The chattering classes got the ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ book wrong – and they’re getting the movie wrong, too


Lisa R. Pruitt, University of California, Davis

Film critics have had nary a good word to say about Netflix’s new movie “Hillbilly Elegy.”

Reviewers varyingly called it “Oscar-Season B.S.,” “woefully misguided,” “Yokel Hokum,” “laughably bad” and simply “awful.”

I admit to delight when I read professional critics trashing the film, which is
based on J.D. Vance’s widely praised memoir detailing his dramatic class migration from a midsize city in Ohio to the hallowed halls of Yale Law School. I was expecting the worst based on my dislike of the book, and these reviews confirmed my expectations.

But once I saw the film, I felt it had been harshly judged by the chattering classes – the folks who write the reviews and seek to create meaning for the rest of us. In fact, the film is an earnest depiction of the most dramatic parts of the book: a lower-middle-class family caught in the throes of addiction.

Everyday viewers seem to find the film enjoyable enough – it has solid audience reviews on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes.

So why the big gap between the critical response and audience reaction? Could it be yet another sign of the country’s steadily growing class divide?

A bootstrap manifesto

The film’s negative reviews are an about-face from critics’ warm embrace of the book, which was published in 2016, when Vance was just 31.

In telling his story of overcoming his mother’s addiction and attendant familial and economic precarity, Vance credits his Mamaw and Papaw, along with luck and hard work.

Fair enough. But he gives no nod to the government structures – K-12 schools, the military and the GI bill, the public university where he earned his B.A – that greased the skids of his sharp ascension into the ruling class. Worse still, Vance expressly blames laziness as the culprit of those left behind, with only cursory attention to the impact of policies that encouraged the offshoring of manufacturing jobs and weakening of the social safety net.

The book is not subtle in its message: Working-class grunts are to blame for their own struggles. If they’d just get off their duffs, go to church and stay married, everything would be OK.

J.D. Vance talks on a cell phone.
J.D. Vance’s memoir was a sensation when it was published.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Yet commentators from across the political spectrum greeted the book with a big wet kiss. Published months before Donald Trump’s election, it was perfectly timed for the zeitgeist, and Vance’s extended personal anecdote suddenly became the authoritative text about enigmatic working-class whites, all presumptive Trump supporters. The New York Times fawned over its “discerning sociological analysis,” overlooking Vance’s one-sided invocation of data and scholarly literature, while prestigious think tanks like the Brookings Institution elevated Vance to expert status.

I was one of few progressive elites to push back against the media’s early, broad embrace of the book. Admittedly, I was moved by Vance’s compelling biography, which featured many of the hallmarks of my own: hillbilly roots, addicted parent, family violence and – ultimately – a dramatic class leap into elite legal circles.

But I was put off by Vance’s singular focus on personal responsibility and use of his story to advance an agenda antagonistic to the social safety net. Many of Vance’s positions run contrary to my own scholarly work about the white working class and rural America.

Vance also suggests that his family – in both its best and worst manifestations – is representative of Appalachia. Yet like all families, Vance’s is typical in some ways but not in others. And that’s what got so many Appalachians up in arms when the book came out. Not all of them are drug addicted any more than they’re all coal miners. Further, not all Appalachians are white. Many lead boring lives.

From curiosity to disdain

I wasn’t happy when Ron Howard and Netflix paid US$45 million for the movie rights, because I didn’t want the book to get an even wider audience. But the film leaves Vance’s politics aside and instead focuses on three generations worth of Vance family saga. That means the positive potential I saw in the book is at the heart of the film.

For one, working-class white people can see themselves on screen. When I read the book, I initially laughed out loud – but also cried – over the ways Vance’s hillbilly grandparents reminded me of my own extended family. I also related to his “fish out of water” experiences in elite law firms.

Second, the story is a reminder that white skin is no magic bullet. Folks where I live and work in California often use “white privilege” as synonymous with “you’re white, you’ll be all right.” Members of the Vance family are white, but they are clearly not all right. The movie has the potential to foster empathy between the two worlds J.D. Vance straddles – the ones I also straddle – between working class and professional class.

