Book vs. Film: Winter's Bone

Allow me to preface my own megillah: this series is one that focuses on the best effort to tell a story. If a film adaptation is awful, I'm going to tell you. If the book is awful, I'm going to tell you. Perhaps both--reach into recent history and I'm sure you can recall both terrible novels and their ungodly film versions. Think: vampire. If the source material and the film are wildly different, I'm definitely going to tell you. But the story itself is my concern. Sound good? Let’s do this. Beyond here be spoilers.
I’m going to be straight with you, readers: I collect phrases. A Southern friend of mine once asked why I was always hollerin’ the steady out of my own feet, and in a slight of self-service I completely ignored whatever that meant to get that ridiculous thing, quick, into a moleskine before it was lost in the ether of ADD and flight. Be your own tea and be stimulated, and that. I tell you this because, when it comes to Winter’s Bone, if hill people talk and twang annoy you and you’d just like to read some, y’know, George Eliot and be at one with the dryness, by all means. Be that. Do you. My heart is still in the right sink when I tell you, go watch Debra Granik’s excellent adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel, and marvel. Bear witness. Twang is easier on the ears than eyes and it will be good for you. However, I will also insist that a line like “you one time smacked fire out the ass of a Boshell boy” is a neat little linguistic thrill regardless of colloquial bias and Woodrell wrote one hell of a novel. It was divined from the well. Jussayin’.  I will fairly offer now that if a Kentucky relative of mine said something like “I seen the law over here this after” I would cringe and cross myself, but that same line from Woodrell is charming. Truth is never as melodic as fiction.

Since you’re wanting to know which of these tells the better story, I’m going to assume you know the basic players, but, since this is our first pass, a quick summary: Ree Dolly’s father (Jessup) has skipped bail on charges that he ran a crystal meth lab, and the Dolly family will lose their home in the Ozarks if he doesn’t show for court. Ree lives with, and supports, her two young siblings and their catatonic mother. The search to find Jessup, dead or alive, starts. Teardrop is her meth addicted uncle.

Okay: this is really the best case scenario for book to film adaptations, and therefore an easy start to this series. So much of the film is word for perfect word from the book. Two of my favorite scenes from this story I was pleased--but, y'know, horrified--to find were the same in both. The first is when Teardrop and Ree are pulled over by the Deputy, and Teardrop drawls that Crews meets the Cohens line, "Is this gonna be our time?" There is a slight advantage on the film's behalf on account of John Hawkes's fine actressin', but even on this technicality it's just plain, goodass writing.

This is really the best case scenario for book to film adaptations... So much of the film is word for perfect word from the book.

And the second, well. Look. Listen, a girl chainsawing a twain 'tween the lakerotted hands and corpse of her murdered father is gory going no matter what medium makes your aware. I say both bring it on and please, no, I get it. It's already gross enough. And the unbelievable chastising, "you'll need both hands or sure as shit they'll say he cut one off to keep from going to prison! They know that trick." It's momentarily worse to wonder how many Dolly's were Titus'ed and less a hand before the law grew wise. Needless to say: draw. I've seen enough book-to-film adaptations to know that a certain gratefulness should be had, quietly, when a pivotal and terrible moment in the book is not changed to suffer ratings systems or, god help us all, "artistic vision." Debra Granik, you are wonderful and a damn fine steward.

As someone who reads and writes reviews, let me stop just to say: I smell what you're cooking. I know this might appear rather handsy grabass and glass-eyed of me, all this outright respectfulness and wonderful, wonderful, but honestly: sometimes, it's just wonderful. But, for the blackhearted of us, I will pick a few bones about the absence of some rather important details and events from the film, though I'm going to disclaimer before we work--time is a constraint in film. It takes a deft director to negotiate the line between what is necessary, what can be supplemental upon a read, and what is of offense to the story if cut.

There is strangely no snow in the film, though it's oppressively Gassian in the book. Brunette book Ree is now blonde Ree of the pretty, impossibly ombre'd hair. Film Ree doesn't wear her ubiquitous headphones of cope while working. Book Ree spends much of the book in old, hand me down dresses; film Ree, in jeans. There's mercifully less 'ado about phlegm in the film. Woodrell certainly makes snot social and the hocking of spit and crud from deep in the sinuses is frequent. I know this isn't just over-characterization on his part, y’know, just a chance to describe the generality of the looger; these people exist and walk about freely. These people are the worst. Stop sitting behind me in movie theaters, mucous filters! Everytime. It's ridiculous.

