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The Marsh King’s Daughter: A Book-to-Movie Comparison

Published in 2017, author Karen Dionne’s internationally bestselling psychological thriller  The Marsh King’s Daughter tells the story of Helena Pelletier, the child born of a coupling between a Native American (Ojibwe) man and the teenage girl he kidnapped from Newberry, a village in the Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Dionne, in an interview with NovelPro Junkie, says her work is “structured on” the 1858 fairytale of the same name by Hans Christian Andersen. Long and winding, Anderson’s story tells of a beautiful young girl who is the daughter of an Egyptian princess and an evil Marsh King. Her dual nature both guides and haunts her.

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Directed by Neil Burger (Limitless, Divergent), and adapted for the screen by cowriters Elle Smith and Mark R. Smith, the just-released movie adaptation of Dionne’s novel–also titled The Marsh King’s Daughter–is kind of about these things, but not really. While drawing a little from both the novel and original fairy tale, it leaves out a lot of the nuance that makes Dionne’s book a much more captivating experience than the film.

” … The movie is not a book,” Burger explains in the film’s press notes. ” … And the audience has to recognize that. This movie is a different lens on the same character and situation, exploring different parts of her story. The script takes liberties with the book even if it’s very true to the situation.”


Unfortunately, The Marsh King’s Daughter suffered from lackluster box office numbers this weekend, grossing around $850,000 in the North American market. The cast was promising — Daisy Ridley (the Star Wars sequel trilogy, The Force Awakens) as adult Helena, the Marsh King’s daughter; Ben Mendelsohn (Ready Player One, Captain Marvel) as Jacob, the Marsh King; Garrett Hedlund (Unbroken, Friday Night Lights) as Helena’s husband; and Brooklynn Prince (The Florida Project) as young Helena. But not all that onscreen talent was enough to break the film into the weekend’s top ten.

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The consensus is that if you read the novel before you saw the film, you’re likely to be highly disappointed. Here are some comparisons between the two we think will help explain why:

The Book vs. The Movie (Spoilers Ahead!)

#1: The Sheriff-Stepdad Character

Daisy Ridley and Gil Birmingham in The Marsh King’s Daughter
Daisy Ridley and Gil Birmingham in The Marsh King’s Daughter. Photo credit: Philippe Bosse

Gil Birmingham (Yellowstone, Dances With Wolves) plays Daisy’s stepfather Clark, the man her mother married after spending 14 years in captivity. In the book there’s no such character, and Daisy’s mother Helena spends the rest of her life after her escape stigmatized and traumatized. She never remarries.

Perhaps Smith and Smith wrote Clark into the film as its token Native American trope, a nod to the Anishinaabe peoples of the Upper Peninsula. But by mitigating the lingering impact of Helena’s abduction on her psyche, his presence leaches off some of the depth that gives her such power and poignancy in the novel.

#2: Major Lack of Recognition of Native American Influence

Ben Mendelsohn in The Marsh King's Daughter
Ben Mendelsohn in The Marsh King’s Daughter. Photo credit: Philippe Bosse

Young Helena’s father, Jacob, is Ojibwe, which is obvious in many of the things he says and does, and further evidenced by his long, dark hair. In the film he affectionately refers to her as “agawaateyaa,” but in the book, he calls her “Little Shadow,” the English translation.

Also in the book Jacob, his wife Beth (Helena’s mother) and Helena live off the land without electricity and running water. As Helena gets older, Jacob teaches her to hunt and to track animals. They all build a sweat lodge next to their cabin.

However, none of this makes it into the cinematic adaptation. And while the stick-and-poke tattoos Jacob does on Helena are there, it’s seemingly more to show us her wilderness triumphs than the rich aesthetic nature of Ojibwe women, rendering their purpose in the script, alas, only skin deep.

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#3: Helena’s Mother Was Inconsequential

Caren Pistorius
Caren Pistorius/Wikimedia Commons

Played by South African actress Caren Pistorius (Unhinged, Slow West), Beth hardly gets any screen time in the film. We do learn she was kidnapped and held in captivity before giving birth, but the true nature of mother-daughter dynamic, especially within the forcible isolation of that aberrant situation, isn’t portrayed in any significant manner.

The novel presents Jacob’s narcissistic, domineering nature and behavior towards Beth as clearly reprehensible. Witnessing this throughout her childhood as Jacob heaps physical, mental and emotional abuse upon her mother, Helena comes to see Beth as weak, beaten down, and inferior. Not until she matures does she realize the sacrifices Beth made for her despite her father’s sick tendencies. And much as in the Hans Christian Andersen tale, this “dual nature,” being born of innocence and evil, is hugely important in novelist Dionne’s exploration of the adult Helena’s character.

#4: The Abuse

We can hardly blame Smith and Smith for not graphically writing in the intense, sadistic abuse Helena and Beth suffered at Jacob’s the hands. Though the film has an “R” rating, a couple of the scenes were clearly whitewashed to make it more bearable for a wide audience.

For example, there is a hunting scene where Helena has the chance to kill a wolf. In the movie, she shoots and misses, and Jacob uses it as a teaching moment. But in the book, she refuses to shoot and Jacob puts her in the bottom of a dry well for three days without food and water.

Maybe the screenwriters just didn’t want to visit such literal and figurative depths, or perhaps they had some other reason for softening Jacob’s character. But he’s still unlikeable from the beginning of the film. Why not even mention that Beth told Helena he  kept her shackled to an iron ring in their woodshed for the first 14 months of her captivity? In omitting these horrendous deeds, they neutralize Jacob as a character and deprive us of a full understanding of mother and daughter.

#5 The Climax and Escape

Photo credit: Philippe Bosse

Possibly the most egregious difference between the book and movie versions of The Marsh King’s Daughter is that we see Beth and Helena escape at the beginning of the film rather than in the story’s climactic scenes, as occurs in the book.

In Dionne’s page-turner, a lost snowmobiler named John stumbles upon the cabin while Jacob is away. It turns out that he is the brother of a friend of Beth’s from years back. Before John can leave, a wrathful Jacob returns to find him with his wife and daughter. He beats him, carves profanity into his chest, smears the wounds with feces and leaves to die–but not before John tells Helena the truth about her mother’s kidnapping and how she can escape in his snowmobile. This fraught chain of events ultimately turns Helena against her father, and gives her the will and courage to escape with her mother.

The movie version is far tamer, occurring too quickly for the buildup of tension and suspense that makes the novel an unforgettable, white-knuckled read.

Garrett Hedlund as Stephen Pelletier in The Marsh King’s Daughter. Photo Credit: Philippe Bossé
Garrett Hedlund as Stephen Pelletier in The Marsh King’s Daughter. Photo Credit: Philippe Bossé

Finally, if you dig deep into articles about The Marsh King’s Daughter, you’ll see that its filming schedule was extremely tight, with production halted for an inordinate amount of time (perhaps due to COVID). The release date was later pushed back as not to compete with Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour.

Those who contemplate seeing the film might wish to consider the words of novelist Karen Dionne herself:

While I definitely have my favorite scenes in the book, I’m trying not to think too much about seeing them on screen, because I know the movie won’t be a recreation of my novel, but rather will be based on the book. No doubt there will be many scenes that won’t make it into the movie for various reasons.” 

The Marsh King’s Daughter is currently playing at all AMC locations.


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