Yet to some critics, the film amounted to no more than “poverty porn.” They lamented a lack of complexity, nuance, motivation and internal conflict in the film’s characters.

Really? Those reviewers must have looked right past the trauma both Mamaw and Bev experienced in their early lives – the former as a child bride, the latter as a child raised in the violent home of that child bride. J.D. is a product of both.

There are surely other reasons, too, that the film world has turned a cold shoulder to this cinematic packaging of Vance’s book. I suspect that it has something to do with the fact that the four-year span between the book and the film neatly coincided with the beginning and end of Trump’s presidency. During that same period, what started as progressive elites’ curiosity about the white working class gave way to bald disdain and fury.

Nowadays, my Twitter feed is awash with resentment every time “mainstream media” run a story about white Trump supporters.

The woke whine that such coverage implies that these are the “real Americans” who we should try to understand, while overlooking other marginalized subsets of the population. Film critic negativity about “Hillbilly Elegy” may reflect similar attitudes – a mix of exasperation and boredom with a pet topic for media outlets since the 2016 election.

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Audiences have a different response

To me, the real pity is that so many coastal elites know so few working-class folks of any color, let alone the hillbilly subset of them. Indeed, studies show that, increasingly, people from different socioeconomic strata no longer mix even within the same metro areas.

The crummy reviews ultimately evince this profound and persistent disconnect between those who write the reviews and “regular” folks.

A week after its release, the film’s critic score on Rotten Tomatoes was 27, while its audience score was 82. That’s a massive spread, and one that may align with the yawning chasm cutting across our national electorate.

The cosmopolitan set can’t believe viewers would want to watch “those people” – and may even be able to relate to them – any more than we can believe so many people voted for Donald Trump.

When critic Sarah Jones, an Appalachian by upbringing, argues that “Hillbilly Elegy” wasn’t made for hillbilly viewers, I’m not convinced. Jones places “Hillbilly Elegy” among “an old and ignoble genre” that “caricatures the hillbilly for an audience’s titillation.”

Maybe. But there are far worse depictions of rural folks and other hillbilly types. Look no further than this appalling scene from “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” or the 1972 classic “Deliverance.”

Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor certainly took liberties in condensing and dramatizing decades of Vance family dysfunction, but we shouldn’t pretend that families like these don’t exist. I know people like them – heck, I’m even related to some.

Many viewers will relate to “Hillbilly Elegy” simply because addiction is such a shockingly common phenomenon, one that touches many families and every community. Others will appreciate the film because it presents J.D. Vance achieving the “American dream.” It’s an ideal many find irresistible in spite of the fact that – or, indeed, because – upward mobility is more elusive than ever.

With Vance’s politics tucked out of sight, can we simply judge the film for its entertainment value? Can we acknowledge that we don’t all like the same things?

After all, there may be a few things elites don’t “get.” And that could be because the movie wasn’t made for them in the first place.The Conversation

Lisa R. Pruitt, Martin Luther King, Jr., Professor of Law, University of California, Davis

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Anticipated Book Adaptations of 2014


The link below is to an article that considers 11 book adaptations coming in 2014.

For more visit:
http://blogs.publishersweekly.com/blogs/PWxyz/2014/01/22/the-10-most-anticipated-book-adaptations-of-2014/

From My Armchair: 28 July 2012


I am doing a little experimenting here, just trying to get a good format together for a new post I’ll be doing here on a regular basis (I hope). I thought I might start to do a regular reading progress type post, or something like that. It will probably be a weekly summary of what I’m reading and other book news ‘From My Armchair.’ There you go, that can be the title of the regular post. That is, book news from my own reading experience and exposure to books on a personal level, including updates from my personal library – that sort of thing.

Now to work out just what I’ll include in the post – it could be something like a newsletter I suppose. So straight up, there can be this sort of preamble blurb thing going on. Just a bit of a ramble about book stuff from a personal perspective. Then I can put down a few sub-headings with some structured content, relevant information and comments. Sounds like a plan I think. It will probably take a couple of weeks to come together and look presentable, at least to me anyhow. So it will be a work in progress for a while.

