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Daisy Edgar-Jones in Where the Crayfish Sing.

Enter Daisy Edgar Jones Where the crayfish sing.
Photo: Michele K Kurz

In a perfect vacuum, you probably wouldn’t guess that Where the crayfish sing is based on a runaway publishing phenomenon, a book that has sold more than 12 million copies in just a few short years. You don’t have to love Delia Owens’ debut novel to see why it resonates with countless readers. Part crime thriller, part powerless romance, part cornpone coming-of-age tale, it’s an atmospheric and gleefully overheated melodrama, the kind of book that might make you cry even as you curse its (many, many) shortcomings . The film sticks resolutely to the events of the novel but doesn’t seem particularly interested in standing on its own, being one Movie. It feels more like an illustration than an adaptation.

The story of Kya Clark, a young girl abandoned by her penniless family and forced to survive alone in a remote corner of the North Carolina wilderness, begins (much like the book) with a murder investigation and then flashes back to her life. The body of a man, Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), has been found in the woods, and suspicion has turned to Kya (played as an adult by Daisy Edgar-Jones), a loner known in much of the city as “The Marsh”. girl.” The case is taken on by a friendly, retired local attorney (played by a much-needed David Strathairn) who believes Kya wasn’t charged with actual evidence against her, but because she’s been her lifelong companion an outcast, ridiculed and hated for years by the townsfolk as some kind of crazy, uncivilized brute.

As we progress through Kya’s early years, we see a childhood marked by loneliness – her mother and siblings one by one abandon their abusive father, and father himself (Garret Dillahunt) eventually disappears, leaving Kya alone in the family’s run-down shack on the outskirts swamp. As she grows up, Kya falls in love with a couple of handsome two-by-fours – the nerdy, nice Tate (played by Taylor John Smith as an adult), who shares her obsession with the outdoors but then abandons her, and then the local ones Pass. Boy Chase, who seems intrigued by her but clearly has little interest in a real relationship. We’re supposed to like one and dislike the other, but both Tate and Chase are so underdeveloped that it’s hard at first to feel for either. They hardly register themselves as humans. Smith does little but stare lovingly, and Dickinson (who, to be fair, has excelled in previous roles) brings a dash of snotty pretension to Chase, but not much else.

The best thing about the novel and film is Kya herself, a submerged character who finds solace and company in nature and who, having never lived a normal life with other people, is at a loss as to what to do with her emotions. As a young Marsh Girl, Jojo Regina is quite moving; Her heart beats for her when a character reads the local school’s lunch menu to lure impoverished Kya into classes. It’s a difficult balance to portray a child as both resolute and vulnerable without going overboard into corny pathos, and the film handles that particular challenge quite well. As an adult Kya, Edgar-Jones is perhaps best at conveying this young woman’s wounded inner life; that speaks for the talent of the actress. However, she never really feels like someone who has come out of this world, but rather someone who has fallen into it; that speaks to the clunky filmmaking.

It’s kind of a shock to find the movie version of crayfish so little atmosphere that you’d think that was the only thing that would get it on point. Not least because that is precisely the attraction of the book: Owens describes the rough, wild primeval world in which Kya lives for pages and presents the girl convincingly as part of the natural order of this untouched world. At various points, Kya sees herself reflected in the behavior of wild turkeys, snow geese, fireflies, seagulls, and more. Calling herself Shell, she later becomes friends with Sunday Justice, the prison cat. Where the crayfish sing is a book full of atmosphere and environmental details that enhance our understanding of the protagonist – and help justify some of the story’s more dramatic twists and turns. Owens is a retired wildlife biologist herself, having previously written a number of nature books before turning to fiction. It’s no surprise that her novel works best as an extension of her earlier work.

In contrast, the film’s director, Olivia Newman, presents the swamp as a postcard-perfect backdrop, a mostly distant and sometimes surprisingly calm and orderly space. There is little sense of wildness, unpredictability or abandonment. Of course, readers will often imagine locations differently than film adaptations, but that’s not the problem here. On screen, the swamp just never really registers as any place, and it certainly doesn’t register as a spiritual canvas for Kya’s journey. (I’ve sometimes wondered if some of the landscape shots were actually greenscreened.) Even the fact that Kya has spent much of her life drawing the area’s wildlife — which ultimately plays a big part in who she is becomes – comes into play relatively late in the film. Neither of which would necessarily be a problem if the film weren’t so faithful to the book’s narrative.

That is the challenge of literary compression. The murder investigation and the ensuing courtroom drama are the least compelling parts of Owens’ novel, mostly as a loose setting to tell Kya’s life story. In fact, she saves most of the process for the latter half of the book, and then melts away the suspense and procedural back-and-forth, presumably because she doesn’t care. (Spoiler alert: She’s more interested in the twist that springs into her final pages — a twist that also has some eerie echoes of a real-life murder investigation in Zambia that Owens and her ex-husband are reportedly involved in, but that’s a whole other crazy story.)

This leaves the film with a genre-friendly structure, but almost nothing to fill it with. As a result, for much of Where the crayfish sing, we look at a not very interesting and far from predetermined process, with little excitement or surprise. We never really see what the prosecution is bringing against Kya. (If you read the book you’d have some sense of it, but even there it’s superficial and half-baked.) It’s a classic Catch-22: the film, to stay true to its wildly popular source material, needs to focus on the case, what again leaves little room for the image to breathe to immerse the audience in the atmosphere of this fascinating milieu… which is at least partly why the source material was so popular in the first place. So forget the crayfish, the turkeys, the fireflies, the clams and the snow geese. Forget even the prison cat. The film is a snake that eats itself.

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