Can the Hillbilly Elegy movie do any good for Appalachia?

March 13, 2019
Photo by Cris Ritchie.

In 1972, Christopher Dickey had a summer job in North Georgia. His dad, James Dickey, was having his novel Deliverance turned into a movie. So Christopher got a job working on the film—as a body double for Ned Beatty, in the “squeal like a pig” scene.

The scene, which takes up more space in the film than in Dickey’s novel, also occupies more cultural space than almost any other image of the mountain South. (Another scene from Deliverance—the one with the banjo boy—is a close second.) The association of that scene with Appalachia remains damaging to an entire region. Christopher Dickey eventually wrote a memoir, Summer of Deliverance, that describes his own helpless feelings as he saw his father’s more complex work of fiction turn instrument for stereotypes, built to conflate innocence and evil to justify the abuse of a place through extractive industries and neglect.

Related: Appalachia finds its voice

I thought of Deliverance recently, after Netflix secured the film rights to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy in a $45 million deal. Hillbilly Elegy, published a few months before the 2016 presidential election, became an answer to didactic questions of Trump’s win, which were framed in terms of red and blue, urban and rural. Vance’s story is compelling—poor kid raised in Ohio with roots in Kentucky is shuffled back and forth by his addicted mother, joins the Marines, goes to college, ends up at Yale Law School—and he tells it as a classic bootstraps myth. It is the story of one man’s way out of a dying place. But Vance goes further, to say that not only did he make it without much help, but that nobody in Appalachia will take any help anyway. Part memoir and part pseudo-sociology, Vance’s work makes claims for all of Appalachia—chiefly, that poverty in the region is no one else’s fault.

Vance told his story as though it were more than just his own; as his subtitle signals, Hillbilly Elegy is a “Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis.” Following publication, Vance became a media celebrity and the unofficial spokesperson for Appalachia, a CNN contributor and, for a brief moment, a potential US Senate candidate. (He announced early last year that he would not run.) As a talking point to people from Appalachia, Hillbilly Elegy became the new Deliverance.

Hillbilly Elegy also met with an uproar from people with a stake in Appalachia—as natives, citizens, scholars, and protectors. The writing that followed Vance’s book and challenged his narrative was almost worth the pain that produced it. As Hillbilly Elegy climbed best-seller lists, writers invested in Appalachia pushed back against the way that the book was being used to explain the region. It offered a too-easy answer. Op-eds, blog posts, rants, and analyses opened up new exchanges about the region. Elizabeth Catte’s What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia complicated a conversation that had been stuck on repeat and that had focused on doomed industries and “brain drain” rather than supporting solutions. Writers such as Ivy Brashear told Vance to keep his elegy. Scholars such as T.R.C. Hutton offered a historian’s analysis of the book. It started to feel like Vance’s elegy had inadvertently catalyzed an awakening of Appalachian voices—sometimes angry, sometimes joyful in their reclamation, a chorus that might just drown out the “hillbilly” turned venture capitalist who kept stepping to the mic.

There should be no first Appalachian. There should be a wide pool of people to speak up about Appalachia.

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And then someone decided to turn the book into a movie. Ron Howard, who was raised in Hollywood and on all of our television sets, will direct. Vanessa Taylor, television writer on Game of Thrones and Academy Award nominee (with Guillermo del Toro, for The Shape of Water), will write the screenplay. The well-financed film will inevitably drive more attention to Vance’s book.

The media frenzy over the movie deal reactivated the not-quite-dormant angst over Hillbilly Elegy, which has been divisive since its publication and which keeps selling. Its appeal, and the longevity of its popularity—the book spent over a year on the New York Times best-seller list, and a paperback edition has been there for months—owes much to continued coverage of Vance’s Appalachia. It isn’t simply that Vance keeps stepping to the mic; people also keep passing the mic to him. For too many media outlets, he has become the first Appalachian, its translator and spokesperson.

But there should be no first Appalachian. There should be a wide pool of people to speak up about Appalachia. Journalists, historians, activists, photographers—people who are already spending their time reading and talking and thinking about the region.

News of the $45 million Hillbilly Elegy deal arrived in late January. Around that time, West Virginia teachers prepared once more to go on strike for a pay raise. Inside Appalachia reported that parts of eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia do not have access to safe drinking water. The Kentucky House Speaker shut down an effort to raise what is currently the lowest pension in the country. Can that $45 million draw critical attention to the region, or will it deflect aid and endorse a narrative of exceptionalism?

I cringe when I think of how often people who are not from Appalachia have told me that they read Hillbilly Elegy and understand the region now. But I hold out some hope that more attention to Appalachia might make space for debate, and debate might shed some light on the wild range of life that is happening right now in those mountains: angry protests and mournful music and joyful poetry and determined activism, all derived from and leading to a love of place. An unwillingness to be the subject of an elegy. A commitment to vibrant stories and dynamic truths. There is space for these stories of Appalachia as a living place—on-screen and off.

ICYMI: I’ve spent two years trying to shift narratives about the South. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Meredith McCarroll is the director of writing and rhetoric at Bowdoin College. She is the author of Unwhite: Appalachia, Race, and Film and co-editor of the anthology Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy.