New York Times Magazine. He is also the author of “Better Living Through Criticism.” More about A.O. Scott

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‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ Review: Unfevered Swamps

Daisy edgar-jones plays a young north carolina recluse in the charmless adaptation of delia owens’s hit novel.

July 14, 2022 5:39 pm ET

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Ten years ago, the Southern-Gothic film “Beasts of the Southern Wild” swept up four Academy Award nominations by pandering to the affinity of Northern intellectuals toward Romantic portrayals of poor folks living in a kind of fascinating harmony with cruel nature. That film was based on a play by Lucy Alibar , who adapted her own work for the screen with the aid of co-writer and director Benh Zeitlin . Ms. Alibar was, then, a sensible choice to write the script for “Where the Crawdads Sing,” another Southern story with a mystical connection to nature, which is based on the hugely successful 2018 novel by Delia Owens . But whatever the charms of the book, they are entirely absent from the dull and listless film.

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Though narratively uneven, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” was at least richly evocative and absolutely saturated with local color. It was a sensual feast. “Crawdads,” however, is not even a sensual snack. Directing her first theatrical release, Olivia Newman never comes close to making the audience feel immersed in the coastal North Carolina setting, or making us feel anything at all, unless boredom counts. As for the machinations of the story, they amount to nothing but a pokey whodunit combined with a soapy love triangle, incompetently acted and buried under a sludgy musical score.

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Reviews of Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Summary | Excerpt | Reading Guide | Reviews | Beyond the book | Read-Alikes | Genres & Themes | Author Bio

Where the Crawdads Sing

by Delia Owens

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

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  • Literary Fiction
  • Romance/Love Stories
  • N & S Carolina
  • 1960s & '70s
  • Adult-YA Crossover Fiction
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  • Top 20 Best Books of 2018

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Winner of the 2018 BookBrowse Debut Author Award How long can you protect your heart?

For years, rumors of the "Marsh Girl" have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life - until the unthinkable happens. Perfect for fans of Barbara Kingsolver and Karen Russell, Where the Crawdads Sing is at once an exquisite ode to the natural world, a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and a surprising tale of possible murder. Owens reminds us that we are forever shaped by the children we once were, and that we are all subject to the beautiful and violent secrets that nature keeps.

The morning burned so August-hot, the marsh's moist breath hung the oaks and pines with fog. The palmetto patches stood unusually quiet except for the low, slow flap of the heron's wings lifting from the lagoon. And then, Kya, only six at the time, heard the screen door slap. Standing on the stool, she stopped scrubbing grits from the pot and lowered it into the basin of worn-out suds. No sounds now but her own breathing. Who had left the shack? Not Ma. She never let the door slam. But when Kya ran to the porch, she saw her mother in a long brown skirt, kick pleats nipping at her ankles, as she walked down the sandy lane in high heels. The stubby-nosed shoes were fake alligator skin. Her only going-out pair. Kya wanted to holler out but knew not to rouse Pa, so opened the door and stood on the brick-'n'-board steps. From there she saw the blue train case Ma carried. Usually, with the confidence of a pup, Kya knew her mother would return with meat wrapped in greasy brown paper ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!

  • The North Carolina marsh where Kya lives has long been a sanctuary for outsiders. How does this setting shape the novel? How does growing up in this isolation affect Kya? In what ways does her status as an “outsider” change how others see her?
  • Why does Kya choose not to go back to school? Do you think she makes the wrong decision? How does Kya’s lack of formal education shape her vision of the world? Would her character be different if she had gone to school?
  • After Jodie and Pa leave Kya alone, she becomes close to Jumpin’ and Mabel. Why are these two adults drawn to Kya? What do they teach her about the world? Do you agree with Jumpin’s decision to protect Kya from social services (p. 110) and to encourage...
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Although the novel focuses on the years between 1965 and 1970, it encompasses the whole span of Kya’s life. At times I found it hard to believe that the plucky urchin living off of grits and evading truant officers is the same character as the willowy nature writer wondering who will love her and never leave. Also, the chronology becomes slightly difficult to follow as it approaches 1969...The use of animal behavior metaphors works very well, though. Kya understands her fellow humans by analogy, asking why a mother animal might leave her cubs or why males compete for female attention. The title refers to places where wild creatures do what comes naturally, and throughout the book we are invited to ponder how instinct and altruism interact and what impact human actions can have in the grand scheme of things... In Kya, Owens has created a truly outstanding character. The extremity of her loneliness makes her a sympathetic figure in spite of her oddities. If you like the idea of a literary novel flavored with elements of mystery and romance, and of a poetic writing style tempered with folksy Southern dialect, Crawdads is a real treat... continued

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(Reviewed by Rebecca Foster ).

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COMMENTS

  1. 'Where the Crawdads Sing' review: Good book turned bad movie -

    Review: ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ is the latest literary sensation turned ho-hum movie Daisy Edgar-Jones and Taylor John Smith in “Where the Crawdads Sing.” (Michele K. Short / Sony) By...

  2. The Debut Novel That Rules the Best-Seller List

    “Where the Crawdads Sing,” which came out last August, got an initial boost from Reese Witherspoon. It’s now sold over 1.5 million copies.

  3. From a Marsh to a Mountain, Crime Fiction Heads Outdoors

    Pablo Amargo By Marilyn Stasio Aug. 17, 2018 The wildlife scientist Delia Owens has found her voice in WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING (Putnam, $26), a painfully beautiful first novel that is at once a...

  4. The Long Tail of ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’

    Delia Owens signing copies of her best-selling novel, “Where the Crawdads Sing,” at the New York Botanical Garden in September. “I have never connected with people the way I have with my ...

  5. ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ Review: A Wild Heroine, a Soothing Tale

    ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ Review: A Wild Heroine, a Soothing Tale Daisy Edgar-Jones stars as an orphaned girl in the marshes of North Carolina in this tame adaptation of Delia Owens’s popular...

  6. ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ Review: Unfevered Swamps

    Film Review ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ Review: Unfevered Swamps Daisy Edgar-Jones plays a young North Carolina recluse in the charmless adaptation of Delia Owens’s hit novel

  7. Reviews of Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

    Excerpt Reading Guide Book Summary Winner of the 2018 BookBrowse Debut Author Award How long can you protect your heart? For years, rumors of the "Marsh Girl" have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast.