There’s a mystery in Where the Crawdads Sing, the new film directed by Olivia Newman, which tells the life story of Kya Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones), abandoned from childhood to live alone in the marshlands of North Carolina in the 1950s and ’60s. The movie, like the Delia Owens novel on which it is based, tells Kya’s story via flashbacks as she stands trial for the murder of Chase (Harris Dickinson), a handsome rich-boy stinker with whom she once had a secret romance. If Kya didn’t kill him, then who did?
The real mystery, though, is the massive appeal of Owens’ novel—which has sold more than 12 million copies to become one of the bestselling titles of all time—and whether that appeal can be replicated onscreen. At its heart, the novel is a woozy fantasy about female suffering and the virtue of nature-loving, a form of nobility so exalted it overrules the laws of man. Crawdads doesn’t have much in common with Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight when it comes to plot and style, but both novels have the cloistered, feverish illogic of a daydream and take place in imaginary worlds shaped by desire and untrammeled by reality. Movies conjure up worlds like this all the time, but they cast their spell using different tools, tools whose sharp edges can puncture the delicate bubble of novelistic illusion. In the movie version of Crawdads, that’s exactly what happens.
Raised in a cabin beyond the edge of town, Kya loses her entire family as a little girl. Her abusive drunk of a Pa (Garret Dillahunt) drives away her beautiful, artistic Ma (Ahna O’Reilly) and eventually the rest of her siblings. Then Pa disappears and seven-year-old Kya survives on her own in the cabin, selling mussels to Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer, Jr), a kindly Black man who owns a gas and bait shop on the marina. Jumpin’ and his wife, Mabel (Michael Hyatt), provide what little parenting Kya gets, and help her hide from social services. Mabel supplies her with clothes and shoes from the church charity box. The rest of the town, with few exceptions, calls her “Marsh Girl” and “Wolf Girl,” the other children bullying Kya so mercilessly that she refuses to attend more than a single day of school. Eventually she befriends Tate (Taylor John Smith), the son of a shrimper, who teaches her how to read and write and becomes her first love. But Tate goes off to college, leaving Kya vulnerable to Chase’s unscrupulous seduction.
For the largely female readership of Crawdads, Kya makes an inviting avatar. A cross between St. Francis and Snow White (without the dwarves), she never does anything wrong. Or, rather, the novel builds the argument that Kya is simply incapable of doing wrong. She is a child of nature, uncorrupted by human society, who takes her cues from the innately good creatures of the marsh. In the film, as Kya flees a schoolroom full of jeering kids, she declares in voiceover “I reckon I was better off learning from the wild.” Later, Chase breaks her heart by getting engaged to a pearl-bedecked daughter of the town’s elite, and a falcon appears at her window to comfort her. “Whenever I stumbled, the marsh caught me,” Kya’s voiceover intones again.
The film understandably organizes itself around the Kya/Chase/Tate love triangle, which is more cinematic than the triangle that drives the novel: Kya/Nature/Humanity. The movie, being a movie, succumbs to the human desire to see a glamorized version of the world onscreen. For someone who wears hand-me-downs and lives alone in a swamp, Kya has a surprisingly extensive wardrobe of pretty, well-fitting outfits, including a long white lace dress and a darling sky blue cardigan with embroidered flowers, items that always appear clean and pressed. Her marsh is a world of lushly photographed herons and picturesquely labyrinthine wetlands, not mosquitos and mud. ( Her feet get a little dirty, but that’s about it.) Her long hair, while loosely styled, is never tangled or greasy or even practically scraped back into a bun. For someone who hides like a timorous fawn whenever visitors come around, the movie’s Kya is as well turned out as a heroine in a country music video.
One of the novel’s weakest aspects is its handling of race, and Newman and screenwriter Lucy Alibar have wisely trimmed back Owens’ clumsy attempts to draw parallels between Jumpin’ and Mabel’s position in the community and Kya’s. Preposterously, the novel has Jumpin’—when he realizes that Chase has beaten and attempted to rape Kya—urge her to report the assault saying, “He cain’t go an’ do a thing like that and then just go on boatin’ round in that fancy boat of his. King of the World.” In the film, he simply promises not to make trouble by telling anyone. Still, there’s not much the filmmakers can do with the novel’s obliviousness in this department. Any attempt to do justice to the situation of people like Jumpin’ and Mabel in 1950s North Carolina would only distract from the story’s commitment to depicting Kya as the town’s primary outcast and scapegoat. On screen, with the camera’s eye liberated from Kya’s limited perspective, the omission seems even more blinkered.
The release of the film version of Where the Crawdads Sing has drawn fresh attention to Owens’ troubled past as a wildlife conservationist and bestselling nonfiction author in Africa. In short, Owens’ husband Mark ran what was effectively a lawless armed militia while battling poachers in Zambia and eventually the couple was forced to flee the country, where they are still wanted for questioning in a 1995 murder case. The same ethical solipsism that enabled Owens’ past adventures abroad presides over Crawdads, and Newman’s film can’t escape it, either. In the novel’s primitive morality, people are all good or all bad, and which category they fit into can be determined by their treatment of Kya. The handful of townsfolk who sympathize with her are the exception. The rest are nasty, superficial, and cruel.
Why should Kya, whose virtue is proven by her love of the marsh and its creatures, be subjected to the rules of such brutes? When her lawyer (David Strathairn) makes his closing argument, he tells the jury, “We labeled and rejected her because she was different.” Surely Kya can’t be the only poor person in Barkley Cove, the only person unfairly treated or struggling to fit in, but you wouldn’t know it from Owens’ story. The town, in both book and film, has a Disney gloss, all candy-colored storefronts and mean ladies in white gloves. Like the marsh itself, it’s rigged, a stage set designed to focus all attention on Kya and her exclusion. And by making this visible, the movie only serves to reveal what a contrivance it is.
Spoiler alert: Although Kya is acquitted of killing Chase, much, much later Tate learns that she did in fact deliberately murder him. She considers this merely one more thing she was forced to do to survive, which is only nature’s way, so how could it be wrong? “A swamp knows all about death,” Kya explains in voiceover at the movie’s beginning, repeated at the end, “and it doesn’t necessarily define it as a tragedy, let alone a sin.” But you can’t have it both ways. Nature may not believe in sin, but it also doesn’t believe in good and evil. Saints as well as sinners are a human invention, as are heroines who are just too good to be true.