‘Hillbilly Elegy’ author: Watching story on screen still remains ‘surreal’

Last year during the filming local scenes of “Hillbilly Elegy” in Middletown, a film adaptation of his personal memoir, author J.D. Vance described the experience as “surreal.”

A little more than a year later, the 2003 Middletown High School graduate said that the movie remains a special experience.

“I’ve definitely gotten a little more used to it but its still pretty surreal,” Vance said. “I don’t think I’ll ever quite get used to seeing Mamaw on the screen. Just seeing how close how close she looks to the actual person, who was of course, an important factor in my life.”

The movie was released in select theaters last month and became available to stream on Netflix the day before Thanksgiving. It was a highly anticipated follow-up to Vance’s best-selling book that included stars Amy Adams and Glenn Close.

Vance said the experience of watching the Ron Howard-directed movie being produced was something his family tried to enjoy as much as they could.

He said most of the family looked at it as “one of those weird life experiences that’s only going to happen only once so we might as well enjoy it. But it’s definitely been surreal.”

Family reaction

He said most of the family reaction was mostly positive and there were a few exceptions. Vance said people were generally happy with Close’s portrayal of “Mamaw.”

“A lot of people felt they got her right and really nailed her,” he said.

However, there was some frustration that “Papaw,” played by actor Bob Hopkins, didn’t have more screen time as the family got to know him.

“It was very emotional, there were some tough conversations, and a lot of tears,” Vance said of the family watching the movie together. “But people think the movie got the big characters very well.”

Middletown’s portrayal

Vance thought the film did a very good job of portraying his hometown and that producers tried hard for accuracy in the short scenes.

He said Middletown has changed a lot since the early 2010s. In 2016, Vance published “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis,” about growing up in Jackson, Ky. and in Middletown.

“Over the past 10 years, Middletown is a different place,” Vance said. “They’ve done a lot to make the downtown more vibrant, they’ve brought in some new businesses. Middletown is doing much better now than 10 years ago and I hope people come and check it out.”




“I wasn’t surprised,” he said of harsh reviews from critics. “A lot of national critics just don’t like me personally. I kind of feel bad for Ron (Howard). Maybe they don’t like my politics. Maybe they don’t like things I said. "

Vance believes some people are projecting their dislike of him onto the movie.

“I’m a big boy,” he said. “Ron is a big boy and we can take it. So I don’t mind that too much.”

He also thinks timing had an effect on reaction. In 2016, people were more interested in trying to be empathetic to the white working class, he said.

“But now, I think a lot people feel that it’s old news,” Vance said. “I don’t feel like it’s old news, but a lot of national journalists have taken a different tack. That frustrates me. That bothers me a little bit.

“But it is what it is. Critics are going to criticize. Luckily, at least audiences seem to be seem to be responding pretty favorably to the book and the movie which is all I really care about.”

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