J.D. Vance’s best-selling autobiography “Hillbilly Elegy” isn’t the most natural fit for the big-screen treatment, an often unwieldy mix of heartbreaking memoir, personal observations couched in sociological chatter, and cherry-picked factoids. In trying to understand how and why his Appalachian family faced hardships like domestic abuse, drug addiction, and poverty, critics noted that Vance’s perspective often revealed, at best, the limitations of his experience.
At worst, other critics said that Vance’s story was rife with racist and sexist ideology, a reliance on easily dispelled fallacies, and a resistance to blaming any of it on government and culture. As Sarah Jones put it in a searing “New Republic” piece, the book is “little more than a list of myths about welfare queens repackaged as a primer on the white working class.” It was also a bestseller, and one that many hoped might shine a light on segments of an increasingly divided America.
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (“The Shape of Water”) knew that her adaptation of the material for director Ron Howard, bent on launching a star-studded Netflix film from the memoir, wouldn’t be an easy ask. She wanted to avoid controversy, while deciding which parts of the story had to be included despite their potential for backlash.
“If we had tried to express a political point of view [in the film], I think that could have been controversial,” Taylor said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “On the other hand, it might also be considered controversial to have left it out, to have told his story without telling that part of it. We didn’t consider telling that part of it. I wouldn’t say we chose controversy in that way, but I’m not sure we realized how controversial that might be seen as. … It clearly is controversial on some level, it’s having that response, but I think there are several points where one could find controversy, some of which I probably understand better than others.”
The result is a domestic drama largely stripped of the autobiography’s sociological elements, more firmly focused on the people who populated Vance’s life, including Amy Adams as his mother Bev and Glenn Close as his beloved grandmother. Those other bits were, as Taylor terms them, “information” that didn’t square with the dramatic heart of the film, which traces Vance’s fraught childhood through his time at Yale Law School.
Not coincidentally, that information is shaded by Vance’s perspective on his own upbringing and his adult life as an avowed nationalist and social conservative. From expounding on the (often fascinating) history of the migration of families from Appalachia to Ohio to tales about recalling run-ins with people he saw as welfare freeloaders, the same details that drew criticism in the book didn’t fit in a film meant for a larger audience.
“Part of this information [in the book] is, in fact, just information, and part of it is perspective or analysis of why certain things are happening the way they’re happening,” Taylor said. “What struck me sort of instantly is, we don’t have the ability to tell that story whether we want to or not, because there is sort of a political ramification in embracing its perspective on something like that. … I just felt very clearly, ‘Well, that’s not our purview. It’s not possible. We don’t have a perspective on this and don’t want to espouse one and just can’t.’ That would be a journalistic undertaking and we don’t have the ability.”
There was another issue for Taylor: That stuff wasn’t really part of a narratively sound story. “We can’t tell [that part of it] anyway, because it’s not narrative,” Taylor said. “The question to me was, can the narrative part of this book explore these things without that? I felt like it could. … The discussion was more, what are we going to use? How will we make this book into a narrative? Is there a narrative in this book that we can tell?’”
Taylor has worked in Hollywood for over two decades, first in television with shows like “Everwood” and “Alias,” later with features like “Hope Springs” and the first “Divergent” film, though her star rose after she was nominated for Best Original Screenplay for Guillermo del Toro’s eventual Best Picture winner, “The Shape of Water.” Even before the film hit theaters in 2017, Taylor — who had also written on “Game of Thrones” and contributed work to the live-action remake of “Aladdin” — was looking to do something new, a little less genre-y, more grounded than her previous work. That’s what excited her about “Hillbilly Elegy.”
“I was so excited to have the opportunity to look at this question that I had been kind of obsessing over myself about the American dream and why people couldn’t get it and how were we going to get it back and who had had it in the first place,” she said. “It’s such a foundational part of who we are as a country, the idea that you can make life better for your family by working. The fact that so many people are not finding that to be the case, I find that heartbreaking, but also as a country, are we cool with that? Are we all just like, ‘Okay, that was a good idea, but I guess it didn’t work out’?”
