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Wednesday, August 20, 2014         

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'Descendants' author lauds Hollywood's version of tale

By Mike Gordon

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The entertainment world is full of great books that were made into awful movies. Lists of these bad relationships are a Google search away. So pity the author whose best-selling memoir is replaced by scathing reviews of wooden acting.

But Kaui Hart Hemmings isn't worried. The Hawaii writer has already seen the treatment that her novel, "The Descendants," received at the hands of celebrated director Alexander Payne. She's so happy with the cinematic result that she could light up a room with her smile.

Although "The Descendants" won't be in theaters until fall at the earliest, Hemmings sat in the audience during a test screening held in Los Angeles in November. She loved it.

"It's wonderful," she said last week. "I saw them film it, and I knew Alexander and I know what to expect from his films, so I was prepared to like it. But I was blown away by it."

When she shared her excitement recently during a talk to students at St. Andrew's Priory, Hemmings confessed it was difficult to talk about the movie without gushing. The film from Fox Searchlight Pictures was shot in Hawaii a year ago.

"Would I have loved it this much if it had nothing to do with me at all?" she said.

Well, who can blame her? Her first novel becomes a movie, and megastar George Clooney is the leading man. And Payne, who brought Santa Barbara wine country to life in his film "Sideways," is putting her Hawaii up on the big screen. Both men have won Oscars.

It doesn't get much better than that, Hemmings told the students.

"Who knows how I would have reacted if another filmmaker had taken it on?" Hemmings said. "This particular filmmaker is my favorite, and when he came into the picture, I sat back and just enjoyed. Any changes he made, I said, 'Great, do what you gotta do to make a good movie.'"

In "The Descendants" the 35-year-old Hemmings created a slice of Hawaii rarely written about, let alone displayed on a movie screen.

Her main character, attorney Matt King, is a descendant of a 19th-century Hawaiian princess and a haole banker who finds himself dealing with a mounting family crisis. King, one of the state's largest landowners, must somehow cope with the reality that his comatose wife is about to die from a brain injury — and that she was also having an affair.

At the same time, he is trying to reconnect with his two rebellious daughters and negotiate the sale of his family's extensive land holdings. His oldest daughter, Alex, is played by Shai­lene Woodley, the 19-year-old actress from the ABC Family series "The Secret Life of the American Teenager." Her relationship with her father gets more attention in the film than it did in the book.

King is the author's favorite character. He reminds Hemmings of people she knows.

"I like good guys, and he's not, on the surface, a good guy," she said. "But he has this quiet integrity that I enjoyed writing about as well as a sort of wry, grumpy voice."

Not every scene in the book will be in the movie, but everything that was crucial to the story is there, Hemmings told the students.

And Payne got Hawaii right, she said. Set designs, costumes, language, the Hawaiian slack-key soundtrack — everything fits. In fact, it fits so well that audiences might not even notice, Hemmings said.

"I have never seen Hawaii portrayed this way," she said. "It's a terrific movie. It's so good you stop paying attention to, 'Oh, this is Hawaii' and you are only watching the movie."

AND that's a wrap.

Mike Gordon is the Star-Advertiser's film and television writer. Reach him at 529-4803 or at mgordon@staradvertiser.com.






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