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Winter’s Bone: Book and Film Comparison

Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.


Debora Granik does an admirable job adapting Daniel Woodrell’s novel, but while it's a fine movie, she doesn’t manage to capture the level of grotesqueness and brutality of the source material.

Acting and Cinematic Choices

Granik’s movie does a lot correct. The cast is a real success. Jennifer Lawrence provides a strong and restrained performance as Ree Dolly, the girl struggling to raise her younger siblings, care for her invalid mother, search for her missing meth-cook father, and keep the bail bondsmen from repossessing the family’s home. Lawrence really hits all the emotional marks and is convincing in both her moments of forcefulness and vulnerability.

John Hawkes is also a qualified success as Uncle Teardrop. His portrayal accurately recreates the sense of menace that hangs around the character and affects all the other characters with which he interacts. Hawkes steals all the scenes he’s in because of the sense of danger and unpredictability he injects into every moment he’s on screen. A reasonable analogy could be Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight in that his presence is magnetic to both the other characters and the viewers.

Credit should also be given to Dale Dickey who plays a somewhat minor character named Merab, wife of the criminal leader Thump Milton. Her turns, closely following the text, come alive with the same restraint and realism that Lawrence provides Ree, but Dickey also summons the real sense of the grotesque in her scenes of violence and her final appearance in which she helps dismember a corpse. Her change is almost like something form a werewolf movie in which she transforms from a burned out, stern woman who has been active in the criminal narcotic trade for a long time into a ruthless, vengeful hag from a disturbing bit of folklore.

The cinematography of the film is also an accomplishment. A lot of details sit in the background and are left for the audience to understand, which is a refreshing change of pace from so many films that club viewers over the head, not trusting them to piece information together without extensive handholding and exposition. Similarly, a real sense of the poverty is invested in most aspects of the movie, so viewers understand the lack of material wealth is pervasive and a real burden to all the characters, even the ones involved in narcotics.

Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes in Winter's Bone

Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes in Winter's Bone

Shouldn’t He Be Missing an Ear?

For it’s many successes the film does makes a few missteps. While the acting of Hawkes channels the character of Uncle Teardrop, he doesn’t physically resemble the character. This isn’t a nitpicking problem because his name comes from a series of facial tattoos that aren’t in the movie. Nor does he have scars on his face and neck. These are important components to his presence and character, and they also help establish the tone and mood early in the novel.

This same complaint can be lodged against the handling of the setting. Woodrell carefully balances the senses of primeval beauty and mercilessness of an Ozark winter and how a hard land makes for hard people with hard ways. Instead of approaching this element with camera shots like she does with the themes of poverty, family, and, Granik focuses on making the musical traditions of the characters fill in this sense of place. This isn’t inherently a bad idea, but it does dilute the aura of cruelty and desperation. The same could be said that the winter, which is practically its own character in the novel, but it doesn’t seem to have the same presence in the film. Even though the characters are bundled up as though a blizzard is coming any moment, this feeling is undercut by the lack of significant snow, the cold inside staved off only by a single wood burning stove, or even when a lake that should be frozen is instead essentially free of ice.


The positives of the film version of Winter’s Bone ultimately outweigh the negatives, and the movie should be seen by anyone interested in seeing strong performances in a noir story of the conflict between traditions that govern crime and family. Fans of the novel, however, should be prepared for the shift in thematic emphasis and changes to some of the characters.

  • Winter's Bone (2010) - IMDb
    Directed by Debra Granik. With Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Garret Dillahunt, Kevin Breznahan.
  • Review of Winter's Bone
    In the Ozarks a young woman searches for her meth-cook father who has put up their house for his bail bond only to disappear. Ree Dollys life is one of rural poverty and intense responsibility as she...

© 2010 Seth Tomko


True grit fan. on January 26, 2018:

I'd say Hawkes performance was worth 10 times over most big budget talent offers. And he does it at a basement bargain price. Also have to say, I've seen some pretty tough winter's living in Maine, and usually the coldest ones have the least amount of snow.

The Truth on April 09, 2016:

While John Hawkes's performance was worthy of praise, comparing it to Heath Ledger's Joker is a bit over the top. They aren't even in the same league.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on June 06, 2011:

Thanks for sharing, Bonnie jean. In the novel the season is much more present and important; the movie downplays the impact of winter and all it brings.

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Bonnie jean on June 06, 2011:

The title of the novel is purposeful; WINTER is so pervasive it is itself a character, getting in Ree's way as thoroughly and viciously as the human ones. I liked the film, but it does not accurately reflect what I see in the novel.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on April 13, 2011:

Thank you, The Jet, and I hope you enjoy it.

The Jet from The Bay on April 12, 2011:

I will definitely check this out now. I'm always down for noir-ish type stories. Props to you.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on February 11, 2011:

I agree about the performances, Cogerson. I'm glad they're getting some professional and critical recognition.

UltimateMovieRankings from Virginia on February 10, 2011:

Excellent review....I was glad when Jennifer Lawerence and John Hawkes got Oscar favorite part in the movie is when Uncle Teardrop comes to Ree's rescue in the garage....good stuff

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on January 23, 2011:

And thank you for reading, James.

James A Watkins from Chicago on January 22, 2011:

Excellent review and comparison (though I haven't read the book). I thought the film was excellent and it took us into a slice of life that I have certainly never experienced firsthand. It was quite a trip. Thanks.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on January 19, 2011:

Thanks, Tina V. I recommend both versions, but I prefer the book.

TINA V on January 19, 2011:

This seems to be an interesting movie to watch before reading the book. I’ll try to check this out. This is a good review. Keep it up!

jamesroy11143 from CA, USA on November 29, 2010:

Where can I find this movies?? I have to see it now :)

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on November 28, 2010:

Thanks for stopping by, Kaie. If you thought the movie was disturbing then the book may give you nightmares; it's more unforgiving than the movie but worth reading.

Kaie Arwen on November 28, 2010:

I found this film disturbing............. it was extremely well done, but it really got to me none-the-less. my thoughts at the end weren't "Wow, that was great," but they were, "Wow, I'm glad I watched!"

I may now have to read the book in order to see what she didn't catch! Thanks for this! Kaie

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