When his memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” stirred up debate about poverty, addiction, and other hot-button issues in 2016, author J.D. Vance weathered the cultural firestorm. Now a film version of his book, directed by Academy Award-winner Ron Howard and just released on Netflix, has sparked another round of impassioned critique and analysis — but the film almost didn’t happen.
“Initially, I didn’t want to actually make a movie out of the book,” Vance told me in a phone interview. “Because once you do, you lose creative control, and I was worried about that. But I really liked Ron, and I think he is a good person — though, of course, we don’t share the same politics.”
Reactions to the resulting film version of “Hillbilly Elegy” have been fiercely polarized — this is 2020, after all. Many reviews have called it “bland” and “caricatured,” while a minority have praised it as “heartfelt” and “absorbing.” Conservative New York Times columnist and National Review film critic Ross Douthat commented with a tweet showing how film critics versus audiences have scored the movie.
The two Americas. pic.twitter.com/nfNc7T5uMg
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) November 30, 2020
Few deny the power of how past Oscar-winners Glenn Close (as family matriarch “Mamaw”) and Amy Adams (as her daughter and Vance’s mother, Bev) portray compelling, three-dimensional characters. Only a director of Howard’s caliber, known for “Apollo 13” and “A Beautiful Mind” among countless other hit films, could land such A-list talent to carry this story of one small-town American family’s trials and triumphs.
Vance has taken critics in stride, appearing alongside Howard in several interviews, including on CBS and a half-hour talk hosted by the librarian of Congress. “Already I’m seeing people who share something in common with the story are having conversations about the film,” he told me. “Consequently, maybe they’re learning more about themselves or their families because of it.”
He recently co-founded Narya Capital, a Midwest-focused venture fund, although it’s clear he believes people are the greatest investment, particularly his wife Usha, their two sons, and their extended family. In an interview lightly edited for length, Vance discusses the personal stories behind his memoir, how Howard reimagined it in the film, and what he hopes people take away from it.
How has your family and their community in Middletown, Ohio, responded to the film?
Vance: My family obviously saw this coming and has been part of the process in various ways. There’s always a little bit of reticence to open your life up to strangers and a little weirdness with all the random messages people send you.
The fact that your life story is out there and people are engaging with it, it makes you feel a little odd if you’re not used to being in the public eye, as most of my family isn’t. Overall, they have been supportive and happy with the movie. Family members are especially pleased with how Glenn Close portrayed Mamaw — from her look to her behaviors, she got it right. That was what was most important to us in the family.
Now, I haven’t taken a poll of Middletown. As with reactions to the book, there’s a mixture of people who identify with me and this story. Conversely, some people say, “Hey, I didn’t understand that. I’ve never seen that, and I don’t recognize that in my life.” So you have people who identify with it and others who think our particular story and family antics were unusual.
I’ve generally encountered people in Middletown who are excited about the book and now the movie. Occasionally, the most common gripe I hear is that they wish there was more of a positive portrayal of their city. Of course, it’s hard to get every perspective into a two-hour movie. But certainly, I understand where that’s coming from.
In the book, you portray people like Mamaw and your mother with nuance and grace, even though some of their choices clearly caused you heartache. How were you able to still learn from and appreciate them?
Vance: One of the things that writing the book forced me to do is think about my own choices, my mom’s choices, and my grandma’s life, and put it in more of a multigenerational context. When I was growing up, I constantly was asking myself: Why is this happening to us? What’s going on? Why are things so tough, so traumatic, so chaotic?
Then I started to peel back the onion of our own family a little bit. I recognized that a lot of these things preexisted me, preexisted my mom, preexisted even my grandparents. When this multigenerational story of struggle came into view, that’s where I found some answers. Thinking about my family in that context made me appreciate how hard their lives were.
Consequently, our own family, as chaotic as it was, was very often formed by forces and people that came before it. For all the struggle, there is also a significant thread of resilience in there. As much as things weren’t always easy for us, we survived. Some of us are thriving now.
It’s hard to look back on it as a purely negative story when so much good came from our lives then. Like anybody’s family history, it’s probably checkered and colored. Some people are more complicated than others, but you take the good with the bad, and you appreciate the good even as you try to analyze and understand the bad.
Adapting the Story for the Screen
That’s such a strong theme in the book: how parents and grandparents give an inheritance beyond just material things. It seems like director Ron Howard really took hold of that. What do you see that he brought to adapting your memoir?
Vance: I’m glad you got that out of the movie because that was part of the story that Ron Howard certainly wanted to tell. What was clear to me from the very beginning is that he saw this as a multigenerational story of struggle but also resilience. That’s sort of how I saw it, too. Consequently, when a guy really gets it, you start to ask yourself: Maybe he’s the right guy to adapt this into a movie?
