The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings

The DescendantsPhil: I saw this at the cinema. Well, strickly speaking I saw most of it as I was working the box office that evening and so missed the first 15 minutes – basically those scenes that set the story up and explain what the whole descendants thing is all about. Thus, I was mystified for most of the movie.

The synopsis explains that Matt King’s (George Clooney) wife is in an accident that leaves her in a coma from which she will not recover. He has to arrange for everyone to say their goodbyes and this involves re-connecting with his two daughters. Along the way he discovers his wife was having an affair and has to settle the future of a great big chunk of Hawaii that his family (The descendants bit) owns.

The film handles each plot strand well but pushes the land decision and relatives rather more than the book. This makes sense as the written version is very strong on Matt’s internal dialogue, something difficult to film. If I remember correctly, Clooney narrates much of the story but since this isn’t a popular cinematic device, they tried to show as much as possible visually.

The book is much darker in this respect and all the better for it. While all the characters at the cinema are on the page (and vise versa), they are far more rounded. Sid, the “friend” of the older daughter has much more of a back story here than on-screen. The daughter, Alex, is an ex-model as well as ex-drug addict and since her mother was also a model, this provides an interesting parallel between the two women.

Both book and film are set on Hawaii and I found this is fascinating. Here we have a society that isn’t just a little bit of America (as I would have expected) but has its own traditions and history. The background of the different islands is important too. Theres plenty of the sort of day-to-day detail that gives the story a window into the real and slightly humdrum world of its characters.

Approaching this as a writer, the main thing I enjoyed was the handling of dialogue. Both spoken and internal, this drives the story forward. With a bit of luck I’ll learn how to format it on the page in future! I’m also working on a short story that uses first-person narrative and reading an entire book written this way helps me get my head around it.

As a reader, this is a dense book. While not a fat tome, it seemed to take me a long while to work through it. Sometimes you fly through the pages but not this time. Despite knowing the ending, I really enjoyed the read so that wasn’t a problem. To use a food metaphor, it’s like a steak pie. Supermarket ones seems to be as much gravy as meat. A farm shop near me fills the pastry with dead cow. Much more satisfying but more to chew. This is a Farm Shop book.

For the observant, there is a funny moment when the younger daughter, Scottie, wears a T-shirt to the hospital with “Mrs Clooney” on it. When it was just a book, this was funny. Now with this cover, you wonder if it’s more so or just weird.

The Descendants at Amazon

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