One of the best-selling novels of all time comes to the big screen

We spoke with director Olivia Newman about how casting and filming on location were key to bringing Where the Crawdads Sing to life.

An adaptation of a popular novel, Where the Crawdads Sing is the latest film from Reese Witherspoon’s production company. Set in the marshes of North Carolina between 1952 and 1968, the movie tells the story of Marsh Girl, aka Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones), as she navigates a love triangle and a murder trial after one of her lovers is found dead. Restructured by screenwriter Lucy Alibar (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and directed by Olivia Newman, the film leans heavily into its romantic inclinations, embracing the fierce landscape and the sullen beauty of its lead. 

“Like many people,” explains Newman, “I was drawn to Kya. She’s both wild and socialized, and I thought she was an incredibly inspiring heroine.” In the movie, much like the book, Kya is abandoned at a young age by her family. Her mother left first, escaping her husband’s abuse and one by one, Kya’s siblings followed suit. Finally, it was just Kya and her father, who, one day disappeared, too. She learned to fend for herself by collecting mussels at dawn and learning the ins and outs of the swamp. Poor, illiterate and disenfranchised, she became the object of gossip from the townsfolk, who spread nasty rumours about her.

Daisy Edgar-Jones was cast after Newman watched her in Normal People. “They’re very different, but Marianne, the way Daisy played her, she’s a character that feels so out of place and very awkward, but she also has a voice.” The audition only cemented the idea that Edgar-Jones could step into the role of Kya. “Just in talking with her, the kinds of questions she asked and how she approaches embodying a character comes from such a deep place. I felt we would really be able to collaborate and bring this character to life together.” 

When the Crawdads Sing new movies July
Taylor John Smith and Daisy Edgar-Jones Where the Crawdads Sing

Louisiana stands in for North Carolina in the film, and the insistence on shooting on location brought many challenges. “We dealt with an unprecedented amount of rain,” says Newman. “Our sets were flooded. Some parts were completely underwater. Then there are the bugs!” The film’s greatest asset, though, is the richness of that natural locale. There’s a glossiness to the image that evokes a dream, a hyper-reality where film illusions overtake truth. The cast’s beauty, clean-cut and wide-eyed, similarly invokes a fantasy version of America that maybe only ever existed in books and big-budget Hollywood movies. No doubt a large part of the book’s appeal as well, the film presents a vision of an outsider who is beautiful, intelligent and resilient. 

Part of the reason Newman was eager to adapt the novel was the idea that cinema allows you to “live in someone else’s shoes.” In books, you have the whole internal world of a character, but onscreen you have to rely more on behaviour and image. “There’s a lot of silence in the movie,” says Newman. It’s true. Kya lives a largely solitary life, collecting food and drawing the animals of her swamp. Deep in the swamp, her house becomes almost an Instagram mood board for the “cottagecore” aesthetic, decorated with her artwork and collectables. It’s easy to imagine why readers latched onto the character, imagining themselves as misunderstood artists, socially constructed introverts condemned to live far from society – a double-edged sword of introversion and idle threats, particularly as the Kya finds herself victimized by an abusive ex-boyfriend who stalks her home, robbing her of her special space. 

With the film’s release, old controversies have re-emerged around the book’s author Delia Owens, who is wanted for questioning in a murder that took place in Zambia during the 1990s. Much like the characters in the book, Delia and her husband Mark are conservationists. Delia’s first books were not novels but stories of their adventures together. Many have pointed out that there are certainly some parallels between the alleged murder and Owens’ book, now among the best-selling novel of all time. 

Owens still thinks the film will resonate with readers who haven’t read the book. “Delia creates this incredible mystery, and you have no idea where it’s going and why or how Kya’s connected to this murder in the first place. In the movie, I think, you’ll also be immersed in this beautiful setting you don’t often see on the big screen and you get to have the surprise of not knowing where it’s going and how it ends.” ■

Where the Crawdads Sing, directed by Olivia Newman

Where the Crawdads Sing is currently screening in Montreal theatres.

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