Winter’s Bone: Book and Film Comparison

Debora Granik does an admirable job adapting Daniel Woodrell’s novel, but while a fine movie she doesn’t manage to capture the level of grotesqueness and brutality of the source material.

Acting and Cinematic Choices

Granik’s movie does a lot correct. The cast is a real success. Jennifer Lawrence provides a strong and restrained performance as Ree Dolly the girl struggling to raise her younger siblings, care for her invalid mother, search for her missing meth-cook father, and keep the bail bondsmen from repossessing the family’s home. Lawrence really hits all the emotional marks and is convincing in both her moments of forcefulness and vulnerability.

John Hawkes is also a qualified success as Uncle Teardrop. His portrayal accurately recreates the sense of menace that hangs around the character and affects all the other characters with which he interacts. Hawkes steals all the scenes he’s in because of the sense of danger and unpredictability he injects into every moment he’s on screen. A parallel would be Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight in that his presence is magnetic to both the other characters and the viewers.

Credit should also be given to Dale Dickey who plays a somewhat minor character named Merab, wife of the criminal leader Thump Milton. Her turns, closely following the text, come alive with the same restraint and realism that Lawrence provides Ree, but Dickey also summons the real sense of the grotesque in her scenes of violence and her final appearance in which she helps dismember a corpse. Her change is almost like something form a werewolf movie in which she transforms from a burned out, stern woman who has been active in the criminal narcotic trade for a long time into a ruthless, vengeful hag from a disturbing bit of folklore.

The cinematography of the film is also an accomplishment. A lot of details sit in the background and are left for the audience to piece together which is a refreshing change of pace from so many films that club viewers over the head, not trusting them to piece information together without extensive handholding and exposition. Similarly, a real sense of the poverty is invested in most aspects of the movie, so viewers understand the lack of material wealth is pervasive and a real burden to all the characters, even the ones involved in narcotics.

Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes in Winter's Bone
Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes in Winter's Bone

Shouldn’t He Be Missing an Ear?

For it’s many successes the film does makes a few missteps. While the acting of Hawkes channels the character of Uncle Teardrop he doesn’t physically resemble the character. This isn’t a nitpicking problem because his name comes from a series of facial tattoos that aren’t in the movie. Nor does he have scars on his face and neck. These are important components to his presence and character, and they also help establish the tone and mood early in the novel.

This same complaint can be lodged against the handling of the setting. Woodrell carefully balances the senses of primeval beauty and mercilessness of an Ozark winter and how a hard land makes for hard people with hard ways. Instead of approaching this element with camera shots like she does with the themes of poverty, family, and, Granik focuses on making the musical traditions of the characters fill in this sense of place. This isn’t inherently a bad idea, but it does dilute the aura of cruelty and desperation. The same could be said that the winter, which is practically its own character in the novel, doesn’t seem to have the same presence in the film. Even though the characters are bundled up as though a blizzard is coming any moment, this feeling is undercut by the lack of significant snow, the cold inside staved off only by a single wood burning stove, or even when a lake that should be frozen is instead essentially free of ice.

Recommendation

The positives of the film version of Winter’s Bone ultimately outweigh the negatives, and the movie should be seen by anyone interested in seeing strong performances in a noirish story of the conflict between traditions that govern crime and family. Fans of the novel, however, should be prepared for the shift in thematic emphasis and changes to some of the characters.

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Comments 14 comments

Kaie Arwen profile image

Kaie Arwen 5 years ago

I found this film disturbing............. it was extremely well done, but it really got to me none-the-less. my thoughts at the end weren't "Wow, that was great," but they were, "Wow, I'm glad I watched!"

I may now have to read the book in order to see what she didn't catch! Thanks for this! Kaie


satomko profile image

satomko 5 years ago from Macon, GA Author

Thanks for stopping by, Kaie. If you thought the movie was disturbing then the book may give you nightmares; it's more unforgiving than the movie but worth reading.


jamesroy11143 profile image

jamesroy11143 5 years ago from CA, USA

Where can I find this movies?? I have to see it now :)


TINA V profile image

TINA V 5 years ago

This seems to be an interesting movie to watch before reading the book. I’ll try to check this out. This is a good review. Keep it up!


satomko profile image

satomko 5 years ago from Macon, GA Author

Thanks, Tina V. I recommend both versions, but I prefer the book.


James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 5 years ago from Chicago

Excellent review and comparison (though I haven't read the book). I thought the film was excellent and it took us into a slice of life that I have certainly never experienced firsthand. It was quite a trip. Thanks.


satomko profile image

satomko 5 years ago from Macon, GA Author

And thank you for reading, James.


Cogerson profile image

Cogerson 5 years ago from Virginia

Excellent review....I was glad when Jennifer Lawerence and John Hawkes got Oscar noms...my favorite part in the movie is when Uncle Teardrop comes to Ree's rescue in the garage....good stuff


satomko profile image

satomko 5 years ago from Macon, GA Author

I agree about the performances, Cogerson. I'm glad they're getting some professional and critical recognition.


The Jet profile image

The Jet 5 years ago from The Bay

I will definitely check this out now. I'm always down for noir-ish type stories. Props to you.


satomko profile image

satomko 5 years ago from Macon, GA Author

Thank you, The Jet, and I hope you enjoy it.


Bonnie jean 5 years ago

The title of the novel is purposeful; WINTER is so pervasive it is itself a character, getting in Ree's way as thoroughly and viciously as the human ones. I liked the film, but it does not accurately reflect what I see in the novel.


satomko profile image

satomko 5 years ago from Macon, GA Author

Thanks for sharing, Bonnie jean. In the novel the season is much more present and important; the movie downplays the impact of winter and all it brings.


The Truth 5 months ago

While John Hawkes's performance was worthy of praise, comparing it to Heath Ledger's Joker is a bit over the top. They aren't even in the same league.

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