'Where the Crawdads Sing' a faithful if unfulfilling adaptation of bestselling novel

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service (TNS)

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 murder 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.

The film is easily slotted into the Southern Gothic courtroom drama subgenre — 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 our heroine, Kya.

Daisy Edgar-Jones stars in "Where the Crawdads Sing."  The movie opens Thursday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

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 (Edgar-Jones) 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.

Daisy Edgar-Jones stars in "Where the Crawdads Sing."  The movie opens Thursday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

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 naivete 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 in 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.

‘WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING’

2 stars (out of 4)

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and some violence including a sexual assault)

Running time: 2:05

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