blue skies and layers of mountain views in an Appalachian view

“Hillbilly Elegy” in Howard’s Hands – Different Is Good

I read J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, a couple of years ago.

Vance vividly recalls the good, but mostly the not-so-good, that made up his impressionable years growing up in Southern Ohio.

I related to Vance’s description of depressed, small-town life in Appalachia.  I was born in a small town that is geographically if not culturally considered Appalachia.

My early memories of this small-town life are more positive than Vance’s. I suspect that’s because I was young (7 years old) when we moved away. 

Vance, in contrast, didn’t “get out” until he enlisted in the military. He credits enlisting with saving his life.

But, it wasn’t the dark memories that put me off. There are plenty of aspects of the culture that Vance got right, including substance abuse, unemployment, bullying, ignorance, and domestic violence.

“Along a Backroad in Appalachia” by dok1 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Small Town Losers

The part of Vance’s story that rubbed me wrong was his commentary on why people in these small towns become life’s “losers.” 

Is it effective to shout at a drug addict to “Get a job!”? How about if that job earns you wages that can’t pay for rent and food, let alone counseling and medical treatment?

Can you blame an eight-year-old for being ignorant when that kid is raising his four-year -old sibling in a single-parent home?

Hillbilly Elegy Preaches

The book would have been better painting the picture and then letting readers come to their conclusions; or, at least, initiating the conversation without becoming preachy.

Enter a reinterpretation of Hillbilly Elegy in the form of a Netflix movie produced and directed by Ron Howard.

When I read that Netflix was bringing Hillbilly Elegy to the small screen, I quickly added it to My Watchlist. I wasn’t sure that I’d like the film, but I was interested in seeing how it would be interpreted by a film-maker.

Ronny Remembers Mayberry

Ron Howard seemed like an appropriate choice. After all, The Andy Griffith Show was my earliest introduction to hill people and shotgun weddings.

What Howard did with the story was masterful.

“Appalachia City Hall” by dmott9 is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Unlike the book, the movie begins with J.D. Vance at Yale Law School.

This provides a framework for Vance’s story, and sets a more positive tone for what is sometimes a painful recounting of small-town life in a depressed region of Ohio.

Vance is an executive producer of the film, but Howard’s influence is obvious.

“Hillbilly Elegy” the Movie, unlike the book, doesn’t come off as overt political messaging. 

It plays as an honest memoir of one person’s early and formative years, of one family’s relatable story.

Howard shows violence, xenophobia, poverty, and oppression in the film. He just doesn’t add his own (or Vance’s) political narrative to the story.

Hillbilly Elegy Show and Tell

Critics say that Howard’s interpretation “avoids” the political issues on which author Vance opines.

Ironically, critics complain that Hillbilly Elegy the Book is too laden with political commentary.

To me, Howard isn’t avoiding the issues. He’s exercising a principle that we universally recognize: showing is better than telling.

This is makes the film powerful. If you disagree with Vance’s opinions, fine. But facts are facts, and Vance’s recall of the facts of depressed small-town life seems awfully close to my own.

Is Vance’s recollection a “true representation” of current Appalachian culture? What does that mean, anyway? Vance’s story is just that – it’s his story, his memory, and his reflection. It is one man’s story, and Howard portrays it as such.

I like that Howard respects the viewer’s right to form their opinion and shows rather than tells Vance’s story.

To quote the late New York Senator and presidential advisor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

Featured photo “Appalachia from summit of Roan Mountain State Park” by Dallas Krentzel is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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