Something else I’m going to do is clear my reading list at Goodreads and have a new start there also. That way I can tie everything together and have a continuous and consistent story as far as my experience with books is concerned. That way, when I do this weekly post, ‘From My Armchair,’ I’ll be able to pass on a summary of my reading activity as recorded at Goodreads.

 

Social Networks, Web Applications & Other Tools

Under this head I think I can provide a summary of what I’m involved in as far as social networks and web applications are concerned. I use quite a number of social networks, web applications and tools in the area of books and reading, with a variety of applications and functions. All useful in their own way I believe. I think they provide a good means to not only glean useful information, but to also maximise the benefits of my books and reading for a whole range of activities that I am involved in. I like to see my books not only as entertainment and an escape from the world for a while, but also as tools for accomplishing many things within the world.

I currently use Goodreads as my social network for books/ebooks. I once also used Shelfari, being torn between the two, but now that Shelfari has closed the better of the two networks has continued as far as I am concerned. I am trying to use Goodreads as my online catalogue for books, so slowly I am adding them all to it. I also use a database on my own PC, which I am trying to sync with Goodreads, though I enter the information to both manually. It will take some time to get all of that done as I do have a large number of books.

 

Currently Reading:

I like to read and prefer reading to television viewing. I don’t like to waste my time and prefer to use my time in worthwhile pursuits. I do watch a small amount of television, but that is usually to further my intellectual development, so I watch documentaries, news programs and the like. I do watch the occasional program to wind down from time to time, but prefer to watch a DVD for that purpose as most of the stuff on the Idiot Box is just a lot of rubbish lol.

I usually have several books on the go at one time, but have found in recent years that I tend to not finish a lot of books also. That hasn’t always been the case, but it seems increasingly so now. I’ll be cutting down on the number of books I’m reading at any one time in the future, to try and ensure I finish what I start more often than not.

Currently, I am reading two books – well one actually, but about to start another. These are listed below:

– The Bourne Identity, by Robert Ludlum
– Killing Calvinism: How to Destroy a Perfectly Good Theology from the Inside, by Greg Dutcher

 

Finished Reading:

The Hunt for Red October, by Tom ClancyI did have a few books underway and these were all listed at Goodreads, but I cleared these a little while ago and gave myself a fresh start. One book I completed recently was ‘The Hunt for Red October, by Tom Clancy. I read the Jack Ryan series of books by Clancy some time ago and recently decided I’d read them again. I also watched the film again to see how close to each other they were – there was quite a difference between the book and the film. I have a post about this which I’ll link to below.

For more visit:
https://atthebookshelf.wordpress.com/2012/07/29/1614/

 

Purchased & Added to Library:

I have recently acquired a large number of ebooks, many for free from Amazon, including the following books:

– Killing Calvinism: How to Destroy a Perfectly Good Theology from the Inside, by Greg Dutcher
– The Discipline of Grace: God’s Role and Our Role in the Pursuit of Holiness, by Jerry Bridges
– Beyond Belief – The Real Life of Daniel Defoe, by John Martin

 

John Adams, by David McCullough


I have just finished watching the mini series ‘John Adams,’ starring Paul Giamatti as John Adams and Laura Linney as Abigail Adams. I found the mini series to be difficult to watch, as it was hardly brilliant drama despite the rhetoric on the DVD case. Not being American was perhaps a reason for my lack of enthusiasm for the mini series. I found it to be a disappointment as a viewing spectacle. But how true to the man and to history was the mini series? This is a question that now has my attention – for the portrayal of John Adams in the production was hardly that of a man to be admired.

Adams comes across as a self-centred, vain glorious man, with poor people skills and a terrible father and husband. He appears to seek his own advancement to the expense of those about him and also to be full of envy and petty jealousy. He also appears to be a somewhat poor diplomat and politician overall – even though he held the greatest office in the United States, as second president following that of George Washington.

So now I come to the book on which this mini series was based, ‘John Adams,’ by David McCullough. I am now going to read this book and see just how true to the book and actual events the mini series achieved. I find it difficult to believe that Adams could have been the way he was protrayed in the film – now I will seek out the truth for myself.