Countdown to the Oscars: Daniel Woodrell knows the ‘Winter’s Bone’ territory well
A major highway doesn’t pass through the land Daniel Woodrell wrote about in “Winter’s Bone,” his hard-edged novel that became a heralded film and Oscar contender.
The Ozarks of southwestern Missouri is as isolated as it is insulated. The same families have lived in the same homes for generations, far from neighbors and even further from the influence of the outside world. It’s a place full of strong, tough characters, just trying to get by.
And for Woodrell, it’s home.
His father’s search for a well-paying job took him away as a child. He joined the Marines. He sought the sophisticated life of a writer in California. Yet Woodrell was drawn back. He kept finding himself compelled to write about the Ozarks, where his family has lived for generations.
His latest tale is Ree Dolly’s epic journey to find her bail-dodging scofflaw of a father and save her family’s home in “Winter’s Bone,” his 2008 novel that was adapted by director Debra Granik and producer Anne Rosellini.
The film, a critical darling, won the grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival last year and has since been nominated for four Academy Awards, including best picture and adapted screenplay. Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Ree was nominated for lead actress, and John Hawkes received a supporting actor nomination for his role as Ree’s scary uncle Tear Drop.
Adapting a gritty story from a little-understood place has the potential to be a process fraught with intricacies lost in translation and creative disputes. But Woodrell, who wasn’t involved in drafting the screenplay, called the movie a “faithful adaptation” of his work. It’s not his first experience with a film being derived from his writing: “Woe to Live On,” his 1987 Civil War-era novel set along the Kansas-Missouri border, was adapted into Ang Lee’s “Ride With the Devil” (1999).
Granik and Rosellini, her creative partner, were searching for their next endeavor after “Down to the Bone” (2004), another Sundance favorite. They came across the galleys for the soon-to-be published “Winter’s Bone.” Granik said she was attracted to Ree and how her strength and shrewdness veiled her vulnerability.
“Ree’s a folk hero,” Granik said. “She’s the kind you sing a ballad about.”
The Missouri Ozarks, where most of his stories are set, has practically become a recurring character in his work. Knowing the Ozarks, Woodrell said, takes comprehending how people who, while living in the heartland, can be so distant from the American notion of wanting a comfortable and prosperous life. In the Ozarks, he said, no one finds shame in a meager existence.
“It’s always been hard to make a living here,” Woodrell said in a telephone interview. “You don’t feel any requirement to strut around, acting like you have more than you have.”
Ree came to Woodrell at the grocery store. He saw a poor, young woman shopping with children. They couldn’t have been her own, Woodrell figured; still, she acted like their mother, as she walked through the store agonizing over each item she took off the shelf.
In creating Ree, Woodrell, 57, mixed in elements of his own life as a native of the east side of West Plains, Mo., a town of about 10,000 near the Arkansas border. He has seen what the scourge of crank, or crystal meth, can do to a region, and it fuels the story in “Winter’s Bone.” A meth lab seemed to be raided every other day around town, he said. The narcotic was killing its makers and users, but it also propped up families that would have otherwise scattered. To a disparate clan like the Dollys, meth was the one linchpin.
The women seemed to be the quiet force that kept the operation going, Granik said. She noted the profound, stoic strength displayed by the women in the book. It’s a society driven by men. The women do the brunt of the dirty work, yet they also maintain a certain influence.
Merab, wife of Ree’s relative, the meth supplier Thump Milton, was the prime example: She leads the mob of women who brutally attack Ree. But it’s also Merab who eventually leads Ree to the end of her journey. “It’s quite satisfying to see a character choose the right thing,” Granik said of Merab. “It’s not like she does a 180-degree transition; it’s within her continuum.”
Feminine strength wasn’t something Woodrell figured in writing the book, but he noticed afterward how the impact of strong women in the Ozarks was reflected in the story. “I’d met some awfully tough gals in my life,” Woodrell said, “and I find them compelling, if I don’t have to socialize with them too much.”
He pointed to the relationship between Ree and her best friend, Gail, a young mother. The two of them, each saddled with their own burdens, understand each other’s plight and look after each other. He probed much deeper into their story than the movie, which he said was the one key difference from the film. (Granik said that material was filmed, but had to be trimmed.)
Otherwise, Rosellini said the screenplay hewed closely to Woodrell’s telling, as the book already contained engaging dialogue and a cinematic flair. They fused Woodrell’s words with their own discoveries: Rosellini and Granik, who described themselves as middle-class women from New York City, ventured to southwestern Missouri to research a culture foreign to them.
Granik said she was struck by the austerity that stands in stark contrast to the majestic natural beauty that surrounds them. “They want their house to stand strong, keep them warm,” she said. “I had never been exposed to a place where bigger, better, more wasn’t the be-all and end-all.”
The story ultimately ends with both Ree and her creator facing positive prospects. Ree’s left to tend to a mother with a lost mind and her young siblings. But she’s found her father, and ends up with a little money in her pocket. Likewise, Woodrell will be joining his wife at the Academy Awards Sunday, as “Winter’s Bone” is up for the most prestigious awards in the film industry.
Both of their journeys, it seems, are far from over.