Acton Institute Powerblog

‘Hillbilly Elegy’: the choice to change vs. the choice to leave

Middletown, Ohio, the hometown of J.D. Vance. (Photo credit: Constantin Knapp. CC BY-SA 3.0)

J.D. Vance goes from washing and reusing plastic forks at home to posh dinners with seven utensils per setting. The new Netflix film adaptation of his memoir catches the details of knives and forks but misses the “meat” of Vance’s story. Though they have the same title and many of the same plot points, the book and film have different messages. While the book is primarily about the choice to change, the film centers around the choice to leave. This may seem like an inconsequential difference, but the swap significantly shifts the underlying message. In the film, we get a more conventional American out-of-poverty tale instead of the nuanced story that Vance explores in his memoir.

To understand the film, we must first understand the central message of the book. Vance writes about his childhood in Ohio and how he was able to escape a pattern of generational poverty. “Vance uses his own story to depict a crisis of culture among the white working class, especially in Appalachia,” Ray Nothstine explains in his review of the book. Vance explores the breakdown of societal supports, especially family structure and civil society. Although the community faces economic hardship and shifting job prospects, Vance argues that is not the underlying issue. The community reacts “to bad circumstances in the worst way possible.” The book contextualizes the problems that families in Appalachia face, which are multilayered, multigenerational, and multi-causal; it also wrestles with the complex question of how to deal with one’s cultural heritage. Vance credits his grandmother, “Mamaw,” and her tough love with first encouraging him to succeed.

The book and film offer two different philosophies of personal change. The film centers on J.D.’s decision whether to stay and help his mother or attend a job interview. In this version, Vance’s mother is the antagonist in his quest to escape from home. To succeed, J.D. must reject the place from whence he came in exchange for a life elsewhere as a lawyer. The choice to leave becomes the start of his transformation. In reality, Vance did eventually leave his hometown to join the military. But the departure is not what changed his trajectory.

When the film does explore a change in mindset, it trades a gradual shift in the author’s personal thinking for a Hollywood epiphany. In the film, young J.D. overhears his grandmother struggling to get food for dinner. We then see him buckling down on his homework in hopeful montages. In a recent interview, Vance explained this difference:

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 notable omission in the film is Vance’s time in the military, which is key to his story. Through the Marines, he learned crucial lessons on the work ethic and basic skills he needed to survive. Escaping the accepted pattern of his family required a profound shift in mentality. He says that the Marines “changed the expectations I had for myself … There’s something powerful about realizing you’ve undersold yourself.” Any film adaptation of a book will necessarily simplify the story, but this particular adaptation plays a sleight-of-hand with the story, eliding his time in the military and inserting education as a stand-in for transformation. The theme of education as personal transformation is a cliché in many films. The unique aspect of the military is the confidence it inspires in J.D. through hard work. He gains a sense of agency which allows him to overcome learned helplessness, where a person is paralyzed to act in the face of persistent barriers. The military illustrates how individuals need formative experiences that will help them gain grit and thrive even in adverse situations.

Despite the problems with the film, it does offer some insights. Personal responsibility and agency are emphasized throughout. “We choose every day who we become,” Mamaw tells Vance. Individuals have the ability to rise above their beginnings through hard work. This is a bit more simplistic than the explanation offered in the book, which shows how individuals need to learn hard work from positive examples and to unlearn harmful lessons. These examples of positive deviance provide a path out of generational poverty. An additional insight in the film is the action that erupts throughout in scenes of family drama, shifting from fond memories to explosive crises without warning. This pattern mimics the experience of living in a chaotic household. Finally, the characters, in terms of verisimilitude, are spot on. While on the set, one real-life Vance family member said that Glenn Close so resembled Mamaw that she wanted “to reach out and touch her face or give her a hug.” Close even wore Mamaw’s glasses for the film. Amy Adams likewise gives a convincing portrayal of J.D.’s mother, Bev. But realism for its own sake cannot carry a film. Th underlying message is more important.

Ron Howard, who directed the film, said in an interview, “A lot of this story is about having the will, capacity, the grit to … take the risk of venturing out.” In other words, he envisions the film as the classic American “lighting out for the territory” motif. There is a problem with this approach. When a person travels to a new place, he will find, as Emerson said, “the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that [he or she] fled from.” Merely packing up and moving on is not the key to overcoming the obstacles that Vance faced. His mother is not the obstacle to his success; instead, he must take on a fraught legacy and adapt his mindset. Vance is able to share the story of his mother without being exploitative, because she is trapped by similar mindset of learned helplessness that he once was. Personal change, not personal escape, is the key. The parallel to Christian redemption is explicit in Vance’s explanation. He must forgive those who have hurt him, accept agency over his situation, and work hard. Once he realizes he must change, Vance is able to succeed anywhere. Without that realization, nowhere is far enough away.

Noah Gould

Noah is a Programs Associate at the Acton Institute where he regularly contributes to the blog and Religion and Liberty. He is a graduate of Grove City College, where he studied Economics.