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The Descendants

February 8, 2012

It’s an almost momentary pleasure for me to read a book after seeing the movie; I speed through the book at a great pace, looking for differences. When I read The Descendants, by Kaui Hart Hemmings, I found that the novel is naturally able to do more fleshing-out of the characters, but was pleasantly surprised at how much of the dialogue had been reproduced in the movie, word for word.

The setting, of course, is why I went to see the movie. There’s nothing like watching lovely, sunlit scenes of Hawaii while huddled in your itchy wool coat in a chilly movie theater, ignoring the grayness of the cloud cover lowering outside. My initial irritation with the movie–sparked by a voice-over about how people in paradise have problems too–was dispelled by what came next in the story unfolding on the screen, and that attitude, which I’m going to chalk up to some kind of Hollywood guilt about using Hawaii as a vacation spot, was not in the book at all. (When I saw the movie with Ron, he commented on the voice-over by saying that anytime one of the four of us has to be in the hospital, he wishes we could all do it in Hawaii.)

One of the things the movie did well was to show what it’s like, having people continually barrage you with good wishes for the health of your loved one when you know that there will be no recovery from this final illness. The book does it well, too, with passages like this one: “He looks at a card on the table, then puts it back down and shuffles to bed. I hate get-well cards. It’s like telling someone to have a safe flight. There’s really not a whole lot you can do.”

The main characters in the novel are deeply and well-developed, and even people they meet once get the novelist’s penetrating glance: “Twelve years old. I see her at the club wearing string bikinis and lipstick; she has this collected air about her that no twelve-year-old should have. She reminds me of Alexandra—beautiful and fast, ready to dump her childhood like a bad habit.” I enjoy that description particularly because it reminds me of a middle-school friend of my own daughter’s, a girl who always struck me as a dangerous friend for her. I had dinner with this girl recently and was amused to find out that my daughter’s taste is as good as I always thought it was; the girl has a kind of fierce intelligence that brooks absolutely no delay in growing up, but now that she’s there, she’s good company.

The parts about the adolescents in this novel were some of the most penetrating. Finding this section was like finding something that has passed through my mind visible on the page in a more articulate form:
“I wonder if our offspring have all decided to give up. They’ll never be senators or owners of a football team; they’ll never be the West Coast president of NBC, the founder of Weight Watchers, the inventor of shopping carts, a prisoner of war, the number one supplier of the world’s macadamia nuts. No, they’ll do coke and smoke pot and take creative writing classes and laugh at us. Perhaps they’ll document our drive, but they’ll never endorse it. I look at both of these girls and see it in their eyes, their pity for us and yet their determination to beat us in their own way, a way they haven’t found yet.”
Both the book and the movie strike me as pitch-perfect about some aspects of having been married and been parents for a pretty long time. When the husband suspects a financial aspect to his comatose wife’s affair, he thinks “It’s hard to love my wife right now. If she were perfectly healthy and I found this out, I’d wish upon her the fate she is currently enduring, at least momentarily.”

The victory of the novel is that the hero finally finds a way to take a stand:
“I want to shout that I’m holding on to it, that I’m holding on to everything, that life has taken me by surprise and I’m surprising it right back in my small way.”

I saw the movie three times in the theater, partly for the scenery and partly so I could watch each member of my family watching it. I read the novel once, so far, and found that there is nothing about it I don’t love.

30 Comments leave one →
  1. freshhell permalink
    February 8, 2012 10:16 am

    Interesting. I haven’t read the book, even forgot it was based on a book. Loved the movie and watching Clooney, in his maturity, as he bites back his tongue at those well-wishers. Might have to read this.

    • February 8, 2012 10:29 am

      Might have to send it to you. Once I can walk up the many concrete steps to the Post Office. When the snow melts.

      • freshhell permalink
        February 9, 2012 12:39 pm

        If you sent it, I would read it.

  2. February 8, 2012 10:32 am

    I enjoyed the movie, and know I will the book, too. I did have a family member in the hospital in Hawaii and while the hospital itself was no different than any other really, the drive to and from and the evenings on the lanai with the sea breeze made it easier to cope.

    When the scene off the beach in the boat occurred, it brought back even more memories of a difficult time made more memorable and actually pleasant due to the surroundings . . .

    • February 9, 2012 7:56 am

      That’s what we were thinking, that having your skin caressed by the trade winds would be a consolation. Even if you’re used to it, bad weather is nothing but an additional insult in times of grief. One friend of mine had to fight an ice storm–impassable streets, power out–on the day of her father’s funeral.
      My mother also reacted to the scene where they scatter the ashes (she saw it separately, and told me that on the phone).

  3. February 8, 2012 1:58 pm

    I can’t wait to see this movie — which I plan to do on Friday — and the book sounds good, too.
    I know exactly what kind of dangerous friend you mean —
    One thing I remember about Hawaii — I was there once — was that even the airports felt Hawaiian. They had no roofs. Which makes me think that even hospitals would be better there.

    • February 9, 2012 7:59 am

      The Kona airport was particularly open to the air, which we enjoyed. We always react to high school settings for movies made by people in CA because they’re supposed to be in Ohio, but they have open-air lunchrooms? Where do the kids eat lunch from the beginning of October until the end of May?

      • February 11, 2012 11:59 am

        I know. When I was in college I visited a friend in ca. She showed me her old high school and I was shocked too. It does rain here. I suppose I have always viewed it as a moral failing to not provide for weather extingencies but I guess maybe that’s unreasonable. In Hawaii though I just find it charming.

