From the looks of the trailer, Netflix's Hillbilly Elegy looks like a melodramatic movie made in a lab to finally get Glenn Close or Amy Adams their Oscars. But, look into the source material for the new Ron Howard-directed flick and it becomes pretty surprising that the movie was made at all. J.D. Vance, the author and subject of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, became controversial as soon as the book was published back in 2016. That year stand out to you for any particular reason? Vance quickly became an of-the-moment figurehead: He was both the one man who could explain why poor, white Americans supported Donald Trump as president and an inside source who could justify the conservative myth that poor Americans are poor because of their choices, and not because of systemic problems.
Vance's life story, as explained in Hillbilly Elegy, boils down to this: He grew up in rural Ohio and watched family members deal with addiction and violence. He left his hometown of Middletown to join the Marines, and went on to attend Ohio State University and graduate from Yale Law School. This is also the story that's told in the new film by Howard, but the adaptation leaves behind pieces of the hyper-specific socioeconomic commentary from the book.
As explained in a New Yorker article about the memoir, Vance writes that "learned helplessness" and "a broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach" are reasons that Appalachian people are not upwardly mobile. He points to seeing poor people with new phones, a friend who quit a job because he didn't like the hours and then complained of the "Obama economy," and people being — in his limited estimation — supposedly unnecessarily helped by welfare programs as issues within "hillbilly culture." It's no surprise then, that critics of the book have an issue with Vance blaming, at least in part, poor people for being poor.
There's also the problem of it overgeneralizing people who live in Appalachia, a group which consists of millions of people. Historian Elizabeth Catte wrote a response to Hillbilly Elegy titled What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia. "The universalizing that is done in the book is something that's become a trademark of J.D. Vance's engagement as a pundit and a political up-and-comer," Catte told NPR. "My book is certainly a criticism of Hillbilly Elegy, but I'd also like it to be read as an interruption to a claim of ownership about my life and the people around me."
In addition to writing Hillbilly Elegy, Vance has worked for a venture capital firm owned by billionaire and Trump supporter Peter Thiel. Vance identifies as a conservative Republican and has written for the conservative website the National Review. In an interview with NPR in 2016, Vance said that he was not voting for Trump in the election and was likely to vote for a third-party candidate. Following the election, he became a frequent commentator for both liberal and conservative-leaning media as the world sought answers about how Trump got elected and many saw Vance as the key to understanding poor, white Americans.
Vance's specific viewpoints beyond those in Hillbilly Elegy are splashed across numerous op-ed and interviews, including one with the Guardian in which he fails to understand the nuance in the term white privilege. He says it "collapses a poor kid who is the son of an unemployed coal miner into the same group as a rich boarding school kid who grew up in New England."
Howard, for his part, has explained that with his adaptation he was more concerned with the characters in Hillbilly Elegy than Vance's thoughts on socioeconomics.
"He did have reservations, but he was willing to talk about it," Howard told Deadline of Vance allowing him to adapt the book. "And I explained that what I recognized in the book that I wanted to work with as a movie really didn’t have much to do with the sociology, the sociopolitical aspect of the book. I didn’t view this as any kind of polemic or societal overview. I certainly wanted those particular pressures and disappointments and challenges to be present in the film and to have it, but I wanted to understand everything through these very rich and yet very relatable characters."
That would make sense if it were truly possible to separate the two. When it comes down to it, the story is about Vance, his character is still named J.D. Vance in the movie, and critics and audiences are widely aware that the movie was adapted from a New York Times bestseller. This explains why the film is getting critiques like "A sickeningly irresponsible parade of death and despair" from the Independent and "Elegy is entirely true to Vance’s book, which is the worst thing I could say about it" from Vulture. For entirely different reasons, the National Review doesn't like it either.