J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy spent nearly two years on The New York Times’s best-seller list and was hailed as a look at Appalachia’s lost generation. Now this caustic memoir is getting a screen adaptation from Netflix and the Oscar-winning director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, The Da Vinci Code). Screenwriter Vanessa Taylor, who co-wrote the 2018 best-picture winner, The Shape of Water, has adapted the text.
Hillbilly Elegy is Vance’s story of growing up dirt poor in the Rust Belt, where he watched jobs and opportunity fade away. Opioid addictions and violence were routine. Paths to conventional success were few. Upon graduation from high school, however, Vance made it into the Marines, and from there went on to Ohio State University, followed by Yale Law School. Now a venture capitalist, Vance credits his success to a series of mentors, none of whom was more important than his churlish, gun-toting grandmother Mamaw, to whom he dedicated the book.
“It’s a story of transformation,” says Howard, “and it explores the complexity of the family, which, though rooted in the struggles and hardships of their specific community, also covers common human territory that a lot of families can emotionally connect with.”
It was the community depicted in the book that initially drew Howard to the project. “My parents hail from agricultural and small-town Oklahoma, and while I never lived there, their mindsets and many regional characteristics have informed my life and decision-making.” Howard also draws attention to his cast, which stars Glenn Close and Amy Adams and also includes Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore, and If Beale Street Could Talk’s Brian Tyree Henry. He calls Close “wickedly funny” in the role of foulmouthed Mamaw, and describes Amy Adams, who plays Vance’s drug-addled mother, Bev, as “inhabiting the character with sensitivity and nuance.”
“They are also natural leaders on set, simply by the way they live up to the demands they face tackling roles like these,” says Howard of his two female protagonists. “Plus, they are utterly watchable at all times.” —Bridget Arsenault