Year of a Hundred books – #68 The Descendants

The DescendantsThe DescendantsKaui Hart Hemmings


There is never going to be a satisfactory answer to the debate of “The Book vs. The Film”, other than a pragmatic compromise. Sometimes you get amazing interpretations of books (The Hobbit), other times rigidly faithful adaptations (Harry Potter 1), “Inspired by” (World War Z), and those that stick fairly well for most of the way before swerving off into the deep end (Scott Pilgrim). What I didn’t think existed was a film that followed the book almost religiously from cover to cover. Then I read The Descendants.

Okay, so there were a couple of changes. A few of the deep and meaningful conversations were cut, the narrator’s wife was renamed, a couple of motivations were changed (though not the outcomes), and a couple of minor characters were cut, but in general George Clooney’s 2011 movie was identical to the book it was based on. For some other films, this might have been a problem, but this time it wasn’t. Firstly because in the two years since I saw it in the cinema, most of the story had passed out of my memory, so reading it felt more like I was discovering the story for the first time. More importantly though is the fact that the story is just so beautiful that it would have been enjoyable to read, whenever I read it.

For those not in the know, The Descendants is the story of Matt King, who through the luck of his family is a co-owner of 40% of one of the Hawaiian Islands. Less fortunately, his wife is three weeks into a coma leaving him to look after his two increasingly off-the-rails daughters. Things go from bad to worse, and Matt has to work out how to keep his life from falling to pieces around him. In contrast to Ghana Must Go, the last family-tragedy saga I read (man, I just can’t talk about that book without comparing it to something!), it is the aftereffects of a parent’s death that drives the plot, whereas in The Descendants, it’s the agony of waiting

It’s difficult to explain exactly what’s so beautiful about the book, in the same way that I can’t really tell you why the film was so good. I think in the simplest terms it’s the fact that most people tend to view Hawaii as being a laid back sort of place that you go to get away from your problem, which Matt dismisses fairly early on. Just because you live in the tropics, life still goes on the way it does for everyone else. This disparity of the perception that we have of Hawaii, coupled with Hemming’s brilliant prose which reflects it perfectly, compared with the tragedy going on in the King’s life, makes this one of the most satisfying books to read that I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.

As an afterthought, a running joke in the early part of the book is that Matt is continually bewildered by his daughter Scottie’s choice in t-shirts. This made me smile like a five year old when I read it.

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