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.

[Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter.]

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.

The Secret Garden: a place of healing during COVID-19


Tiffani Angus, Anglia Ruskin University

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 children’s book The Secret Garden has once again been adapted for the screen. Critics have noted that the film about a healing garden has come just at the right time, with The Telegraph calling it “a sparkling COVID antidote”.

Previous filmed versions appeared in 1919, 1949, and 1993. Since those iterations, however, the world has become more tech-enabled and the lives of children more dominated by screens than ever.

Ofcom in the UK estimates that the average three-to-four-year-old spends around three hours a day in front of a screen. This rises to four hours for ages five to seven, 4.5 hours by ages eight to 11, and 6.5 hours for teenagers. Time spent playing outdoors, as a result, is at an all-time low. It might be a wonder then, why, in 2020, a new film about playing outside is being released to an audience that seems so disconnected from it.

2020 has been, to say the least, an odd year. And, after a nationwide lockdown and restrictions currently being reimposed over large parts of the UK, The Secret Garden, a story about the healing qualities of nature – where magic, joy and, importantly, escape can be found – speaks to children (and adults) more than ever. “It sees a group of traumatised people who don’t get out much find solace in gardening and fresh air,” notes Helen O’Hara in Empire speaking about the similarities between the Edwardian cast of characters and our current reality.

Restorative gardens

The story follows Mary Lennox, a self-centred and neglected child, who is forced to move to her uncle’s estate in Yorkshire after her parents die from cholera in India. Left to her own devices and struggling to adjust, Mary finds distraction in exploring the estate’s vast grounds. It is on one of these jaunts that she discovers a hidden garden. Overgrown and mysterious, the place was locked years before by her uncle after his wife died in it.

The garden is, unsurprisingly, irresistible to Mary and, along with her spoiled cousin Colin who believes he’s disabled, and the good-natured Dickon, a kindly maid’s little brother, she finds that it is more than just a place to play. There nature has the power to heal, create relationships and bring joy; the garden also can help mend the wounds of the past, transforming hopeless grief to possibility.

The importance of nature as a source of healing has become increasingly clear during periods of lockdown as we find ourselves longing for green spaces as an escape from the news and our own four walls. Gardens (those of us who have them) and local parks and green spaces become important spaces where children can run around and adults can take a moment to reset. Like in The Secret Garden, we have discovered nature anew and it has restored us.

Time-travelling spaces

In children’s literature, gardens are a place for dreaming, adventures, and even for time travel. In books such as Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, Lucy M Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe and Andre Norton’s Lavender-Green Magic, the garden takes children back in time. There they meet people from the garden’s history or other historically important individuals. They have run-ins with their ancestors or undertake actions to save other (usually young) characters from the past who were treated badly or in danger.

The garden is a place to “fix” mistakes and learn about the great mystery and circle of life. Gardens, also, represent time itself: they never stop growing and changing. Every seed planted carries within it the hopes we have for the future.

While The Secret Garden is not a time-travel device as such, it does act as a conduit between the past and present. In it the family’s history is exposed and reckoned with, changing the present and setting them on a course to a new, more hopeful future together.

This connection between gardens and time (and time travel) might appeal to 2020 viewers who are looking for a way to connect the past with an uncertain future. In this story that many adults hold dear, they can rediscover their childhood and escape for a moment in nostalgia for a simpler time.

Once we enter the garden, however, who we are affects how we relate to it. Children have a completely different relationship to gardens than adults: adults see the backbreaking work that goes into them, while children benefit from all that hard work and only see a place to run and play. For the children in The Secret Garden, the garden is a place of discovery, fun, and recovery, in that order. And that is possibly the main key to the story’s longevity: it feeds into a faith in nature as healing, something difficult to ignore amid the friction over climate change and the destruction of some ecosystems.

The past seven months of lockdowns have fostered a hunger for personal green spaces. With the newest film version of The Secret Garden, our love affair with gardens is again brought to the big — and small — screen, where those of us who have been stuck inside can unlock the garden gate and, with a childlike innocence we yearn for, enter a magical green wonderland to take advantage of the healing properties and timeless qualities of a garden that has been waiting for us.The Conversation

Tiffani Angus, Senior lecturer in Creative Writing and Publishing, Anglia Ruskin University

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

Book Review: The Bourne Identity, by Robert Ludlum


I am a big fan of the Jason Bourne movies (the first three anyway). I don’t know what the fourth one (The Bourne Legacy) will be like without Matt Damon, but I’m still keen to see it. So it was having watched the movies that I decided to read the books. Wow, what a massive difference between the movie and the book. There are obvious similarities, but they are quite different from each other just the same.

