April 22, 2011 by Reader's Connection
I like to read a book before I see the film adaptation, but I recently watched Winter’s Bone, mostly because John Hawkes was in it and I had liked him in the HBO series Deadwood. The movie was something new and strange, even if there were critics who referred to it as a thriller. I was intrigued, and read Daniel Woodrell’s novel.
Confusion has overtaken me, now. I need to talk to someone. Some of my comments won’t make much sense if you haven’t had either WB experience.
The story is the same in both tellings. Ree Dolly, a teenaged girl in the Missouri Ozarks, has two young siblings, a mother who has lost her mind, and a father who has been arrested for cooking crank (methamphetimine). The father has disappeared prior to his court date, and Ree learns that dad has put up their house as part of his bond, so the family will lose the house if he doesn’t show in court. She begins to search for him, and her journey takes her to the underworld.
The film’s lean storytelling may trouble you if you’ve been reading Woodrell’s prose. And vice versa. When I first started the book, there were bits that struck me as trying too hard for folk poetry (you could see she’d once been as comely as any girl that ever danced barefoot across this tangled country of Ozark hills and hollers); but I shifted gears quickly, and I’m grateful now to have encountered Ree Dolly in two parallel Ozark universes.
The book has snow. In their commentary, the filmmakers keep talking in an embarrassed way about the ways in which they’ve tried to capture a winter feeling. This mystified me until I read the book.
There was not much to see except a wilderness of white, white fallen and white thrashing to the ground . . . When the truck skidded onto a bridge and tires thumped on raised seams in the surface, she saw the water below. The water ate the flakes as they fell and was visible as a black neck between spread shoulders of white, and she knew that neck of water by sight, knew they´d crossed Big Chinkapin Creek.
The snow isn’t just a detail or a metaphorical dressing, and I felt while reading that the film shouldn’t have been made if its makers couldn’t afford a snow machine. That opinion didn’t last long.
The movie has music. Director Debra Granik allows music, sometimes provided by local Missouri talent, to flow into her movie. In other circumstances, I might gripe about this. A conversation in the book, between Ree and one of her dad’s one-time love interests, is turned into a music and card party in the movie. Surely the novelist’s narrative is being diluted, here? Well, complain somewhere else about it. I liked the music.
The book has snot.
Her swings were practiced and powerful, short potent whacks. Splinters grew, wood split, the pile grew. Ree’s nose ran and the blood came up in her face and made pink on her cheeks. She pinched two fingers high on her nose, snorted a splat on the ground, dragged a sleeve across her face, swung the ax again.
You may think it’s just as well that we don’t get to see that in the movie, but we also miss out on Ree’s love life and the peace she feels while listening to tapes like The Sounds of Tranquil Shores. This is a wonderful character.
Things always have to be left out of movies, though; and to be fair, Debra Granik and her co-screenwriter Anne Rosellini have added some things–like Ree’s surprisingly moving interview with an army recruiter.
The movie doesn’t shy away from the heart of the underworld when Ree gets there. I’m not referring to the criminal underworld, though criminals are involved. You may be embarassed by my taking a mythological term that’s usually reserved for the journeys of characters like Odysseus or Aeneas and employing it while discussing a teenaged girl in the Ozarks.
The heart-of-the-underworld scene in question has to be played differently in the film, due to meteorological issues that I’ve touched on, but the filmmakers face everything head on.
Woodrell’s control on the climate allows Ree to descend even deeper in the book than she does on film, and to rise in a shattering moment of transfiguration that isn’t exactly matched by the film-makers. But I’m not coming up with other moments quite like it in American fiction, either; and the scene in the film is astonishing.
The movie’s last scene allows more hope for one of the characters than the book does. Again, with another movie I might complain about a filmmaker softening the novelist’s vision. But I feel fine about the ambiguity with which Granik and Rosellini have shrouded this character’s fate. I wonder how Daniel Woodrell feels about it.
Did a lot of this not make sense? Read the book. See the movie. I don’t really know which you should do first. My thanks to Sebastian Mlynarski for granting permission to use his photographs from the movie’s website.