You realize that these are trivial things; good. We are on the same page. When our focus is the story these details are superfluous. And so, bones: those differences that I do believe to be of note--those small devils in the details, say--are what I think separate the two. The film is Ozark hillbilly noir; the book is a character study. If you plan to read the book--and get thee to a bookery, nudnik--save the next paragraph until you have! Decide now. I’ll wait.

Alright: I am going to confess publicly that at one point I put this book down, closed, to just reassess what the hell I’d read. Ree is, at unspecified age but younger than her present sixteen years, fed hallucinogenic mushrooms and raped in the middle of the woods by a friend of her father’s. The way she describes it is horrific, nightmarish and psychotropic, just completely drugged out of her mind, tasting gold and feeling China and brightness, pretty words and, wait. Wait, this grown man just what? Lord Jesus. You stop expecting more out of these people at this point in the story, but Ree herself starts to make a whole lot more sense. (Just to note: there is a brief scene in the beginning of the film where this freak rapist, Little Arthur, has screen time. He’s the first guy she goes asking after for Jessup--the guy in the trailer. The same scene is in the book.)

Ree is also intimate with, and sick with love for, her best friend Gail. She seems mostly disgusted with men and, really, who could begrudge the girl. She doesn’t define a sexuality and I’m fairly certain that wouldn’t ever happen, either, but I feel like there’s enough there to work some safe sum. Time is, again, a constraint in film, and this burgeoning sexual exploration would have been distracting there. This is on one side of the line between crime drama and character study.

While the book is about Ree, it’s also a lot about the women in this area and what happens to them and their families when the men work meth, get arrested, and go to jail. Avoid the law and disappear. When they’re murdered. Every woman in the book is a compromised character, and so then are the children.

Here then we have a big divergence. In the film, Ree has a younger brother and sister. I understand this had to do with verite type choices and it works, in the film. In the book, though, Ree has two little brothers, and there is some Faulkner type meshuga afoot with their parentage. The boys serve as an interesting commentary on the fate of the men here: since the Dolly’s are so many in number and so ceaselessly criminal in behavior, many of them share “family names” so as to mislead the law. Ree’s father is a Jessup, and so is Teardrop; there are Haslam’s, Arthur’s, and Milton’s. Ree expresses regret that she and her mother didn’t put up as much of a fuss for Sonny--a Jessup--as they did for the youngest, Harold (who was to be a Milton), that the both of them might avoid a preordained life of boiling meanness and crime.

The last thing to discuss is the ending. The ending differs by slight but is tonally consistent. When I saw the film the first time, prior to the read, I found it bleak. Again, consistent--but after reading the novel, I passed quick judge that the film was unable to capture the book's optimism, its hopeful ambiguousness, juxtaposed with the unbearable dread of Teardrop's inevitable future. This is not the case: the film is just much, much more quiet and austere. Stoic, like its people. Two things of interest in their omission: in the book, the bondsman who brings the cash remainder to Ree--you earned it with blood, kid--offers her a job working for him; and the final line that has Ree vowing to spend the first of the money on "wheels." The film's ending, with its chickens to raise and their father's banjo to honor, is certainly a more modest promise for the future than one with real prospects for escape. It must be said: Teardrop holding a dead man's banjo is a bonechill in the foreshadow. In the book he and Ree embrace tightly before he leaves, both silently acknowledging the deathwish burning his blood. Just as her father did before he squirreled off into the dark Ozarks, Teardrop warns Ree not to ever look for him once he's gone. These are a people who want to appear to their kin to go gentle into the Thomas'd night while raging straight for it. Sentimentality is to be rationed and served slim. The hug makes sense in the book, even if it is still a surprising thing; it just wouldn't make sense for Granik's Teardrop and Ree at all. And better yet, I think the look the two exchange before he hands the banjo back and sets to leave says everyting, and just as well. While I prefer the book's ending, I concede that it would seem simply saccharine, all this straightforward next-chapter life stuff, if it were tacked on the end, like to shine a bleak film's posterior. A jaunty "that was easy" and the slap of a button. The differences do have meaning, and I prefer the book; still, each ending is perfectly suited to its respective piece.  


