The Descendants (2011) was one of my many summer reads, the Hawaiian setting and lush landscapes made it the perfect way to escape our ever-drizzly English summer. It was also only a quid from Asda, bargain! I have a lot to say about the book, masterfully written by Kaui Hart Hemmings and a lot to say about the film, masterfully directed by Alexander Payne. So without further ado, here is another addition of books vs. films!
The plot stays the same for both, which is nice and simple. They both follow Matt King (George Clooney) a lawyer and a family man, boasting his popular wife, Elizabeth and two daughters, Scottie and Alex (Shailene Woodley). The family is shook up when Elizabeth is thrown from a boat in a freak accident, leaving her in a coma and Matt to take charge of his daughters – something he hasn’t done since they were little.
His daughters grew up while Matt was engrossed with his Honolulu based attorney’s work and now, in the blink of an eye, Scottie is becoming a typical 10 year old with an ‘edge’ and 17 year old Alex lives in Hawaii at a boarding school because she is troubled. While all this is going on with Matt’s immediate family, he also has to meet with his extended family on a regular basis. He is the trustee of a large portion of land owned by the family and due to be sold off to the highest bidder, as his cousins like to wrack up debt. He is the trustee, he makes all the decisions, but can he make the right decisions in such duress?
So here it goes, there will be spoilers throughout as unfortunately with these posts it’s unavoidable.
Liz King and her wily ways
The first thing I would like to talk about is the different portrayals of Matt’s comatose wife. Liz is the McGuffin of the film, everyone is in the position that they are in because of Liz but she is not what drives the narrative – however, if she wasn’t in her coma there wouldn’t be a narrative. Liz is a non-entity that everyone revolves around and it isn’t until the big reveal of her affair that you get some kind of emotion towards her. It is pretty hard to develop a connection with a character that doesn’t talk. In the book however, Liz almost has a voice through Matt. As he begins to deconstruct and understand why his wife wanted to leave him, you begin to hear him accept what might have made her the way she is. This is really effective, I cried more reading the book than I did watching the film. Matt is an enthralling narrator, whether it is with the dulcet tones of George Clooney’s honey voice or if it’s the exact same voice in your head, because you watched the movie before you read the book…Either way guys, it’s brilliant! Hemmings was able to craft a whole character out of Matt’s wholly negative and angry perspective on his wife, and almost make her likable. While Liz King was an awful wife and a questionable mother, she is given substance in the book which makes her a colorful character.
Matt King and his, well, everything
There is no comparison between the book and the film with Matt, they have luckily stayed on course and his dialogue is still rich with a fusion of wisdom and naivety, making him perfect on screen and on paper. Touching on the ever controversial topic of gender, Hemmings is one of the only women who has managed to write the epitome of a man, well not just a man, a dad. She is (surprisingly enough) not a man, nor can she ever be a dad, but there was never a hint of effeminate clap-trap in any of Matt’s internal processing. When his daughters act up, when Sid comes on the scene or when angry mothers complain to him – Matt is emotionally detached but emotionally screwed all at once. Much like my own father must feel at times. It is a stereotype that men, sorry, fathers, are a bit lapse with saying how they really feel. With Liz unable to do all the emotional stuff, Matt is left to pick up the pieces including the pieces of his broken daughters, his marriage and his life. Where the film shows Matt bowing his head, turning a blind eye or furrowing his brow – the book explains his thought processes. They are worth reading, worth appreciating and worth spending some time thinking about.
Alongside being full of clever one liners, Matt is a laugh-riot to read and watch. Clooney definitely brings his character to life, but without Hemmings there wouldn’t be much for him to work with. Matt has a sense of humor drier than a bucket of sand and it perfectly offsets all the over-exaggerated personalities within the narrative. When Matt loses his cool, and he does, it is so shocking all you can do is laugh. While I knew what was coming in the book, it didn’t stop me laughing in public places at his outbursts and awkward tantrums. Hemmings has made watching a grown man have an internal breakdown so delicious, you almost forget how tragic his situation is. Let’s be fair, if someone asked you for a quick plot summary, they probably wouldn’t jump at the chance…
‘it’s about a man who finds out his wife has had an affair, while she is dying, he is left with two daughters he has no relationship with and has to do some massive land deal thingy? Oh, and he has to sort out her funeral and all that, but it’s dead funny though’ – doesn’t really sell it.
I can’t say much more without spoiling it (like as in, really spoil it), so here is a picture of one of my favorite Matt King scenes and my favorite Matt King book quote.
Matt and Alex working together
At the start of both, Alex is a bit of a wayward child. Her first real lines of dialogue are: “Fuck Mom!” As she drunkenly throws a golf club across her boarding school field, Alex isn’t an immediately likable character, or a particularly helpful one. Her resentment toward her mother seems juvenile and her anger comes across as misplaced teenage anger, however, it isn’t until Alex learns that her mother is dying that she begins to unravel. The hardy bitter exterior is revealed, and actually, she is angry for a pretty good reason.
Matt and Alex are now bound together on a mission to find out who Liz was sleeping with and to try and almost co-parent, Scottie. It is heartwarming to read and a delight to watch play out on screen. Alex and Matt pick each other up, tolerate each other and manage to comfort each other despite getting on the others nerves. It is a strange relationship for a father and daughter, but one that must be commonplace in these situations. I would love to find the words to explain this further but really you should just watch and/or read for yourself. It’s not something you can explain. The book absolutely fleshes this relationship out, but it is still fairly meaty in the film. Woodley and Clooney forever!
There is no comparison in this blog post, only equal appraisal for how both mediums manage to convey the same message, the same emotions but one compliments the other. You can’t have peanut butter without jam, you can’t have fish without chips and you cannot watch The Descendants without reading The Descendants. It is all in all an enthralling read and watch. The book adds more colour to an already vibrant spectrum.