Initially, Taylor said she explored making her script a three-hander, divided up between Vance (played by Gabriel Basso and Owen Asztalos in different time periods), Mamaw (Close), and Bev (Adams), as framed around their different dreams and pursuits of them. “There were so many things referenced in the book that weren’t even necessarily completely explored about these generations of people sort of striving for the same thing, and how they built on each other, or weren’t able to achieve something, or obstructed each other,” Taylor said. “That felt like where the story was.”
Taylor said that both Howard and producer Karen Lunder were “very involved” in the scripting process, and the trio went through a number of early drafts. “There were many, many different iterations, because there’s so much in the book that is sort of alluded to, so we explored so many different things,” she said. “I feel like Ron shaped the material and sometimes chose the angles he was interested in, but he didn’t do any writing and I don’t think he considers himself a writer. I was the person always doing the writing, but he is always quite involved in terms of talking it out and questioning the directions you’re heading.”
One element Taylor always knew she wanted to use: Vance’s early teenage years, when Mamaw becomes his ultimate hero after the drug-addicted Bev can no longer care for him. For Taylor, that was the “central turning point” in Vance’s life, but one that was somewhat hard to make compelling, given that Vance wrote the book from his perspective as a Yale-educated venture capitalist.
“We wanted to delve into that,” she said. “But it was so counter-intuitive because it felt like, ‘Well, if you’ve made it to Yale Law School, you’re fine!’ Everything has worked out great for you! There’s no jeopardy in that story. It all seemed sort of ridiculous until we started talking to him about the fact that that was not his experience of that time period. He felt like he could lose everything he had gained. He felt like he was sort of falling apart.”
Howard and Taylor visited Vance and his family in Jackson, Kentucky, where young Vance spent many of his childhood summers before returning to Middletown, Ohio, where most of his family (like many other Appalachian clans) moved long before he was even born. “He was very involved in the sense that he was very available, and I think tried to be as forthright as he could,” Taylor said. “He was never trying to be presented in a particular way or shape the narrative for us. He wasn’t hands-on in that way.”
During those visits with Vance, Taylor and Howard tried to glean the emotions of his life rather than just the facts. Taylor said it was Vance’s memories of his time at Yale, which weave through the film, that helped her latch on to a narrative idea that isn’t expressly beholden to politics.
“I think this is in some ways the biggest challenge of this piece, to explore the way in which you might not be home free, just because now your circumstances are financially easier, less stressful,” she said. “But that might not represent a full achievement of that dream, because there are losses that you’re accruing that are psychological, or that are in terms of your relationship to your family. … I don’t think you ever entirely leave the challenges of your childhood behind, or a traumatic past, or difficult relationships with family members.”
Taylor said she was also challenged by a facet of the material that she didn’t anticipate “at all”: how to do justice to real people whose on-screen personas might seem a bit outsized, like the brash Mamaw. “Her language is so colorful,” Taylor said. “And when I wrote the first draft that Glenn saw, she came back and said, ‘Well, her language was so colorful in the book, and it’s not really there in this script.’”
Close was right, Taylor said, and she set about giving many of Mamaw’s lines a “deep dive,” based on Vance’s real-life grandmother’s favorite sayings and unique spirit. Even then, Taylor worried that things were getting too big, too broad, too far away from the truth she hoped to find in the story.
“We were always on the edge, as far as, ‘Does this feel too big?,’” Taylor said. “In order to try to be authentic, we were struggling with that, because she was so much more over the top than the way we were portraying her. If we went too low, it didn’t seem like her, but if we went too close to her, it seemed crazy to other people. It was ironic that the more authentic we got, the less authentic we seemed.”
If nothing else, Taylor hopes that audiences can appreciate the reality of Vance’s life as translated by the film, with its authenticity and without some of the more polarizing elements of his memoir.
“Authenticity is always an issue with films that are about real-life situations,” she said. “I think we’ve all become much more careful and conscious about trying to be authentic, trying not to tell other people’s stories in a way that somehow imposes us on someone we don’t know, or it’s all a lot more delicate. I think it’s very important that storytelling be authentic. I think it’s very important that we not create narratives that are fake about other groups of people.”
She added with a laugh, “I think we can all sort of get on the same page about that.”
“Hillbilly Elegy” is now streaming on Netflix.
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