“Being isolated is one thing. Living in fear is another.” – Kya Clark
Kya Clark knows isolation. By the age of seven, she’d been abandoned by one family member at a time, left to survive as a ward of the marshlands that run along the North Carolina coast. Although ostracized by the townsfolk and run out of school on her first and only day by the laughter of children, Kya grew up with the marsh as her one companion, so she was never truly alone.
But when the wild lands she had grown to love and their comfortable solitude become a welcome mat for her to be hunted, Kya does what she must to survive — or does she?
That’s the central question of Where the Crawdads Sing, a film adapted from Delia Owens’ 2018 novel that has sold more than 15 million copies. It puts the wonder and beauty of the North Carolina coastal marsh on the big screen and, with it, Kya’s love for the land and its creatures. The visual elements of the film are stunning, an essential feature since the marsh is as important a character as the humans who roam it.
We meet Kya Clark, played by Normal People‘s Daisy Edgar-Jones, in 1969 as she’s running from the sheriff. Kya is blamed for the death of hometown football hero Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), whose body has been found at the bottom of a fire watchtower in the middle of the marsh. There’s enough circumstantial evidence to accuse Kya, but whether Chase’s death was a tragic accident or a lover’s revenge becomes the decision of a jury who has judged Kya from her early years.
In this coming-of-age story infused with romance and suspense, Kya recounts those early years — in the 1950s and 1960s — through flashbacks during her incarceration and trial: living with her abusive father who chased off Kya’s mother and siblings before disappearing himself; selling mollusks to the local convenience store to earn enough money to eat; falling in love with Tate Walker (Taylor John Smith) when he teaches her to read; getting caught up in a whirlwind romance with Chase when Tate leaves her; breaking up with Chase when she learns of his marriage; and Chase’s ensuing refusal to stay away.
The scenery is riveting, arousing the senses with the beauty and splendor of untouched lands, and the performance of the actors is compelling, even if few manage a Southern accent. It brings to life much of what Owens writes on the page. But book fans shouldn’t go in expecting a verbatim rendition. The movie is its own story, with characters taking on roles not assumed in the novel, events reconfigured, and the story structure altered.
The script unfortunately glosses over opportunities to solidify Kya’s place as one mocked and shunned by townsfolk, and it seems to rely upon a familiarity with the book. It cuts around important elements that catapulted the novel to its place as one of the bestselling books of all time, which weakened the experience with trite dialogue and forced transitions that felt rushed and unbelievable in their progression.
For example, we don’t see Kya in town as a child or interacting with townsfolk outside of the one day she attends school, which makes it difficult to reconcile many aspects of why she is being tried for Chase’s murder. Unlike in the book, the film only references that the townspeople call her the “Marsh Girl.” The film also fails to develop Kya’s relationship with Jodie, her older brother, with whom she was close before their father ran him off. So it felt empty when he returns years later.
The film also missed opportunities to spotlight the racial inequities of that time and bring awareness to the racism and segregation of the South, which the book spotlights.
Despite some shortcomings, it’s a movie worth seeing. Its scenery opens a portal to another time to lands untouched, creating a whimsical desire to frolic where things are still wild. The story’s focus on love and commitment is inspiring, the character’s relationships with themselves and nature as profound as any other connection. It’s a story of survival, spotlighting the human need to keep going despite all odds, and the power of healing and forgiveness, when it’s deserved.
Where the Crawdads Sing
Directed by: Olivia Newman
Written by: Lucy Alibar, based upon the novel by Delia Owens
Starring: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Taylor John Smith, and Harris Dickinson
Streaming on Prime Video