The popularity of Delia Owen’s bestseller Where the Crawdads Sing began its journey to film when powerhouse producer Reese Witherspoon got her hands on the manuscript.
“I read the novel in one day. I just couldn’t put it down,” says Witherspoon. “I fell in love with Kya as the main character, as a little girl who’s growing up in a very rural area, shunned by society and trying to find a way to just save herself, just survive. The experiences she has with the two men in her life are both so touching but also terrifying. Delia Owens wrote this book with such authenticity, you could just tell she really grew up in this place.”
Where the Crawdads Sing tells the story of Kya, an abandoned girl who raised herself to adulthood in the dangerous marshlands of North Carolina. For years, rumours of the “Marsh Girl” haunted Barkley Cove, isolating the sharp and resilient Kya from her community. Drawn to two young men from town, Kya opens herself to a new and startling world; but when one of them is found dead, she is immediately cast by the community as the main suspect. As the case unfolds, the verdict as to what actually happened becomes increasingly unclear, threatening to reveal the many secrets that lay within the marsh.
Crawdads Sing is Delia Owen’s first novel, her first attempt to break free from non-fiction writing.
A literary phenomenon, the book skyrocketed to the top of the bestseller lists when Witherspoon picked it for Reese’s Book Club – and its record-breaking run has lasted over 191 weeks. With over 12 million copies sold in total, it was the top-selling book of 2019 and 2020 and set a new record for the most weeks at #1 on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestsellers list.
“My whole life led to this story,” Owens says. “The inspiration behind my book started when I was a child. I grew up in the woods — real woods. When I was very young, my mother would encourage me to go out into the woods. She wanted us to go as far as we could. It was my mother who would say, ‘Go way out yonder where the crawdads sing.’ Of course, crawdads don’t really sing. But what she meant by that was she wanted us to experience the nature in nature. If you go far enough into the wilderness, by yourself, and there’s nothing but you and nature, you will hear the crawdads sing.”
“I was inspired by wild things and I would collect insects. I would collect feathers. Does that sound familiar?” Owens continues. “I would come back home not with shells, but with stones. And my mother encouraged that, too.”
Though she loved writing, Owens decided to make science her career, and received a Bachelor of Science degree in zoology from the University of Georgia and a Ph.D. in Animal Behavior from the University of California at Davis. Owens spent more than two decades living and working in the African wilderness studying the animals she loved, eventually chronicling those observations and experiences in three best-selling non-fiction books she co-authored.
“My life as a wildlife biologist living alone in different parts of Africa also inspired this story,” says Owens. “We can learn about human nature from nature. We forget that we’re part of nature. We’re not separate from it. We have a real connection with nature that most people don’t think that they have.”
“We talk about Mother Nature, but we don’t really treat nature as though she’s our mother, and it’s important to remember that,” Owens says. “I really hope one of the things that the audience gets from this film is they’ll be rewarded by the scenes of nature, the marsh, the environment itself. The marsh screams for the big screen.”
“I remember when Reese first told me about this book,” says producer Lauren Neustadter, President, Film and Television at Hello Sunshine. “We loved Kya, we loved the world, we loved the story of her survival, against all odds. When we thought about it as a movie, there was so much that was so appealing. The backdrop is absolutely magnificent and the story is epic in scope. The marsh itself is incredibly cinematic. The lush greens and also the world that she lives in, the lagoon, the beach all of the settings are so incredibly beautiful and romantic. And then Kya herself is such an extraordinary character – an unconventional heroine and certainly the hero of her own story. To see this remarkable woman against such a beautiful backdrop felt inherently cinematic, and it felt perfect to bring to life on screen.”
Elizabeth Gabler, with her team at 3000 Pictures, has successfully developed and produced such films as The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me, The Fault in Our Stars, Water for Elephants, Love, Simon, The Hate U Give, Woman in the Window, Hidden Figures, and Life of Pi. A strong passion for literary material motivates 3000 Pictures in their role as a division of Sony Pictures Entertainment to help bring extraordinary novels like Where the Crawdads Sing to cinematic life.
“We are all voracious readers at 3000 Pictures, and our love for literary material provides us with an abundance of great stories to adapt,” says Gabler. ”We are excited and honoured that this is our first theatrical film for Sony Pictures. Where the Crawdads Sing has captured the hearts and imagination of readers around the world as they escape into Kya’s world and the lush and gorgeous landscape of the marshland, and meet the unique inhabitants of the small town of Barkley Cove. The novel provided us with a genuinely sympathetic heroine in Kya, intense romance, and haunting mystery – a perfect combination for an epic and classic film.”
Gabler had an inside track on the material, as she had previously worked with Delia Owens to develop one of her nonfiction books as a possible film. “I am very blessed to have known Delia Owens for a very long time,” says Gabler. “Delia, in her fresh and evocative voice, has created something so unique with this novel. The novel is so immersive because it feels so real. As a child, Delia herself roamed through the wilds and the marshlands, connecting with the creatures there, and she continued that path as a wildlife scientist and naturalist throughout her life. She brings all these experiences to life in Kya and in her novel.”
Gabler says that she recognizes themes in the book that are the reason she feels it connected with so many. “I think that Where the Crawdads Sing is something that people have been waiting for, for a long time,” Gabler continues. “It is a story of hope in a world that needs hope, and a story of survival in a world that needs a story of survival.”
Optioning the rights to Where the Crawdads Sing, Gabler brought in Witherspoon and Hello Sunshine to produce; Gabler later brought the project with her when she founded her current label, 3000 Pictures, at Sony Pictures. “They’re among our most beloved partners,” says Gabler. “They’re like family – a perfectly symbiotic relationship where we call on each other all the time. It’s perfect that this film is not only 3000 Pictures’ first feature, but also the first feature from Hello Sunshine.”