So how was your day? Seriously, that’s what it boils down to. This is rue hickishness and trouble of high order. It’s going to burn no matter what way it goes down, and this story is worth the cough after. Do you want to tuck into a beautifully written study of character or would you rather watch a finely crafted Ozarkian noir? If southern slang gives you the creeps, you want the noir. But really, friend, you want both; let now be your time.

Get Winter's Bone at Bookshop or Amazon 

Get Winter's Bone (movie) at Amazon

Tina Estlin Page

Column by Tina Estlin Page

Tina Estlin Page has written for and, and was an editor for years at the biggest publisher on this'n here Earth rock. She's been called "Zooey" and "budget Aubrey Plaza." She takes no offense with the latter.

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Randall Hauk's picture
Randall Hauk from Michigan is reading The Last Werewolf October 6, 2011 - 10:47am


Had to stop at "Jussayin'"


Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books October 6, 2011 - 8:24pm

Shoulda kept goin'.

Tina's picture
Tina is reading Drive, James Sallis October 7, 2011 - 8:22am

My point, perfectly and somewhat ironically illustrated.

Patrick Dunn's picture
Patrick Dunn October 17, 2011 - 6:45pm

I think the first poster may have had a point, actually.  Maybe it's the font or something, but I find this article damn near un-readable.  Sorry.

Tina's picture
Tina is reading Drive, James Sallis October 18, 2011 - 11:22am

Thanks for trying. That's unfortunate, but I enjoyed having written it all the same.

David Hanson_2's picture
David Hanson_2 May 18, 2013 - 10:53am

Sure, it's a year and a half late, but OH MY GOD Hollerin' the steady out your own feet may be the most amazing thing I've ever heard. It's like the Platonic Ideal of a Southern colloquialism.

Where on earth is your friend from???

Xtopher Whyte's picture
Xtopher Whyte November 19, 2015 - 4:58am

The book ruined the movie for this reader, and I love movies. Yes, the film keeps much of the dialogue, but it misses nearly every main point. "Don't ask for what ought to be offered," is key to the Dolly family code, yet early in the film, Ree asks Sonya to take care of her horse. Her horse?! In the book she didn't even have gas for the chainsaw.

The movie, despite its adherence to the source material, romanticizes the setting and its characters. Nowhere is this worse than that awful folksy scene at April's, where all the nice people play bluegrass. Somehow, the movie manages to suck the life out of the story. It reduces everything -- character, plot point alike -- to the same flat note. Yes, the acting is "good," but the direction lacks intensity. It's like a 2-hour song by "Low" or "Spacemen 3," or even "Joy Division" without the hooks.

Another area where the movie misses the point is its decision to turn Harold into Ashley. In terms of the story, this is a crime worse than snitching. One of the key themes in the novel centers on brothers: Teardrop/Jessup, Sonny/Harold. The movie just turns Ree's little brothers into kids and abandons this rich, even Biblical, mythic line. Trampoline in the back yard? Again, completely wrong. 

The movie plays too safe and aims at a pretentious audience that has quaint views about poverty and rural American life. It sanitizes the novel by removing Ree's sexuality. It cuts out her drug use as though afraid that viewers might not sympathize with a girl who smokes (gasp!) weed. It chickens out by changing her uncle's tattoos -- his name is Tear Drop not "x-beside-eye." (Hell, Blond Milton in the movie isnt even blond). It also reduces Gail's role beyond recognition.

One reason that the novel has such power is that it taps into what Joseph Campbell calls the Monomyth, or the Hero's Journey, while simultaneously following some of the standard patterns of hardboiled detective stories. The movie skips most of this, most notably those parts relating to the innermost cave and to resurrection. It also appears that the movie fails to understand who even killed Jessup.

Finally, the film fails to understand that Winter's Bone is also about friggin WINTER. 


Michael Byers's picture
Michael Byers from Kansas City, KS is reading LifeL1k3 by Jay Kristoff November 21, 2018 - 3:53am

I really enjoyed this article. I came here because I got to the end and was like "where is the rest?" I didn't find any clues to who did it... Did I miss them or were they just not there?

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