Where the Crawdads Sing—In Harmony with the Book
Any book-to-screen adaptation of a beloved best-seller has heightened risk of disappointing its audience. In the case of the blockbuster 2018 Delia Owens’ novel, Where the Crawdads Sing, Reese Witherspoon’s adaptation to film is not only a faithful adaptation but an original restructuring of the narrative without sacrificing the character arcs or the plots.
Starring Daisy Edgar-Jones (from “Normal People”) as Kya, the abandoned little girl who survives in the North Carolina swamp as the “Marsh Girl”. She is taunted by the surrounding community. Part coming-of-age story and part romance, the overriding plot is a murder. And the accused is Kya, now a young woman who has achieved remarkable success as a naturalist of the swamp. Because she was an outcast and in a brief relationship with the murder victim (and town’s star athlete and scion to an affluent family), Kya becomes the prime suspect.
Tom Milton (the always engaging David Strathairn of “Nomadland”), the community’s attorney who defends Kya, is tasked with proving her innocence when the circumstantial evidence shouts “Guilty”. Kya remains mostly silent in her own defense.
She resolutely rejects Milton’s broaching a plea deal to avoid the death penalty: “You want me to beg for my life? I don’t have it in me. I won’t. I will not offer myself up. They can make their decision. But they’re not deciding anything about me. It’s them. They’re judging themselves.” In a miraculous turn on prejudice and the closed, defensive mind similar to that of Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, Milton also must persuade the jury to see their own heinous treatment of a child who for over ten years was excluded from the stifling fishing community where few left to seek other opportunities.
One of the brilliant creative moves in the film adaptation of Where the Crawdads Sing is the restructuring of the plot. Bookending the opening scene (the trial) with the closing scene (the resolution of the murder), allows the viewer to visualize the drama of the murder without the backstory and florid description of the swamp’s marine and botanical wildlife. [The breathtaking cinematography of North Carolina’s swampland shortcuts any need for long discussions of flora and fauna.] In the novel the life of Kya is chronological, not circular.
While the novel thrills the reader with its detailed history of survival that only the strongest and most resilient could experience, such detailed backstory would have surely ruined the pace and momentum of the character arc. And the young British actor, Daisy Edgar-Jones, honors the main character, Kya, with a moving performance loyal to the tone and character arc of the heroine.
Availability: Netflix streaming