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What to Know About J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy as the Movie Adaptation Hits Netflix

11 minute read

In 2016, J.D. Vance published his memoir Hillbilly Elegy to unexpected commercial success. The book, as much an intricate reflection on white working-class Americans as a personal history, became a controversial hit among Democrats and Republicans alike in the months leading up to and after the election of Donald Trump. It’s little wonder that such a successful book would yield a movie adaptation: after Ron Howard’s production company scooped up the film rights in 2017, Netflix won a bidding war to finance the movie in a $45 million deal.

The film, directed by Howard and executive-produced by Vance and releasing on the streaming platform Nov. 24, is a mostly straightforward adaptation of the book, which documents Vance’s journey from a rust belt Ohio kid, barely passing his classes, to a student at Yale Law School. It boasts a star-studded cast with Glenn Close as J.D.’s grandmother, Mamaw, and Amy Adams as his mother Bev. Despite these bonafides, reviews have skewed negative. Though well-intentioned, the performances, writes TIME’s film critic Stephanie Zacharek, “cut against Vance’s intent—which is clear, no matter how you feel about his book—to paint these members of his family as complicated, flawed people.”

As the movie’s release makes Vance’s story accessible to an even broader audience than the book did four years ago, newcomers may have questions about its provenance and reception. Here’s what to know about Hillbilly Elegy, its unanticipated political resonance, the controversy that surrounds it, how the book compares to its film adaptation and what J.D. Vance is up to now.

J.D. Vance’s story on the page and onscreen

“I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve accomplished nothing great in my life, certainly nothing that would justify a complete stranger paying money to read about it,” Vance writes in the introduction to his memoir. He explains that he doesn’t think he was a particularly special person; the coolest thing he’s ever done, he writes, was graduate from Yale Law School. Then, he describes his rather normal adult life—his good job, happy home and marriage. And though he’s aware these are pretty ordinary things, he makes clear that they aren’t for anyone who grew up like he did. He puts it plainly: “You see, I grew up poor, in the Rust Belt, in an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember.”

In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance dissects his personal and familial history to underline how he managed to escape a “grim future.” The book covers a lot of territory, moving between Vance’s tumultuous youth in Ohio to his years in the Marines and his experiences at Yale. He captures his relationships with his mother, who struggled with drug addiction, and his grandparents, who eventually raised him. Throughout, Vance reflects on the price of the American dream and upward mobility, and the legacy of trauma and poverty. The movie explores these throughlines as well, with a focus on Vance’s childhood and his time at Yale.

HILLBILLY ELEGY: (L to R) Owen Asztalos ("Young J.D. Vance"), Amy Adams ("Bev"). Photo Cr. Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX © 2020
HILLBILLY ELEGY: (L to R) Owen Asztalos ("Young J.D. Vance"), Amy Adams ("Bev"). Photo Cr. Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX © 2020Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX—2020 © NETFLIX

Vance lacked stability for most of his childhood, largely due to his mother’s addiction. Both the movie and book offer glimpses into his mother’s similarly unstable childhood. Her parents, Vance’s Mamaw and Papaw, lived in Kentucky and, after World War II, moved to Ohio “in search of a better life.” Vance writes that “in some ways they found it. In other ways, they never really escaped.” Papaw was “a violent drunk” and Mamaw “was a violent nondrunk.” In the book, Vance tells a story from his mother’s childhood about when Papaw came home drunk and fell asleep, and Mamaw poured gasoline over his body and lit him on fire. A version of this scene appears in the movie, with Vance’s mother watching in a closet as flames engulfed her father (Papaw survived the attack).

For the most part, the movie covers the big events Vance describes in his memoir. While at a dinner reception at Yale, J.D. explains his journey from serving in the Marines to his time as an undergrad at Ohio State University to Yale. The book fills out this time in greater detail, and Vance delves deeply into how training in Marine boot camp gave him reason to believe in himself. The book also spends more time on Bev’s many boyfriends, which contributed to a sense of instability for Vance.

As the memoir is, by its very nature, written in first person, the book offers more analysis of how Vance’s life connects to the broader context of social, economic and political shifts in the country at large. The movie, by contrast, takes a narrower, more personal view, leaving many of these connections up to the viewer to make.

The book was hugely popular when it debuted

When Hillbilly Elegy debuted in the summer of 2016, no one expected it to be such a massive success. HarperCollins, the book’s publisher, ran an initial 10,000 copies. Vance, who was working at a biotech firm in San Francisco, wildly underestimated that he might need a week off to promote it. Initially, the book was covered by conservative outlets, but in a matter of weeks, it gained more popularity as readers attempted to understand Donald Trump’s voter base. About a month after its release, The American Conservative ran an interview with Vance and senior editor Rod Dreher. In the piece, Dreher argued that the memoir was the most important book of the year. He wrote: “You cannot understand what’s happening now without first reading J.D. Vance.” The story was so popular that it crashed The American Conservative’s website and became “by far the most-read piece ever on TAC.”