        • February 12, 2012 1:11 pm

          Yes. I like the few remaining touches like that, of being in a very different place.

  4. February 8, 2012 2:34 pm

    I didn’t realize this was a book either. Of course I should have, good movies are always books first. I really liked the movie for many of the reasons you mentioned. I remember how frustrating it was to get loads of condolences when my mom was going through chemo. People meant well, but they just seemed so empty. I think the movie really captured the fact that when something tragic happens, life still goes on around it. I’ll have to find the book now.

    • February 9, 2012 8:16 am

      People meant well…definitely. It seems to me that we’re less equipped to talk about sickness and death in my generation. We’re not confronted by it that much–it’s mostly out of sight.

  5. February 8, 2012 4:22 pm

    I really want to see the movie! And now I guess I really want to read the book too. 🙂

    • February 9, 2012 8:18 am

      I’m not saying you have to do both, because the movie is fairly faithful to the book. You’ll get a little more about the mother (the character who is in a coma) and about the daughter’s friend Sid from the book. But you’ll get better scenery from the movie.

  6. February 8, 2012 8:38 pm

    Huh! I had no idea this had been a book! I’ve had no inclination to see the movie and have regularly steered my movie-going friends in a different direction whenever they asked me to go see it with them, but I love the parts you’ve quoted from the book. I shall certainly read it and maybe afterwards see the movie even though I don’t love George Clooney the way everyone else seems to. I always want him to just stand up STRAIGHT.

    • February 9, 2012 8:21 am

      Although I am quite capable of watching movies largely for the pleasure of the male star, I am not a big Clooney fan either. He is not older than I am, but something about his looks always makes me think of someone of my father’s generation. So, his playing the father is just perfect, as far as I’m concerned!

  7. February 8, 2012 9:06 pm

    I love that you see movies to see your loved ones watching it! I’ve done that too but sometimes It doesn’t turn out well when they don’t love it like I did. I saw the movie but haven’t read the book yet … glad to hear it was faithful to the book in key ways.

  8. February 9, 2012 8:23 am

    Luckily my loved ones are pretty easy-going in their tastes and mostly like everything I want to watch them watching. There are a few exceptions, but they’re few and far between–my youngest still doesn’t love the movie Buckaroo Banzai as much as his father and I do. But then, who does?

  9. February 9, 2012 11:23 am

    I’m looking forward to seeing the film much more now (I am a Clooney fan from ER days, but I tend to put myself through his films because I know he’s capable of that rare absolutely stand out project, rather than because everything he does is gold). I didn’t realise it was a book until they started displaying it face out in Waterstones and I made the connection. It’s strange how sometimes all the movie publicity is ‘based on the novel’ and other times you’d never know the original idea came from an author’s head.

    • February 9, 2012 8:06 pm

      It is strange. Clooney did a good job of expressing some of the subtle emotion, I thought.

      • February 11, 2012 12:01 pm

        I actually like clooney but thought there was a bit too much staring at his perfect forehead.

      • February 23, 2012 4:39 am

        I saw it last night and while there were lots of moments where I was all ‘seriously George Clooney’s character?’ and the idea of the narrative (dude goes on journey of discovery about self and family because wife is inert in a coma) bothered me a bit, but there’s def something about it that pulls you in. The actress playing his eldest was fantastic I thought.

        • February 23, 2012 7:44 am

          I found the journey of a man with two daughters who had never been responsible for their day-to-day care fairly realistic. So far in my informal canvassing, I have not found a father with daughters anywhere near that age who knows their shoe sizes.

          • February 23, 2012 5:43 pm

            Oh I found that realistic as well. The bit where he tells his daughter her mother is dying while she’s in the pool, in her swim suit I felt was spot on for a guy who had no idea how to deal with his kids and didn’t get that no one really wants to hear their parent is dying while in a pool.

            It was more…like you know the scene in the hospital where he goes off at Liz and then his daughter comes in and wants to do the same thing, but he shuts her down? I wanted to believe he did it so she wouldn’t look back on that moment with guilt, but I found it very silencing. And that damn speech at the end about keeping the land because it was right – I felt like those were the right words coming out of his mouth, but was SO suspicious of his real motives. I found myself wanting to slap him whenever the film tried to frame him as a good guy, but quite happy to watch him the rest of the time.

  10. February 11, 2012 8:16 am

    Okay, you’ve sold me. I’ll have to go see it next week — I always try to see all the Best Picture Nominees before the Academy Awards, and I won’t finish this time, but I’ll definitely have to see this one soon. So behind on my movies and my reading!

    • February 12, 2012 1:07 pm

      This may be the only award nominee I’ve seen. Most of them–including this one–don’t come to my small town.

  11. February 11, 2012 10:36 pm

    I know what you mean about being able to read a book faster after having seen the movie (one reason I’m not a book-first stickler). And I’m really glad to know you liked the book–I bought it for my Kindle a couple of weeks ago, after seeing and really liking the film.

    • February 12, 2012 1:07 pm

      I tend to be a bit of a movie-first stickler. Because odds are, you’re going to like the movie better if you haven’t read the book. And I like movies.

  12. February 14, 2012 12:25 pm

    I read need to see this movie. I have been hearing lots of positive buzz about it.

    • February 14, 2012 2:17 pm

      Is that a Freudian slip? I read need? Maybe you want to read it because it’s not coming to a theater near you?


  1. Review: The Descendants, Kaui Hart Hemmings | Reading the End

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