This bestselling book became a minor film. It wasn’t supposed to be
crawdads = crawfish was an uneven book, made up of three awkwardly merged elements. On one level, it was a very superficial murder mystery. At another, it was a love story, featuring prose that borders on bad Mills and Boon (“It was you, Tate,” she said, then thought: it was always you.”).
If the novel had only consisted of these two elements, I doubt it would have sold 12 million copies. But when Owens addressed the natural world rather than the social world, his prose improved markedly. The parts of his book that worked and stuck in the mind all had to do with the theme of savagery.
As an eco-escape, crawdads = crawfish was undeniably effective. It is surely no coincidence that its sales reached a higher level during the years of confinement, when the idea of living far from human society acquired a special charm. Geographically, the book is set in an exceptionally wild part of America. Temporarily, it was set in a bygone era, before the developers started making this part of America look like every other part.
But the real secret of the book lies in the way it exploited a myth that has long captured the Western imagination: the myth of the feral child.
One of the reasons this myth is so powerful is that it is not entirely a myth. There have been real feral children in history. The most famous of these was Victor, the Wild Child of Aveyron, who was raised in a French forest in the 1790s. Efforts were made to clothe, feed and study Victor, but unless Being physically restrained, he tended to undress and head into the woods. “He walks on all fours, eats plants, is hairy, deaf and mute,” said an insensitive contemporary. In fact, Victor was not deaf, but he never learned to speak.
Other real-life wild children followed in Victor’s wake. And the myth has fueled some classics of Western literature. Think about finn blueberry. Think about The jungle Bookin which Mowgli is raised by wolves, with the help of a bear and a panther.
By inserting similar material into the setting of a quasi-realistic modern novel, Owens creates glaring improbabilities. For a supposed feral child, Kya is remarkably accomplished and educated. Unlike Victor d’Aveyron, she does not growl and moves on all fours. On the contrary: She’s presentable enough for Chase and Tate to make their way to the door of her surprisingly schmick cabin.
crawdads = crawfish was an uneven book. But Hollywood once had a knack for turning spotty books into top quality films. In the early 1970s, when Mario Puzo The Godfather was being developed as a film, producer Robert Evans was adamant that the director had to be Italian. He wanted someone who would make the audience “smell like spaghetti”. He pursued Francis Ford Coppola, but Coppola was reluctant. He thought Puzo’s novel was a piece of schlock.
But Evans persisted. Finally, Coppola re-read the book and found a way forward. Scrapping the pulpiest parts, he brought things to the forefront about family relationships and power. He turned a racy popular novel into an allegory about corporate America.
A filmmaker with a comparable sense of nature could have done similar wonders with crawdads = crawfish. The right director would have made you smell the swamp, the palms and the oatmeal, whatever the oatmeal smells like.
But that’s exactly what the movie fails to do. Its director, Olivia Newman, has only made one feature film before, the discreet First game (2018). Here, she’s working from a screenplay by Lucy Alibar, faithful to all the bad parts of Owens’ novel. A hero of the mundane murder plot, the film skims through or completely omits some of the novel’s most defining moments.
In the book, the first abandonment scenes happen quickly, but they’re written well enough to make you feel their weight. In the movie, they just happen quickly. In the book, Owens lays down a drumbeat of animal imagery to get the message across that Kya is a child of nature. The film fails to exploit the language of film in an analogous way. The novel does not shy away from the realities of racial segregation in the South. The movie does.
crawdads = crawfish is announced as if it were the great epic that would bring us back to cinemas. And a lot of people went to see it as it should, even if it’s not epic or that cinematic. Apparently, we’re so desperate to get back to theaters that we’ll go there to see anything, even something that looks more like a fair-to-average TV show than a bona fide movie.
crawdads = crawfish doesn’t even have big stars in it. In its heyday, Hollywood would have thickened the texture of Owens’ sketchy melodrama by loading the cast with established stars. Star power is a universal solvent. A charismatic star can turn even the most rudimentary character into a living, breathing person.
And Owens’ text featured many characters who badly needed the kiss of life. His male characters in particular were finely written and difficult to distinguish. Their name cards said it all: Tate Walker and Chase Andrews. Or was it Chase Walker and Tate Andrews?
Watching the film, I didn’t feel clearer on this point than I did reading the book. Harris Dickinson and Taylor John Smith, who play Chase and Tate respectively, are capable actors. But who are they? Which is which? In theory, they will be movie stars one day. But that would push him to call them stars now.
The same goes for English actress Daisy Edgar-Jones, who is drastically miscast as Kya. I didn’t buy it as a wild child for a second. “Every creature does what it must do to survive,” reads the slogan on the poster, below a massive close-up of Edgar-Jones’ face.
Well, every human being is technically a creature, as the book rightly insists. But as the creatures go, Edgar-Jones clearly comes from the trickier end of the spectrum. It doesn’t help that her name is Daisy. A daisy is what it looks so fresh, even when a tasteful smear of dirt has been applied to one of its cheeks.
crawdads = crawfish is a minor film. It didn’t have to be. When great books are turned into movies, disappointment inevitably ensues. When mediocre books are turned into movies, popular entertainment can sometimes be elevated to the level of art. crawdads = crawfish wasn’t a great book, but it was good enough to serve as raw material for the kind of lush, sweeping romantic epic that Hollywood does so well – or used to do so well.
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