Sometimes you get lucky. J.D. Vance could hardly have picked a better moment than the summer of 2016 to publish Hillbilly Elegy, his memoir about overcoming a poverty-ridden, dysfunctional childhood in Rust Belt Ohio. Donald Trump had just shocked the political establishment by winning the Republican presidential nomination, propelled by the support of working and middle-class whites who cheered his message of grievance and cultural resentment. Journalists, who were scrambling to understand what happened, turned to Vance’s memoir for answers. The book leaned into anti-elitism and cultural grievance as an explanation and suggested that whatever poverty and problems afflicted “hillbillies” was the result of their own personal failings. Hillbilly Elegy became the book that launched a thousand think pieces about why Trump won.
Of course, Hollywood wanted in. Barely four years later–and just weeks after the 2020 election–the movie version hits Netflix in time for Thanksgiving weekend. Directed by everybody’s favorite all-American filmmaker Ron Howard and featuring strong performances from Amy Adams as Vance’s drug-addicted mother and Glenn Close as his loving but rough-around-the-edges grandmother, it would seem to be a sure thing. But the reviews have been savage, and no one seems interested anymore in the idea of that Hillbilly Elegy explains our current politics. A movie that a few years ago seemed like it would surf the cultural zeitgeist to box office success, now has all the signs of being an-out-of-step misfire. Where did it go so wrong?
The book traces Vance’s journey from a broken family in Middletown, Ohio, to success at Yale Law School. The story centers on his Appalachian-born grandparents–Mamaw and Papaw–who took him in to protect him from his mother, who was struggling with opioids, and who, despite their own troubled lives, instilled in him values that he says helped him succeed. But more than just one man’s inspirational story, Vance so wanted the book to be a larger sociological analysis of rural white poverty that he subtitled it “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” With a bit of macho bluster, he held himself up as an expert about people he claimed most of his (presumably coastal elite) readers looked down on: “Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends and family.”
The conservative press loved it. Writing in the American Conservative, Rod Dreher argued Elegy “does for poor white people what Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book did for poor black people: Give them voice and presence in the public square.” But the positive voices didn’t only come from the right. A New York Times reviewer called it a “a civilized reference guide for an uncivilized election” done “in a vocabulary intelligible to both Democrats and Republicans.” Bill Gates blogged about the “new insights into the multifaceted cultural and family dynamics that contribute to poverty.” Columnist David Brooks said it was simply “essential reading for this moment in history.”
On the wave of this buzzy press, Ron Howard won a bidding war for the film rights. It sounded like the perfect match. Howard seemed to embody the Middle American goodness of his two most celebrated characters–Opie Taylor and Richie Cunningham–that Elegy lamented as having disappeared. Plus he had carved out a niche as a skilled creator of broad commercially successful movies. On the other hand, it is easy see why Vance’s up-by-his-bootstraps tale to appealed to Howard, whose best work celebrated a similar kind of male hero who triumphed over long odds (Apollo 13, Beautiful Mind, Rush).
Imagine Entertainment president Erica Huggins who announced the acquisition made clear Howard was also cool with the book’s politics; indeed, they were a selling point. “Through the lens of a colorful, chaotic family, and with remarkable compassion and self-awareness,” she said in a statement, “J.D. has been able to look back on his own upbringing as a ‘hillbilly’ to illuminate the plight of America’s white working class, speaking directly to the turmoil of our current political climate.”
But even as Howard moved forward with the film, the ground under Hillbilly Elegy shifted. Vance’s background came under scrutiny as he took a CNN commentator gig and rumors circulated of a Senate run. The riches part of his rags-to-riches biography—the internship with a Republican state senator, the National Review bylines, the work at Trump mega-donor Peter Thiel’s hedge fund, his wife’s clerkship for Chief Justice John Roberts—got mentioned more and the fact that while his grandparents were from Appalachia, Vance had only spent parts of some summers there, leading some to question is hillbilly bona fides.
