The Stakes Are High, the World is Bleak

I may be late to the party here, or maybe early, caught, as I am, between news of the movie and the publication of the book, which came out four years ago.

The film Winter’s Bone was last month screened at Sundance, where it won the Grand Jury prize, and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. Skimming the news from Sundance on the internet, I saw that Winter’s Bone is about an intrepid teenage girl who struggles to keep her family together after the disappearance of their father.

Odd, I thought. How did that happen? My script Wildflowers of the West is about an intrepid teenage girl who struggles to keep her family together after the death of her father. And there is no market for such a thing, no, none, none at all. What was I thinking?

During my trip to the Austin Film Festival, I barely could spit out the logline (which I felt I had really, really boiled down, boiled down to caramel) before something shiny apparently moved behind my head and my listener was gone. In one case, we were going around a table telling a producer about our projects, and I followed a guy who said, “My script is like ‘E.T. meets Toy Story.’” “My two favorite movies!” cried the producer. “Send it to me!” She then turned her perfect teeth on me, and I got as far as “an intrepid teenage girl …” before the light went out of her eyes.

“Who is your audience?” snapped another woman at the festival, when we casually exchanged loglines. She sounded quite irritated, as though “intrepid teenage girl” was the most repellent phrase she’d ever heard. We were standing in line to see “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire.”

Based on the novel. Aye, there’s the rub. Winter’s Bone was indeed a novel first. I have spent the weekend reading it and it is one hell of a novel.

The heroine, Ree Dolly, is more than intrepid; she is one of the fiercest and bravest young women I’ve ever encountered in fiction. An Ozark teenager, she has been raising her two younger brothers single-handedly since her mother went crazy (“Mom’s morning pills turned her into a cat, a breathing thing that sat near heat and occasionally made a sound.”) and her father’s primary occupation is cooking meth, which is a kind of family tradition. Her father, gone missing yet again, has put up the house and land for his bail bond. Unless Ree finds him, she, her mother and brothers will be “livin’ in the fields like fuckin’ dogs, man.”

This was published as a Young Adult novel. Don’t ask me how, although that explains how I missed it. I never did understand the YA market, not when my novel was published as a YA, and not since. My own novel is indeed Anne of Green Gables compared to Winter’s Bone¸which our old high school librarian wouldn’t have gotten through three pages of before declaring it unsuitable. The language is filthy. Drugs are everywhere. Sex too is everywhere but far less pleasurable. Love is a slap in the face or a good hard pinch that at least shows you care. Ree’s “grand hope” for her brothers is that “these boys would not be dead to wonder by age twelve, dulled to life, empty of kindness, boiling with mean.” And then, there are the bad guys.

Apparently Daniel Woodrell, who lives in the Ozarks, coined the phrase, or perhaps invented the genre of “country noir.” He has written eight novels, another one of which,Woe to Live On was made into the film Ride with the Devil. In this, the lead character is an intrepid teenage … boy.

He writes about teenagers for the same reason I do. The stakes are high, the world is bleak.

I am now going to buy everything he has written. And so should you.

Here is his author’s page on Amazon. And here is an interview with him in The Southeast Review.

Originally published Sunday, February 21, 2010

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