Netflix’s Hillbilly Elegy Is a Movie Afraid of the Book It’s Based on
When J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy was released in summer 2016, it quickly became an object of fascination: Donald Trump was in the process of claiming the Republican presidential nomination, surprising observers both inside and outside the party who believed he had no chance. While few at that point expected Trump to win the election, his nomination left a kind of anxious uncertainty in the air—particularly about the rural, less-educated people who had backed him in large numbers. What kind of a person, what kind of an American, had voted for Donald Trump?
There was at least a little bit of condescension to these sorts of questions or, at the very least, a disconnect. The people who covered politics for a living did not understand the lives of many of the voters who had selected a major party presidential nominee.
Vance’s memoir of growing up with modest means in Appalachia under the wing of a drug-addicted mother and a tough, violent grandmother offered a way in. Vance had struggled under erratic parenting and unstable living conditions before eventually joining the Marines, attending a state college, and, eventually, Yale Law School. He’d shed his self-defeating hillbilly habits and could offer critical insight into the world he’d been born into.
His book was thus taken as an empathetic, self-critical explanation of their culture, their inclinations, and their flaws from someone who had grown up in that milieu and found a way out. In the headline to a generous, mostly positive review, The New York Times called it “a tough love analysis of the poor who back Trump.”
Trump’s political ascendancy had raised big questions about America’s political psyche: Vance’s book had a distinctive conservative tilt, but it also had answers.
Trump won the election. The book became a bestseller. Vance was
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