This Best Picture nominee puts forward an honest view of the complexities of grief, loss, and love
by Cassie MacKenzie
Like five other movies nominated in the Best Picture category, The Descendants is based on a book—and a wonderful book to boot. I hadn’t heard of the novel before the movie came out, so I read it with Clooney quite clearly in mind: I had the movie cover edition, and after all, it’s never a bad thing to picture Clooney in a casual Hawaiian shirt and shorts. Mmmhm.
The book by Kaui Hart Hemmings is lovely. The story follows the journey of Matt King, a once indifferent husband and father of two girls who is forced to re-examine these roles when his wife falls into a coma after a boating accident.It is both funny and poignant, and alternates perfectly from grief to acceptance to anger and back again. Set in Hawaii, it’s a novel that doesn’t beg to be taken seriously, and therefore can be. Hemmings’characters are not polarized or stereotyped: they are real people, with real reactions to the situations they’re placed in. And after Matt finds out that his wife had been cheating on him, these situations get pretty strange.
I can’t think of a better director to take on a project like this than Alexander Payne: with About Schmidt and Sideways, Payne established himself as the master of what New Yorker movie critic Anthony Lane calls “the beached male.” He continues his exploration of this character with George Clooney as Matt King. I was right to keep him in mind when reading: Clooney is mesmerizing as the self-proclaimed “backup candidate” for parenthood, the “understudy” for the star, his now-comatose wife. Shailene Woodley acts beyond her years as Matt’s eldest daughter Alexandra, as does Amara Miller as the youngest.
The loss of internal narrative always makes the transition from book to movie difficult, and this is no exception. Unlike the novel, the movie virtually villainizes Matt’s wife and paints a far more negative picture of his relationship with her. The novel allows for a much more nuanced version of this story, and this is Hemmings’s most impressive literary feat: she brings to life a character that is comatose for the entire novel. Payne chooses not to do this, and I think this is the major flaw of the film; it makes Matt’s grief a little less complex (if she was such a witch and he was so unhappy, why such a tearful goodbye?), though it makes Alexandra’s anger much more accessible.
If I had to pick a winner in the book versus movie battle, I’d choose the novel. Both, however, are strong contenders, and The Descendants certainly deserves its five nominations.