Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir about escaping poverty, but the movie is about pervasive drug addiction. Why?
When it was announced that Netflix would be buying the rights to Hillbilly Elegy with Ron Howard directing, I was actually really excited. While I didn't politically align with most of the summations in the memoir, I thought Ron Howard had an even hand and that the story would also be challenging and unique.
This is not an article about the problematic ideas or historical inaccuracies within the story, nor is it a "hot take" on who should write or direct what.
It's just a look into the structure of the film and how I think major changes in the editing or outline phase could have bolstered the movie's goal. This is me playing Monday morning quarterback.
In watching the film, I found the most interesting choices not to be what happens in the movie, but how it was structured.
The book is a rather straightforward memoir about a kid growing up poor, and examining what made him that way. There are anecdotes about his home life, explorations into the history of where he was from, and a dissection of the kind of people and the resentments they bore for both their circumstances and the outside world.
The movie is not about that at all.
At some point, during their decision to adapt it, the filmmakers decided to focus the movie on the drug addiction of author JD Vance's mother. In structuring the movie around his two maternal figures and their struggles, the movie took all agency away from JD. It stopped being his story and began being their story.
Drug addiction is very noisy in the news, and I think someone thought re-centering the movie around that might make the story more empathetic to a wider audience.
This choice robbed us of any certainty of why and how JD changed... which was the focus of the book. And it robbed us of the main character who arcs, because neither Mawmaw nor JD's mother has an arc of change at all.
That leaves our protagonist as a glorified master of ceremony, which takes all the agency out of his character.
Sure, in today's climate, an opioid addiction story might feel more "relevant," but since there's no real justification for her drug use, and since the movie doesn't give us any idea how she overcame her addiction aside from just "stopping," we don't get closure there either.
Imagine the movie if it was structured in a more traditional sense, like the memoir.
Now, I do not advocate just adapting the book straight away—you need to make a structure of your own, and probably make up a few details as well. But with that in mind, I think the movie would have been more successful if it didn't fight itself so much.
We could begin the story with JD as a kid witnessing his mother's struggles, and always escaping to his Mawmaw's house for comfort. He could still get into trouble because of his mother's negligence and be sorted out at home.
Voiceover and flashbacks could still bring us up to date on the family. But if you made the first act break JD moving in with his grandmother, instead of making it the third act break now, you could have a more natural fit for the movie. If this is the story of JD's escape, show his first step in that process, moving in with his grandmother.
If JD moved in with Mawmaw at the end of act one and heard the "Terminator" speech from her, you then could have the theme for the movie. Mawmaw is the good Terminator protecting him, and the drugs are the bad Terminator always hunting his mother.
Now you have a lot of room in the story to talk about the actual place of Appalachia and recognize what's going on there while actually building that into what's going on inside the Vance family. Drugs, poverty, a cycle of unemployment, etc.
In the subsequent acts, you could see JD struggle with making his grandmother proud and being a hillbilly, which is only touched on in the movie. A nice maturation dissolve could send him to the military, which is a turning point in the book and where he really turned his life around. It also gives us a natural way to have Mawmaw die and JD to feel completely lost, which is a great end to the second act.
For the third act, he could be dealing with his mother's addiction while at Yale, much like he is now, but he could arc into loving her again and seeing her as a tormented character and finding his love for her again, basically becoming her good Terminator for her, the way Mawmaw was for him.
Again, a lot of this stuff capitalizes on the scenes we already see within the movie but puts things in a natural order with time jumps at act breaks where we see the aftermath of the problems created. I think there are actually a ton of scenes in the movie you could reuse here to fill the gaps. And a lot from the book about high school and his time at Ohio State that might be more compelling than him as a child.
I think there's a lot of lessons to be taken from the development and adaptation of this movie. Ron Howard and Vanessa Taylor did a really great job smoothing over some of the politically divisive parts of the book to give the story a wider appeal.
There are touching scenes and stuff directly from the book that really honed in on one family's situation. Still, I think breaking up this narrative to serve opioids didn't include what drew people to the book and may have stunted the journey of the memoir.
This has been a hotly debated movie for many aspects, and I'm not sure restructuring would have cleared those hurdles, but it is interesting to think about.
At the end of the day, a more traditional structure may have allowed you to have your cake and eat it too when it came to using the book and drawing a much wider audience.
This is all just my opinion.
Let me know what you think in the comments.