Most important, Appalachian activists and scholars pushed back, frustrated that reviewers treated Hillbilly Elegy as if Vance had discovered hillbillies and took his “blame the poor for being poor” ideas at face value. Whole books with titles like What You are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy and Appalachian Fall appeared to rebut Vance. Although the books varied in focus, common points carried across all of them: Vance ignored more than a century of writing about the region. Hillbilly culture was a debunked myth. Poverty had more to do with power concentrated in extractive industries that exported region’s natural resources but left little wealth behind than the bad decisions of individuals.
Perhaps sensing the shifting zeitgeist, Howard’s pitch evolved. He soft pedaled the politics when talking about his vision for the movie. “I didn’t view this any kind of polemical or societal overview,” he said at one point. Instead, his adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy was a tale of transformation and self-actualization. “It really is about being your best self,” he told Collider. “It’s a self-actualization story. It’s powerful.” This, he claimed, made it the “always relatable story of a young guy discovering himself, understanding the strengths he’s inherited but also overcoming some of the baggage.”
In lieu of the book’s politics, Howard talked about trying to capture the “authenticity” of “how they lived, where they lived, what they bought, what they watched, what they listened to” as way of suggesting he was remaining true to the story. Vance, who was conspicuously absent from the promotional rollout except for a joint interview in the conservative news site The Dispatch, was trotted out to vouch for the authenticity of the production values. He choked up talking about Glenn Close playing Mamaw—right down wearing her actual glasses. “She had a way about every little thing,” Vance waxed. “The way she held her cigarette, the way her face twitched, when she would get annoyed, the way she walked—it was just an incredible re-creation of Mamaw.”
The closer the movie’s November opening loomed, the more Howard tried to dodge the book’s politics. He linked the story to his family. Indeed, if you didn’t know better you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a movie about the Howards not the Vances. “I love family stories, but I’ve never had one before that was a true story that dealt with characters from rural America and that’s my family’s background,” he said in an interview. “My mom was from a very small town and my dad was a farm boy, and when I read this book I recognized that I had really been looking for a story that I could tell that would allow me to apply my own sensitivity to this aspect of our American culture,” Howard said. “I felt like I just connected with these characters and with this family dynamic and journey.”
Having pivoted away from Vance’s biography, Howard argued Hillbilly Elegy was really every family’s story. “I began to see more than ever just how universal this story was going to be: Rediscovering the potency and power of love.” This then wasn’t a movie so much about poverty and the politics surrounding it or about hillbilly folk or even the bad decisions Vance’s family made anymore. In Howard’s view, it was an opportunity to self-evaluate and examine one’s own family. “I think we need to be looking at our own families, our own relationships and understanding where love factors into that,” he said.
But as the reviews for the movie came in, it became clear Howard had failed to reposition the book or escape its politics. One review called it “a rich person’s idea of what it is like to be a poor person.” Another wondered if it was “poverty porn” and accused it of being “less insightful and less intellectually honest [about poverty] than the Dukes of Hazzard movie and Joker.” The Associated Press review cut to the heart of the criticism: “This Hillbilly Elegy has stripped away the most sermonizing, debatable parts of the book, but it’s also denuded it of any deeper purpose, leaving us with a cosplay shell of A-list actors chewing rural scenery.”
Hillbilly Elegy shows the tricky task for Hollywood in trying to surf the political zeitgeist in the age of Trump, where a divided American electorate and a working class that feels alienated from the American Dream defies easy analysis and where a book can seem to capture the spirit of the times one minute only to seem out of touch the next. Ron Howard got caught in a conundrum he couldn’t solve: The politics of the book are unpersuasive at best and possibly wrong at worst, but the story doesn’t work without those politics giving it a narrative backbone. Ironically, Howard probably would have made a better movie if he had been willing to make a controversial one. Sure some viewers would have disagreed with the message, but at least they would have something to disagree with instead of the anodyne offend-no-one-film that resulted. But that’s not the kind of movies Howard makes or Hollywood thinks can attract a mass audience. “Its about life,” said Howard ostensibly about the story but with advice he could easily have applied to the production process. “And life is pretty messy.”
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