The nominees for the “Best Actress” category at the 83rd annual Academy Awards included Annette Benning, Nicole Kidman, Natalie Portman, Michelle Williams, and a mostly-unknown actress named Jennifer Lawrence. Though it was Portman who took home the Oscar, the nomination of twenty year old newcomer Lawrence was arguably the bigger talk of the ceremony. It was her turn as Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone that earned her the nomination and would, ultimately, catapult her into the world wide megastar she’s become. Since then she has starred in two major franchises, won two academy awards, and is currently one of the highest paid actors in all of Hollywood. She has proven herself time and again as a talented performer capable of both commercial and critical success. And for many, myself included, it is assumed that her role in Winter’s Bone, the genesis of #JLAWR as we know her today, is nothing short of incredible.
But how many people, myself included, have ever actually read Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone?
Literary adaptations are divisive, to say the least. Rarely can a film capture the full essence of a novel. A movie has neither the means nor the time to replicate a book’s every plot point or character nuance, and so it must “adapt” the best it can. Two characters become one, summer becomes fall, ten years becomes six months, and etc. The phrase typically heard after watching a literary adaptation is, “the book’s better.” But “better” is a relative, subjective word. “Different” is the one that should be used.
A movie is never the exact same as the book. Something always changes. And it’s in that change, that difference, people get hung up and boldly claim a movie is “worse” than wherever it came from. How wild the filmmaker veers from the source material usually determines the reader’s opinion of the film. In rare cases a literary adaptation may elevate the source enough for the film to stand on its own in a positive light. A good example would be the Coen brother’s adaption of No Country for Old Men, which keeps the story near-identical to Cormac McCarthy’s novel but utilizes transformative acting, sound, and cinematography in a way that makes the story feel larger than life. The film is comparable to the book as an equally powerful work of art. This is a best-case scenario, and very few adaptations reach such a level.
So it’s not surprising that Winter’s Bone falls somewhere in the middle. It isn’t No Country for Old Men, but isn’t Eragon, either (author’s note: Eragon is a movie based on the popular fantasy series by Christopher Paolini that butchered and changed its source to a criminal degree. It is one of the worst adaptations I’ve ever encountered…). Winter’s Bone is mostly faithful to its book, keeping the major plot points, a lot of the same characters, and in general it does a good job of adapting the basic story of Woodrell’s novel.
As a standalone film, not necessarily an adaptation, it works well as a gritty, low-budget indie, with strong performances and an excellent use of setting. The music, in particular, is effective in creating the atmosphere of the movie, giving the dark, dilapidated imagery a healthy undercurrent of dread and hopelessness. The film’s aesthetics work together to tell a captivating story, and it makes sense why it received recognition at the 83rd annual Academy Awards.
But did any of the voters that year read the book it was based on?
If you put Winter’s Bone the movie next to Winter’s Bone the book it doesn’t matter how faithful the filmmakers were to the story or the characters. Yeah it’s relatively the same, but it’s also totally different. The film is competent as an adaptation, but it strips away the poetry of the prose. Where Debra Granik created a “realistic” film about a girl and her quest to find her missing father in the alien world of the Poor South, Woodrell tells that same story but with a layer of beauty and magic decidedly missing from its silver-screen sister.
Do I want to say the book is better than the movie? No. Because I can be objective enough to appreciate each has its merit. On its own, again, the movie is fine. But as someone who’s read the book now, it’s impossible to be completely objective and pretend like the movie doesn’t live in the shadow of its source material.
There are small changes I didn’t like but understand, such as Ree wearing jeans and t shirts instead of dresses, or the movie taking place in fall/spring as opposed to winter (read: the lack of snow as a “character”), or it being a brother and a sister instead of two brothers, or making Teardrop more human and less cranked-out, terrifying anti-hero, or how the family ties and history are left out, or how Ree doesn’t get beat quite as bad by Thump Milton’s wife, or…. These are details that were changed in order to fit the narrative and/or budget constraints. In general it’s pretty faithful. Granik left out the sexual tension between Ree and Gail but that’s OK because how do you include an unexplainable-but-definitely-present subplot that operates entirely on subtext? I get it.
What I don’t get, though, is Jennifer Lawrence. In 2011 she was nominated for “Best Actress” at the Academy Awards for her portrayal of Ree Dolly. And it’s here I cannot separate the movie from the shadow of its source. I cannot be objective and say I “understand” the changes the filmmakers made in her character. I flat-out don’t think J-Lawr did a good job. Is this because I’m comparing the book and the movie? Absolutely.
Woodrell’s novel is told from the point of view of Ree. She is our protagonist, our hero, our narrator, our eyes. We feel her ups and downs; we see her resilience; we hear her intelligence. Sure, Woodrell has a hundred and eighty pages to develop her character, Granik a couple hours, but there could have been a middle ground.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Ree with such a reserved presence as to almost entirely rid the character of its strength. Gone is the spark, the sass, the color of the book’s Ree Dolly. Although a lot of the novel is told from the interior, there’s snap in the dialogue — a tangible energy and sense of character that only builds the more you get to know Ree. In the movie her character is static. We are shown a journey from beginning to end, but Jennifer Lawrence seems unchanged — as flat at the finish as the start. The closing pages of the book give us a Ree who seems hopeful, sack of money in hand, looking to buy a car and start down the road to her future. The last shot of Jennifer Lawrence gives us little idea what her future may hold. As the credits rolled I had no idea how she felt about the past two hours.
What I wonder, then, is how different my opinion might be if I’d never read Winter’s Bone. Would the movie, or more specifically, Jennifer Lawrence’s performance, felt so muted? So bereft of vibrancy? Whether the book or movie is “good” or “not good” is irrelevant. This isn’t is a case of one version being “stronger” than another. They’re different mediums, with different limitations and intents. What it comes down to is personal connection. Which version of Winter’s Bone resonated the most? And, ultimately, is there a middle ground that could have been bridged between them? Is it selfish that I want the movie Ree to be more like the book Ree? Maybe there isn’t an answer. It’s all subjective anyway, right?