The Bourne Identity‘The Bourne Identity’ is action all the way and is a great read. It is a book that is always on the go and suspense carries you foward through the book. You want to read on and see what happens to Jason Bourne next. Will
he be able to rise to the next challenge that is thrown in his way, especially given that he is trying to figure it all out as he goes along, as well as trying to figure out just who he himself is – while also seeking to protect a woman he has picked up along the way.

This is the spy book of spy books. It is an action read at the top of its game. Jason Bourne is the master spy relearning his craft as the memory of who he is and what he is returns to him with each thrilling piece of the jig saw that is ‘The Bourne Identity.’ Once you start, you want to keep on reading and as the pace quickens you find yourself seemingly reading with an increased tempo, as you’re right there with Jason Bourne every step of the way.

An excellent first read in the Jason Bourne series. I am very much looking forward to the next volume with great expectancy. I highly recommend this book.

Buy this book at Amazon:
http://www.amazon.com/The-Bourne-Identity-A-Novel/dp/0553593544/

From My Armchair: 11 August 2012


I really didn’t think I’d get too much read this week, but as you will see from the list below I have been able to read a fair bit.

I was able to get The Hunger Games trilogy completed, which is good given the DVD of the first movie will be out in a week or so here in Australia. I haven’t seen the movie yet, so getting the books read prior to the movie was something I wanted to do.

This coming week I’d like to get a few more books read – I’ll see how I go.

 

Social Networks, Web Applications & Other Tools

Not a lot done on social networks or web applications this week. I have added a few books to Goodreads, that is about all really.

 

Currently Reading:

Currently, I am reading the following books:

Discipline of GraceDiscipline of Grace, by Jerry Bridges

I’m hoping to actually make some good progress on this book today and tomorrow. I read it once or twice before, but not in a while. Looking forward to getting into it. Jerry Bridges is usually very good to read.

 

CollapseCollapse, by Richard Stephenson

I’m just over halfway through this one, but it is a fairly long novel so it will take another day or two to complete at least.

 

Finished Reading:

This week I have been able to read the following books:

Phantoms on the BookshelvesPhantoms on the Bookshelves, by Jacques Bonnet

I completed this book very early in the week and have written a review which can be found via the link below. Probably only really appeal to those of us who are really into books and have a library of our own. I quite enjoyed the read.

See also:
https://atthebookshelf.wordpress.com/2012/08/05/book-review-phantoms-on-the-bookshelves-by-jacques-bonnet/

 

Killing CalvinismKilling Calvinism: How to Destroy a Perfectly Good Theology from the Inside, by Greg Dutcher

This was a great book and one I should read on a regular basis – perhaps once a year. A very challenging book, with many lessons for the church today (thinking of reformed churches).

See also:
https://atthebookshelf.wordpress.com/2012/07/31/book-review-killing-calvinism-how-to-destroy-a-perfectly-good-theology-from-the-inside-by-greg-dutcher/

 

Catching FireCatching Fire: The Hunger Games Books 2, by Suzanne Collins

I haven’t as of yet wrote a review on this one – will do soon hopefully.

 

MockingjayMockingjay: The Hunger Games Book 3, by Suzanne Collins

I haven’t as of yet wrote a review on this one – will do so soon hopefully.

 

Purchased & Added to Library:

I again grabbed a heap of free ebooks from Amazon. These are all of the books I’ve posted on my Blog ‘The Book Stand,’ so all posted there I also downloaded for myself. I’ll certainly have more books than I can ever read that’s for sure, but certainly never wanting for choice. No harm in grabbing them while there free and in digital format – if I don’t read them all, what does it matter? At least I’ll have them if I want to read them.

Among the books I actually purchased this week:

The Hunger Games – Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins
The Hunger Games – Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins
In Christ Alone – Living the Gospel Centered Life, by Sinclair Ferguson
Set Apart – Calling a Worldly Church to a Godly Life, by Kent R. Hughes

 

Reading: The Bourne Identity


Kevin's Daily Photo, Video, Quote or Link

Bourne IdentityToday had been quite unpleasant outside. It has been pouring with rain at times, then not. When it hasn’t been it has been blowing a gale and it is also quite cold. It’s bucketing down yet again. So very little has been able to be accomplished outside today. No great outdoors for me on this wet and miserable day.

I have been spending a bit of time, as a consequence of the weather, reading ‘The Bourne Identity,’ by Robert Ludlum. I haven’t read the Bourne series of books before, but have seen the movies many times. I’m a big fan of the Jason Bourne movies. However, having seen the movies it has been difficult to some degree reading the book. The book is very different to the movie, more so than what ‘The Hunt for Red October’ was to the film version. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still enjoying the…

View original post 84 more words