He was very intentional to ask: What happens to a family across generations? How does a thing that happened to a grandkid, good or bad, trace back to something that happened two or three generations back? He decided to unpack those really interesting questions in this movie.
Your book seeks to explore “hillbilly culture” — it’s right there in the title. Do you feel like that comes through in the film?
Vance: It’s definitely hard. A lot of what I try to do in the book is bringing a particular moment or detail about my own family into a broader context. At various points, I try to step back and analyze: Well, there was addiction in my family, but how common is addiction in the broader community? There was chaos and trauma in my family. How common is that among others?
Cultural analysis is hard to do with the movie because you don’t have a writer’s voice and you have limited time. You can say a lot more in 200-plus pages than you can in a film. Ron Howard’s movie gives some sense of what the community looked like, of what I was witnessing and seeing growing up. I think he did a good job of capturing the environment, mostly as a backdrop for one family’s multigenerational story.
By necessity, it is a different narrative than that in the book. In a lot of ways, a movie is a narrower format. It definitely has its benefits, but it’s not as conducive to teasing out some of those social or cultural commentary pieces.
The film depicts a scene of Mamaw’s simple sacrifice of a meal, prompting you to change your approach to school and other responsibilities. In real life, was there such a specific turning point?
Vance: There was not such a specific turning point in my life. Obviously, a movie dramatizes things. I never had a specific epiphany or a moment where I said, “All right, I’m gonna try to get my stuff together, start making better choices, and help my family out in the process.” It was more of an evolutionary process, including years later when I entered the Marine Corps.
A big piece of it was recognizing that Mamaw was sacrificing on my behalf. The people that you love are not just actors in your life, but they’re actively sacrificing to make it easier for you. When you have that realization, whether it comes in the moment or it comes over a lifetime, it creates a certain sense of indebtedness and responsibility.
For me, personally, it had a really empowering effect. That sense of duty and obligation was very meaningful to me, and it’s something I still carry around.
There’s a good measure of coarse language in the movie, some drug use, and scenes of domestic violence. Who do you see as the audience for this film?
Vance: Hopefully, the audience is people who have gone through similar things. The most rewarding parts of this process of writing the book, promoting it, and talking about it have been meeting people who have had similar experiences.
Whether they came from Appalachia, or from a tough family completely outside of that region, or maybe they’ve had their own experiences with elitism in higher education as I have, I hope people will watch “Hillbilly Elegy” and engage with it. But it’s an entertaining movie, so I’m sure the audience is much wider than I know today.
Truths That Don’t Disappear
Near the end of the film, the character J.D. says that by staying home, he won’t save anyone. At the same time, you and your wife have moved back to Ohio. Is there a tension between those two points in the story?
Vance: This is one of the core tensions of the book, of the movie, of my own life: You want to be as present as you can, but in a world with limited opportunities, you sometimes have to leave to give yourself a better life, at least temporarily. And I guess that’s the way I’ve resolved the tension for myself, is we do owe something to the places we came from. We do owe something to our communities and certainly to our families.
Today, my wife and I live in Cincinnati, which is the closest big city to Middletown, probably a 45-minute drive. It’s good that we could see family on Thanksgiving. As people joke, it’s close enough that you can see your family whenever you want to, but not so close that they pop in unexpected. For me, it was always really important to raise my kids near my family of origin. Home was always going to be southern Ohio.
But if you’ve got to leave your home and leave your family to make a life for yourself, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. I don’t think that we should judge that decision or judge that outcome. For me, the sense of indebtedness and obligation doesn’t disappear. Different people are going to act on that in different ways.
What do you hope viewers take away from watching “Hillbilly Elegy”?
Vance: I hope people take away some empathy for the problem of addiction, which is unfortunately much more widespread in our society than a lot of folks like to think it is. It’s surprising that a lot of people think of my family of origin as especially chaotic or traumatic. Certainly, there were moments of drama.
The truth is: Addiction, family instability, and divorce are really common in our country these days, especially in this region, and I hope people who have never experienced those things watch the film and gain a sense of empathy. Hopefully, after watching the movie, people who have experienced those things have some excuse to talk about it or think about their own experiences in a new way.
One person recently told me that it was very cathartic because they watched it with their family and then they had a really honest conversation afterward about their own experiences with addiction and family instability. Similar to the book, this film is a conversation starter. It gets people thinking about their own families and their own lives in a way that can be constructive. Bringing people closer together — that’s the ultimate goal.
Rated R for language throughout, drug content, and some violence, “Hillbilly Elegy” is now streaming on Netflix.