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15 July 2022updated 05 Aug 2022 12:01pm

Where the Crawdads Sing is a lesson in how not to adapt a bestselling novel

The film version of Delia Owens’s novel incorporates many genres: misery memoir, courtroom mystery, romance. None is executed with distinction

By Ryan Gilbey

Not being among the 12 million readers of Delia Owens’s 2018 novel Where the Crawdads Sing, I approached the film version in a state of ignorance about the title. Those unconvincing flocks of CGI birds swooping over the bayou during the opening credits… could they be crawdads?

The picture opens in 1969 with the discovery of the body of quarterback and bad-boy Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson) in the fictional Berkeley Cove, North Carolina. The likeliest culprit is Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones), who grew up alone in the marsh following an exodus of family members that anyone else would have taken personally. First her mother flees the abuse of Kya’s father. Then her siblings troop off as each one comes of age. Kya is left clutching a chicken, the characters here tending to fall into three types: kindly, malevolent or poultry.

In the first camp are the African-American shopkeepers, Mabel (Michael Hyatt) and Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer Jr), who encourage Kya to try her luck at school. She only lasts a day – and earns the nickname “Marsh Girl” – but on the way, she bumps into a lawyer, Tom Milton (David Strathairn), who is neither malevolent nor poultry. Who knows, perhaps there will be an occasion when she needs the services of a sympathetic attorney one day.

The action alternates between two timelines. In one is the trial itself, where the same thing keeps happening: a witness drops a bombshell, everyone gasps, the judge bangs his gavel. It’s fun watching the extras, who shake their heads in dismay and rhubarb furiously at the slightest provocation, bless them.

Flashbacks to Kya’s young adulthood, and the events leading up to Chase’s death, dominate the film. She narrates these with a combination of the homespun (“Fall gave way to winter, winter to spring, change the only constant in nature”) and the omniscient (how does she know what people talk about when she isn’t there?).

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As she develops a talent for painting her surroundings, she falls in with a boy named Tate (Taylor John Smith). He’s only a shrimper’s son but he teaches her to read and write, and the miracle of montage means this takes less than a minute. He must have given her dentistry lessons, too, because her teeth are off the chart. Living in a marsh without access to healthcare has been no impediment to dental hygiene, any more than a feral existence prevents her dressing like a brand ambassador for Anthropologie.

Kya and Tate are both so pretty and pure of heart that they’re certain to make beautiful babies. But no: Tate respects Kya far too much to have sex with her. He goes off to college and promises to return, then doesn’t. Where is a girl to get her oats now but with the hunky Chase? Like all absolute rotters, Chase hasn’t got a clue about sex. As his name suggests, he’s in rather a rush.

She’s still smitten, though, and devastated to find out that he hasn’t been true to her. In the meantime – drama! – Tate is back on the scene, making one of the most diffident and least dramatic re-entrances in cinema. And did I mention that Kya is by now a successful author and illustrator? Having sent off her nature sketches, she receives almost by return of post a cheque and a box of finished hardcover copies. It’s an adorable conceit (along with the film’s idea that publishers always wear bow-ties), but it’s going to give an entire generation unrealistic expectations of the industry. Wait until they learn about the slush pile.

Several literary and cinematic genres intersect in Where the Crawdads Sing, none of them executed with any distinction: misery memoir, courtroom mystery, love story. The picture’s British stars, Edgar-Jones (Normal People) and Dickinson (Beach Rats), are highly capable performers but this is transparently a stepping-stone project for both, one that hopefully makes superior films possible further down the line.

The movie has a careless, over-lit quality, and its director, Olivia Newman, doesn’t bring any mystique to the Louisiana locations that stand in for North Carolina. Compared to Julie Dash’s majestic 1991 Daughters of the Dust – which was shot in South Carolina and influenced Beyoncé’s Lemonade videos – she has made a tourist board promo. And the crawdad count? Zero. I had to look them up: it turns out they’re crustaceans. And they don’t sing. What a swiz.

“Where the Crawdads Sing” is in cinemas from 22 July

[ See also: How did Netflix’s Persuasion get the novel so wrong? ]

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This article appears in the 20 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Broken Party