Summer is here and once again my daughter and husband are on a big travel adventure. And once again, I’m traveling too – by book.
Last summer I visited Nigeria, England and Australia as I read books by Chimanmanda Ngozi Adichie, Rachel Kadish and Liane Moriarty.
This summer I went to Hawaii for my book vacation. I learned about all sorts of foods and history and how the locals view the tourists, thanks to Kaui Hart Hemmings’ richly crafted novel, The Descendants,.
But before I read the book, I watched the 2011 movie. I’m always intrigued to compare a book to its film version. I’m not one of those people who simply say, “The book is better.” Often this is true, but I appreciate both written and filmed stories. There are generally nuances and explorations and possibilities unique to each form. Last year, for example, I was fascinated to compare Moriarty’s Big Little Lies to the HBO version, which I had recently watched. The contrast became a nice device to compare the way two cultures treat the same story–in this case Australian culture vs. US culture.
The Descendants was different. Several people had highly recommended the movie, which featured George Clooney and Shailene Woodley and which had won an Academy Award as well as two Golden Globes. It had been on my watchlist for years. It is the story of Matt King, a Honolulu attorney who faces two pivotal and ultimately connected events in his life: a boating accident that has left his wife comatose and a legal decision about how to handle his extended family’s vast land legacy.
My personal short take: The movie was good but not quite great. Its glimpses of what it is like to live in Hawaii were worth the viewing time on their own. The basic plot was intriguing. It also captured that universal experience of family-ness–the familiarity, tenderness, irritation, comfort, etc, that is both unique to a particular family and completely common to all families. There were moments of pure humor, sadness, and insight that I carried with me after it was over.
On the flip side, there were a few moments where the acting of secondary characters was remarkably bad. It also felt a little TOO true to life at times as everything was played completely straight and hands off.
Most significantly, as with Big Little Lies, the film made me crave more of the story. When this happens, it’s such a happy feeling to be able to dive right into the book. And when I did, I had an interesting experience.
“When you get right down to it, what fun is it to have a narrator if that narrator is completely reliable?”
On the surface, the movie and book version of The Descendants are quite similar. There are no huge plot deviations. Most of the characters are essentially the same.
The surprise was that as the book progressed, I found the voice of Matt—the narrator–to be fundamentally and radically different from the movie’s narrator. In both versions, Matt starts out rather complacent and unaware. He then goes through a painful process of realizing the true nature of his wife and their family. The difference is that the movie’s Matt is a steadfastly reliable narrator throughout. The book’s narrator is not.
I now believe that this is the reason the movie feels a little lackluster at times. Because when you get right down to it, what fun is it to have a narrator if that narrator is completely reliable?
SPOILER ALERT!!!! The book version of Matt was especially intriguing to me because an unreliable narrator usually tells the story so that he or she appears better somehow—more courageous, more talented, more intelligent, less to blame. The book version of Matt does the opposite. He starts out desperately trying to take more responsibility than he should. He spins the memories of his wife to her advantage: She wasn’t narcissistic; she was magnetic. She loved him even though she betrayed him cruelly. She was a good mom. Gradually, however, it becomes clear that Matt knows none of this is true. He is living a lie, but it happens in such a beautifully crafted way that the reader forgives him. Some of his realizations–such as the impact his wife has had on his daughters–is almost too much for the reader to bear, let alone Matt.
The Matt of the movie makes peace with his wife’s death by realizing that he and his children will be okay despite everything that has happened. The Matt of the book has a more difficult task. It’s hard to admit that someone you love has used you and probably never valued you as a person at all. It’s hard to admit that someone your children adore didn’t value them either. It’s even harder when that person is injured and vulnerable when you realize the whole truth…and when despite it all, you still love him or her.
It takes a book’s worth of sorting out, but in the end Matt recognizes that not only will his family be okay, they will be much better–much healthier and grounded and connected–because of everything that has happened.
With Big Little Lies, the differences between book and film were many and easy to spot. With The Descendants, the differences were more subtle, but in some ways I found them more significant. It made me wonder about the reason the film chose a different path. Was it too difficult to create the nuances of the book? Would there have been less commercial appeal? Was the director’s personal interpretation of the story entirely different from mine?
Questions such as these are why I love to compare books and movies. I believe they enhance the story by offering two different lenses to look at the same thing. This is why I am always looking for a good comparison. If you have a favorite, please share!