Where The Crawdads Sing is one of the biggest books of the last decade, having enraptured millions across the globe with its writing and story by zoologist (and accused murderer) Delia Owens. But is the magic of the book lost in the transition to screen?
Set in the marshes of North Carolina during the 50s and 60s, Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is a young woman who has learned to survive without her parents and makes living selling seafood to the local store. She is uninhibited, a wildling in the marshes who locals sneer at and judge through no fault of her own. She roams on her boat and is fascinated by the animals that surround her shack, one with nature. Her pragmatic behaviour and loneliness is challenges when two young men come into her life, effectively changing her life.
The first is Tate (Taylor John Smith) is a smart and kind boy who teaches Kya to read, opening her world up and allowing her to begin writing and annotating her realistic drawings of the marshes creatures. But he is driven away by his own want to educate himself and fear of Kya not being comfortable in “the real world” despite their love. The next is Chase (Harris Dickinson), a rough and ready popular man of town who seduces Kya and ends up subjecting her to a relationship that mirrored her parent’s own. Pulled between the two men, Kya must remember her learnings and fight to survive, particularly when things take a shocking turn.
As tragedy strikes when Chase’s body is found at the bottom of a fire tower in the marsh, all fingers immediately point to Kya. What the film becomes then is a courtroom legal drama that lacks intrigue and tension. Kya pleads not guilty as the characters exchange ideas about how he could have died and the mystery overshadows Kya’s retelling of her own life, through the framing device feels unneeded. Unfortunately, the final reveal lacks the oomph of the moments preceding it, which lets the film down and feels inauthentic.
If there’s one reason to watch it’s Edgar-Jones, whose performance in the TV series Normal People was subtle and yearning, here she is more valiant and defiant, with enough vulnerability to feel fleshed out. For her Hollywood debut, she couldn’t have provided more, elevating the film to something more than just a romantic drama that the script evolved the book into. Supporting actors do well too, but the best scenes feature Edgar-Jones alone or with her lawyer played by David Strathairn, a sort of To Kill A Mockingbird-esque infused court drama.
Much of my issues with the screen adaptation is how clean and perfect everything looks, and feels imitative. There is detail, but Kya too often doesn’t seem to really be a girl from the marsh. She’s a beautiful woman who happens to live there but we never feel any real sense of her fight or flight instincts and how her own upbringing has damaged her. It glosses over too many of these key moments and themes that had book lovers obsessed, reducing the character from multi-faceted to a quirky heroine.
Unfortunately in another instance where the book is better than the movie, Where The Crawdads Sing plays out like a Lifetime movie than a real, gritty story of survival despite the odds. Whether it was unable to distil the heart of the story on screen or is undermined by its unrealistic surroundings and characters, it falls flat on both degrees and leaves a sour taste in the mouth.