Hillbilly Elegy
Haley Bennett, Gabriel Basso and Amy Adams in ''Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX—2020 © NETFLIX

From there, Hillbilly Elegy gained even more attention. Jennifer Senior reviewed the book for the New York Times, applauding Vance for providing “a civilized reference guide for an uncivilized election” and doing so “in a vocabulary intelligible to both Democrats and Republicans.” As Joshua Rothman noted in his review for the New Yorker, Hillbilly Elegy would have found an audience even if it had been published a year or two prior, but its popularity was clearly tied to the ascendance of Donald Trump. “Anti-Trump conservatives have responded to its largely empathetic portrait of poor, white Americans, which they see as an alternative to the less sympathetic theories about Trump’s least affluent supporters—‘They’re all racist,’ essentially—that have become popular on the left,” he wrote.

The combination of Trump’s rise and readers’ eagerness to understand it helped catapult the book to success. Vance became known as “a spokesman for a disaffected group—America’s working-class whites.” The book’s coverage and political resonance in the two months after it arrived in June proved pivotal to its commercial success. It hit number one on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list at the end of August. Since its publication, it has appeared on that list 74 times and, according to HarperCollins, has sold three million copies.

It also sparked a backlash

Despite its selling power, the success of Hillbilly Elegy is not without controversy. Vance faced backlash from historians and journalists over his depiction of Appalachia, including descriptions of its inhabitants as lazy (“many folks talk about working more than they actually work”). Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, Sarah Jones wrote in the New Republic that Vance was disseminating the wrong lessons about “Appalachia and its problems.” Jones grew up on the border of Virginia and Tennessee, and found Vance’s “pull up those bootstraps” mentality to be flawed. “He isn’t interested in government solutions,” she wrote. “All hillbillies need to do is work hard, maybe do a stint in the military, and they can end up at Yale Law School like he did.”

In 2018, historian Elizabeth Catte responded to Vance’s book with one of her own: What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia. Her work analyzed a broad range of contemporary writing on Appalachia, including Vance’s, and broke down Appalachian stereotypes. “There’s a projection of his realities onto the lives of everybody in the region, and it’s not in my mind accidental,” Catte told NPR. “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.”

HILLBILLY ELEGY: (L to R) Amy Adams ("Bev"), Gabriel Basso ("J.D. Vance"). Photo Cr. Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX © 2020
HILLBILLY ELEGY: (L to R) Amy Adams ("Bev"), Gabriel Basso ("J.D. Vance"). Photo Cr. Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX © 2020Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX—2020 © NETFLIX

Another book that sought to reclaim Vance’s narrative was the 2019 anthology Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to ‘Hillbilly Elegy,edited by Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll. The book is described by its publisher as a “retort” to the “long shadow Hillbilly Elegy has cast over the region and its imagining.” In his essay, retired University of Kentucky sociology professor Dwight B. Billings also argued that Vance generalized the region: “It is one thing to write a personal memoir extolling the wisdom of one’s personal choices but quite something else—something extraordinarily audacious to presume to write the ‘memoir’ of a culture.’”

J.D. Vance’s life changed dramatically after the book’s publication

In 2017, Vance left California and moved back to Ohio. He wanted to focus on finding solutions to the issues that plagued the area, particularly the opioid crisis. That same year, he founded “Our Ohio Renewal,” a non-profit committed to tackling that crisis, along with issues like financial security and domestic instability. Vance wrote about both the move and the non-profit work in an opinion piece for the New York Times: “What many communities need most is not just financial support, but talent and energy and committed citizens to build viable businesses and other civic institutions.”

Vance also became a contributor on CNN in 2017. He’s made regular appearances on other major networks as well to discuss politics and public policy. The author’s ascendance in the political sphere was rapid—he even considered running for Senate in Ohio in 2018. CNN reported that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke to Vance about his potential candidacy, but Vance ultimately turned the opportunity down, explaining in a since deleted Twitter post that his focus was on his family.

Glenn Close as Mamaw and Amy Adams as Bev in 'Hillbilly Elegy'Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX—2020 © NETFLIX

Vance’s work still largely revolves around the challenges that many communities in America’s heartland face. Earlier this year, he launched Narya Capital, an Ohio-based venture-capital fund that will make investments in startups that aren’t on the coasts (where most money from venture capital funding goes). The fund is backed by major names like Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

Two years after the release of Hillbilly Elegy, Vance wrote about how his life had changed in the afterword of a newer version of the book. He described a plot of land in Kentucky that had been in his family for generations—it was where his grandmother was born and where both she and Vance’s grandfather are buried. He writes: “The irony of the book’s success is that it gave me the means to buy that piece of land, something I’ve wanted to do for much of my life.”

Vance’s political views remain somewhat guarded

Vance continues to be outspoken about his beliefs. He identifies as a Republican, but he did not vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election (he voted for independent candidate Evan McMullin instead). In a separate op-ed for the New York Times, Vance mined his thoughts on then-outgoing President Barack Obama. Though he felt relief from “the political side” of his brain that Obama was on his way out, he also appreciated the example that he set.

Recently, Vance became a contributing writer for American Compass, an organization that is dedicated to restoring “an economic consensus that emphasizes the importance of family, community, and industry to the nation’s liberty and prosperity.” Last October, he spoke on their podcast about American elitism and commented on the 2020 presidential election, saying that he knows many people who voted for Obama and then Trump who would vote for Joe Biden “for the same reason they voted for Trump, because they were really unhappy with their healthcare.” It doesn’t appear that Vance commented publicly on who he voted for in the 2020 presidential election, but he did tweet some of his observations.

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Write to Annabel Gutterman at annabel.gutterman@time.com