It’s no accident that the Hello Sunshine team brought on board an all-female filmmaking team and a majority-female production crew to adapt the novel into a film. “At Hello Sunshine, we have a focus on finding female filmmakers who bring a fresh perspective and stories that we’ve never seen on film,” says Witherspoon. “For this film, these women built rich worlds focused on the very interpersonal connections of the characters.”
“Where the Crawdads Sing is a filmmaker’s dream come true of a story,” says director Olivia Newman. “It has this incredible female heroine at the center of it that we’ve never seen on screen. She’s vulnerable and emotional but also strong and resilient. And her story straddles multiple genres – there’s this beautiful romance. There is a murder mystery. There is a survivalist tale. When I read the book and then the script, I thought it captured all these different worlds and elements of stories that I just couldn’t wait to dig into as a filmmaker.”
“I think everybody resonates with Kya on a personal level. There’s a little of Kya in all of us,” Newman continues. “But I don’t think we’ve ever seen a character quite like Kya on screen before, not in this way. Where the Crawdads Sing is a story about resilience. It’s about how love and human connection are core to our survival. It’s a story about believing in your own self-worth when others do not. It’s about survival and about how the laws of nature are not always the same as the laws of society.”
For screenwriter Lucy Alibar, the Academy Award®-nominated co-writer of Beasts of the Southern Wild, expressing the laws of the marsh was part of expressing Kya as a character. “The marsh becomes the thing that raises her, the thing that keeps her alive—the quote from the book is, ‘The marsh became her mother,’” notes Alibar. “Nature is very important to who Kya is as a person, as a character. Kya observes wild things, and she learns.”
For Alibar, the other element of Kya’s character is wrapped up in the puzzle of Chase’s death. She says it’s no mere plot device. “It was very important that the mystery be part of the mystery of Kya,” she says. “In other words, it’s not a mystery for the sake of creating something thrilling to watch; it really has to teach you something about who Kya is and what her journey has been. As we unravel the mystery of how Chase died, we’re also unravelling the mystery of who Kya is, how she learned to survive, and how she made a whole life for herself in the marsh.”
Where the Crawdads Sing was filmed on location in the regions surrounding New Orleans, Louisiana.
The filmmakers chose the location for the wide variety of marsh and swamp locations and historic Southern towns that would serve as Barkley Cove and Kya’s home in the marsh.
Screenwriter Lucy Alibar says that the marsh comes to life on its own in the film. “I believe the marsh is absolutely its own character,” she says. “At the beginning of the book, Delia tells you who Kya is by talking about a marsh. The marsh is a character who is inseparable from Kya, so it was very important that the marsh be as much of a character as Kya herself.”
For this story, director Olivia Newman assembled a majority-female production crew – an extreme rarity. In addition to screenwriter Lucy Alibar and producers Reese Witherspoon and Lauren Neustadter, not to mention production executive Elizabeth Gabler, the team included director of photography Polly Morgan, production designer Sue Chan, and costume designer Mirren Gordon-Crozier. Editor Alan Edward Bell and composer Mychael Danna round out the production team.
From the beginning, Newman and Morgan developed a shared visual language for the film. “Since my very first conversation with Livi, we just connected immediately about how we felt this story should be told,” says Morgan. “All of the conversations we had early on were about telling an intimate story in this beautiful landscape – painting an epic picture of the marsh, while keeping the story that unfolds of Kya and her journey intimate and small.”
The film’s multiple themes required different looks. “We wanted to use the camera and light in order to help people understand Kya’s journey and all the different themes within the story,” Morgan explains. “We really wanted to have a lyrical poetic feel for this film, one that felt very emotional to keep in line with Kya’s story, but we also needed the film to have the drama and the tension of a crime thriller. We focused on what emotionally is happening at each point in the story, and that inspires the way I move the camera, the way I light the scene, the choices of color, the choices of shadow. I’m trying to supplement and amplify the performance to help tonally paint the right picture for what’s happening.”
Lucy Alibar’s (Screenplay) first film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, which she adapted with director Benh Zeitlin, and is based on her original play ”Juicy and Delicious,” was distributed by Fox Searchlight, won the Narrative Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, won the Humanitas Prize, and was nominated for a BAFTA and an Academy Award® for Best Adapted Screenplay. Recent projects include Troop Zero, starring Viola Davis (Amazon), Bat Kid for Julia Roberts and New Line, The Secret Garden (Disney and Guillermo del Toro), and Swan Lake (Disney). Alibar has worked with Pixar, Apple, and FX, as well as on the 2016 Election PSA “We Trump Hate.” She has also performed her solo show “Burnpile” at Lincoln Center Theatre and in London. She teaches at universities across the country, including NYU, University of the South, Pace University, and UNC Chapel Hill. Alibar is grateful for the support of The Sundance Institute, Hedgebrook, Ojai Playwright’s Conference, and New York Theatre Workshop. She is a proud member of the Writer’s Guild of America.
Delia Owens (Based on the Book by) is the #1 New York Times-bestselling author of Where the Crawdads Sing and the coauthor of three internationally bestselling nonfiction books about her life as a wildlife scientist in Africa, including Cry of the Kalahari and Secrets of the Savanna. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in zoology from the University of Georgia and a Ph.D. in Animal Behavior from the University of California in Davis. Owens has won the John Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing and has been published in Nature, the African Journal of Ecology, and International Wildlife, among many others. She currently lives in North Carolina and Where the Crawdads Sing is her first novel.