‘Where the Crawdads Sing’: Adaption of Best-Selling Novel Sinks In the Marsh of Its Melodrama

The curse of translating a major novel to the big screen lies in the relationship between the reader’s imagination and the text. A movie has to find a way to tell a visual story taken from a medium where words convey everything. “Where the Crawdads Sing” is based on the global bestseller by Delia Owens. There is a reason why the novel has grabbed such a broad audience, but you won’t find it here. Certainly it must have something to do with themes or tension embedded in the narrative. As a movie, it doesn’t amount to much more than a series of melodramatic episodes that retain the skeleton of the plot, but lack any further richness. It’s as if director Olivia Newman felt the best way to adapt the material was to film the most popular moments of the novel in a straightforward fashion. 

For those who did not partake in purchasing one of the 12 million copies of the novel which have been sold, the story is centered on Kya Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones), who grows up in the marsh of North Carolina and is an immediate suspect in the death of Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), a local rich kid from Cape Cove.  Known locally as “Marsh Girl,” Kya’s story begins in the 1950s, when she’s six (played by Jojo Regina). Kya and her older brother are cursed with an alcoholic father (Garret Dillahunt). In quick succession Kya is abandoned by her brother, who runs away, and her mother, who does the same. Left to fend for herself, Kya faces prejudice at school and starts selling mussels to a local shop owner Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer Jr.), and his wife Mabel (Michael Hyatt). A local boy, Tate Walker (Taylor John Smith) likes Kya and helps her learn to read. He also notices her talent for drawing and learning about the local wildlife, suggesting there might be a book there. Alas, Tate goes off to college and ghosts Kya. That’s when the more bold and shady Chase enters her life

The backstory of “Where the Crawdads Sing” is quickly becoming more engaging than the movie. Owens is currently being sought for questioning by Zambian authorities for her role in forming some kind of armed conservationist militia with husband Mark. Did they partake in killing a possible poacher execution-style in 1996? Now that’s a question worthy of a movie plot. Until we get the inevitable true crime drama or docuseries, let’s return to this movie. Reese Witherspoon is executive producer and considering her own impressive acting career, should have known better when it came to the overall structure. Even at two hours and five minutes, the story seems to speed past us with few attempts to give enough space to the development of particular chapters in Kya’s life. The writing feels like an outline as opposed to a full screenplay. Kya gets arrested and local lawyer Tom Milton (David Strathairn) decides to represent her out of the goodness of his heart. Yet we never know anything about him. He shares a few platitudes with Kya in her jail cell and for the rest of the movie his role consists of nothing more than approaching the bench, asking a random witness a question, then disappearing as we cut back in time to Kya’s life story. The trial itself has no tension because nothing revelatory or exciting happens. These moments are merely transitions for the flashbacks. 

An obvious theme here is how a young woman lives as a fully independent person in much more conservative times. How Kya develops agency and connects with the nature around her, thus rendering the needed tools to craft impressive books and make a name for herself, take a back seat to romances too hollow even for a Nicholas Sparks yarn. Both guys are walking clichés. Tate is the obvious “good guy” with a heart of gold who disappears for college, unintentionally breaking Kya’s heart because he assumed she would always be waiting for him at the marsh (which ironically turns out not to be so far off). Chase is the upper class tough guy, always in khakis, who deflowers Kya but won’t tell his family about her because his snob of a mom wouldn’t approve. Later she bumps into him and his actual fiancé in town. Running parallel with such dime novel twists is the storyline of how Kya turns her illustrations and self-taught knowledge of the marsh’s wildlife into illustrated books that get published. All of it explained in about two minutes. Maybe what the movie needed was a director like Terrence Malick, who would have turned the marsh itself into a real, living environment conveying Kya’s own growth as a person. 

There are many potential themes all around this story. Class distinctions in rural America and the civil rights struggles of the era are glossed over. It’s established Chase wants Kya but is held back by his mother’s classist ways. Instead of exploring this conflict further, the elitist matriarch only has one consequential moment on the witness stand, and only then to weep that her son’s necklace is missing.  Another, rather outdated approach seems content to have Jumpin’ and Mabel appear as angelic, token Black characters which do nothing more than cheer Kya on and suffer a few slights here and there (like a white social worker calling Jumpin’ “boy”). Kya’s own struggles are diluted to the point where we are left wondering what peril the story is intending to place her in. Plainly said, this is a movie where nothing much actually happens. After truly raising herself out in the marsh and establishing what looks like a very comfortable, spiffy home, are we to believe all takes for Kya to fall into Tate’s arms is for him to say, “hey, I know I ditched you, but I figured you would always be here waiting for me”? As for other dangers, they are quickly resolved. When Kya owes back taxes on her father’s property, she simply sends off her manuscript, gets published and is soon making enough to secure the deed to the land. It’s as easy as that.

A large production like “Where the Crawdads Sing” inevitably features some notable talent. David Strathairn always delivers and Daisy Edgar-Jones gets to show off her own potential for bringing tension to material that desperately needs it. Until now she’s mostly been doing notable TV shows, such as Hulu’s “Under the Banner of Heaven.” Here she proves she’s ready for big features, she needs one deserving of her. The photography by Polly Morgan brings the same picturesque eye to Kya’s marsh that she displayed in “A Quiet Place Part II” last year. Mychael Danna’s music is so skillful some moments would be truly dead without it. Yet the real dramatic power belongs to “Carolina,” the song Taylor Swift recorded exclusively for the film. As for the rest, if you blink you might miss the resolution of the story, which is beyond anticlimactic. If the central point is asking if Kya killed Chase or not, by the end credits we don’t care, especially after the overdone sappy closing moments that recycle that date movie trick of going forward in time to show everyone in their elderly years. “Where the Crawdads Sing” ends on empty notes where what worked on paper struggles to find the right notes on screen.

Where the Crawdads Sing” releases July 15 in theaters nationwide.