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Film review: Discordant adaptation of ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ waters down important themes

(Courtesy of Sony Pictures)

“Where the Crawdads Sing”

Directed by Olivia Newman 

Columbia Pictures

July 15

By Vivian Xu

July 15, 2022 4:01 p.m.

This post was updated July 17 at 10:41 p.m. 

The crawdads are certainly not singing now.

In one fell swoop, the namesake movie adaptation of Delia Owens’ book “Where the Crawdads Sing” crumples the mystery novel into a lukewarm film, fumbling to translate a gritty tale of survival and endurance onto the silver screen. Though the film earnestly remains true to the book’s storyline, it clumsily gargles Owens’ themes of naturalism and independence to spit out a more digestible narrative of love and betrayal. Delectable cinematography make the film at least somewhat rewarding, but readers hoping for an odyssey of one woman’s fortitude and self-reliance will be disappointed.

It goes without saying that any film adaptation of a novel has the odds stacked against it. There will never be a way to please everyone, and compromises – whether they be eliminating characters or chopping plot points – are to be expected. In exchange, the original novel’s essence is to remain untouched while whittling fluff down. But in a careless decision, producer Reese Witherspoon and her team chose to hurl the heart of the tale out the window.

[Related: Film review: ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ bewitches audiences with striking sound, set design]

Owens’ original story revolves around protagonist Kya, a woman who, as a young girl, was eventually abandoned by every member of her family in the rural North Carolina marsh. Isolated and cast aside by townspeople as the strange Marsh Girl, Kya is left with no choice but to become fiercely independent and learn to live in harmony with nature, which wields both kindness and cruelty. She grows into a skilled naturalist. When she is accused of murdering the town’s golden boy, Chase Andrews, she is left to the judgement of her peers.

Though the mystery component of the novel propels the plot forward, the primary themes of the story are about nature and survival, evidenced by Kya’s sheer grit to remain alive, as is the purpose of any organism. The film fails to grasp this concept, choosing to boot nature to the backseat and thus doing a grand disservice to author and zoologist Owens. The marsh serves as decoration rather than a living, breathing character, and to compensate, the film periodically doles out albeit breathtaking shots of stoically peaceful trees draped in moss and marsh grass swaying in gentle winds.

Now at the forefront is a flimsy love triangle murder mystery designed for mainstream audiences to gobble up. The movie only spends a few fleeting minutes showing Kya surviving on her own and learning to live off nature before she is immediately thrust into the arms of her first love interest. Her strength from many years of solitude is never fully relished, and consequently, Daisy Edgar-Jones’ portrayal of Kya is somewhat of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in the woods rather than a woman hardened by loneliness and wary of letting others in.

This is not to say Edgar-Jones does not try valiantly to make the best of the dull and trite script she was given. The actress does plenty of swashbuckling in an attempt to portray Kya’s fearlessness and unity with nature, whether that be swan diving into murky waters or squelching barefoot through moist soil. But these actions are thwarted by silly costume design choices, such as dressing her in crisp and stylish clothing like French-tucked blouses or bright floral dresses. Paired with bouncy styled hair that could be featured in a shampoo commercial, Edgar-Jones is a dolled up eyesore in her own marsh.

[Related: Film review: ‘Moonshot’ follows star-crossed lovers in charming yet predictable rom-com]

The components of the novel to which the film stays true to are unfortunately the weakest aspects of the book – namely, the dialogue. Supposedly romantic scenes between Kya and her lover Tate (Taylor John Smith) come off stiff because of gauche repartee, and clunky, awkward exchanges between various townsfolk are abundant throughout. Paired with flickering editing that never seems to rest a beat and let characters’ words reverberate, most interactions feel anything but natural.

Thankfully, what screenwriter Lucy Alibar did manage to succeed at was executing the time jumps between Kya’s murder trial and her life leading up to it. Witness testimonies of the present follow seamlessly after the scenes of the past that they referenced, supplemented by subtly clever cinematographic choices to bask the past in warm lighting to contrast to the stiff courtroom or dim jail cell.

And finally, after sitting through a jumbled adaptation, viewers are at least rewarded with an ending that provides closure and a twist, as Kya and her secrets sink back into the marsh. But this finale does little to rectify the film’s attempt to bewitch viewers with flashy drama rather than focusing on the heart of Kya’s story, which is one of survival at any cost.

And unfortunately, it looks like the film paid the price.

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Vivian Xu | Daily Bruin senior staff
Xu is a senior staff writer for Arts & Entertainment. She previously served as the Arts editor from 2021-2022, the Music | Fine Arts editor from 2020-2021 and an Arts reporter from 2019-2020. She is a fourth-year neuroscience and anthropology student from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Xu is a senior staff writer for Arts & Entertainment. She previously served as the Arts editor from 2021-2022, the Music | Fine Arts editor from 2020-2021 and an Arts reporter from 2019-2020. She is a fourth-year neuroscience and anthropology student from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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