Reading the Oscars: The book and short story that inspired 'The Descendants'

the-descendants

Image Credit: Merie Wallace

Six out of the nine Best Picture Academy Award nominees announced this morning were based on books: Hugo, War Horse, Moneyball, The Descendants, The Help, and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Between now and the ceremony on Feb. 26, Shelf Life will read or re-read each of these books, in addition to a few others that inspired nominees in different categories, and do a side-by-side with the film version. For our first installment, we’ll take a look at The Descendants, which is nominated for five Oscars, including Best Adapted Screenplay. Minor spoilers ahead.

The seed of The Descendants was a short story called “The Minor Wars” — Hawaii-based author Kaui Hart Hemmings’ first published work — which first appeared in StoryQuarterly and then Best American Nonrequired Reading in 2004. The story focused mainly on Matt’s (George Clooney) relationship with his younger daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) as he struggles to explain to her that her mother is in a coma and won’t be coming out of it. Hemmings expanded on that promising story and turned it into The Descendants, her debut novel.

I actually saw The Descendants¬†film before I picked up the novel, and I was surprised how closely the filmmakers hewed to the book version. The opening conflict that shows Matt having to deal with his younger daughter Scottie’s (Amara Miller) conflict with a girl from school followed an early scene from the book almost verbatim. The comic-tragic tone of the film came straight out of Hemmings’ dialogue-heavy novel, and the screenwriters — Alexander Payne (who also directed), Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash of Community fame — streamlined Hemmings’ work with a light hand.

In fact, the film actually improved upon one of the novel’s biggest flaws. I thought the book felt a bit aimless at times — Hemmings didn’t know when to end some of the conversations between the characters, and large swaths of the story were mired by one semi-funny joke after another (many of which involved young kids cursing, which starts to feel forced after a while). The adapters kept the best gags and left out the others while maintaining the free-flowing, organic unfurling of the plot. Also, the Matt character, while complicated and deeply flawed in the movie, is so angsty and sardonic in the book that you need a break from him before too long. (Fun fact: In the book, Scottie wears a t-shirt that says “MRS. CLOONEY.” Clearly, Hemmings was a George fan long before he signed on to play Matt).

While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend reading the novel if you’ve already seen the film, I’d absolutely recommend “The Minor Wars,” which you can read in Hemmings’ short story collection House of Thieves. The short story doesn’t have the land ownership subplot (which the novel explored with greater depth than the movie did), and Alexandra, played so wonderfully by Shailene Woodley in the film, is only mentioned, not seen. But the essential emotional centerpiece of this story — a father’s impossible task of letting his children in on one of life’s most heartbreaking truths — remains intact, and Hemmings’ “The Minor Wars” conveys it beautifully and succinctly. As Matt watches Scottie try to bring his all but dead wife back to life with kisses, he says,

“I let her go on with this fantasy, this belief in magical endings, this belief that love can bring someone to life. I let her try. For a long time, I watch her effort. I root for her, even, but after a while I know that it’s time. I need to step in. I tap lightly on the door.”

And I thought the movie was heart-wrenching! Have you read The Descendants or “The Minor Wars”? Did the film pique your interest?

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Read more:
‘My Week with Marilyn': How the book stacks up to the movie
‘Moneyball': Love the movie? Read the book by Michael Lewis

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