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Hawai‘i book and film locations that reflect the many sides of island life

Shoreline walkway along Front Street, Lahaina; Lahaina, Maui Shoreline walkway along Front Street, Lahaina

Confined to his room for 42 days as punishment for an illegal duel, French soldier Xavier de Maistre took his homebound restlessness to the extreme, writing a detailed “travel journal” aptly titled A Journey Around My Room, published in 1794. Fast-forward to today—a year into the global pandemic—when writing about one’s room actually seems like a reasonable way to pass the time. By now, we’ve all had a taste of de Maistre’s predicament and have been looking at our homes and communities more deeply. Luckily, we can still explore more than our rooms and branch out into our island chain through the instant travel portal of films and literary works.

The titles presented here aren’t brand-new best sellers or current award nominees. Instead, we selected them for the unique and sometimes overlooked windows they open into the Islands through compelling characters and diverse perspectives. Together, they create a prism that reflects many sides of life in Hawai‘i—from issues of change and identity to the legacy of our past, and from our relationship with visitors to laugh-out-loud humor that reminds us to take everything in stride. In these works, we can discover our home, and ourselves, anew.


The Descendants

(R; 2011)

Princeville, Kauai

Based on the novel by Hawai‘i author Kaui Hart Hemmings, this popular and engaging film is partly set on Kaua‘i and stars George Clooney as Matt King, a middle-aged father from an old kama‘āina family. The film retains Hemmings’ focus not on exotic scenery but a more universal plot that happens to take place in Hawai‘i, centered on how King manages his wife’s illness and the truth about their marriage while also navigating a decision about land long owned by his family. As Hawai‘i continues to change and new generations rise, land that meant one thing a century ago means something much different today. Watching King connect with his family—and his family to the land of their past—is especially poignant now. 

Kaiāulu: Gathering Tides

By Mehana Blaich Vaughan. Oregon State Press (2018); 272 pages

“A place and its people are one and the same,” writes Mehana Blaich Vaughan, an associate professor at the University of Hawai‘i in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management. In her book focused on Halela‘a and Ko‘olau on Kaua‘i, Vaughan compiles 20 years of research, more than 80 interviews, and accounts of personal interactions while growing up there. Incorporating her perspective as both insider and outside observer, Vaughan explores how these native Hawaiian communities have coped with change from 1910 to the present, as people from elsewhere moved in, disrupting tradition without understanding the depth of their impact. 

The book stands out because it deftly and surprisingly transcends the academic, connecting readers to this place and its people with palpable, infectious empathy. Vaughan understands that when you truly know a place, you become compelled to care for it. She offers this as inspiration for others to know and care for not only this land, but also one’s own.

Also try: The Folding Cliffs by W.S. Merwin. A narrative poem by the late Maui resident and U.S. poet laureate, this tale of Ko‘olau the Leper’s quest to avoid the pain of separation in the cliffs of Kaua‘i is both beautiful and heartbreaking.


Get a Job! (R; 2011)

A scene from the movie "Get a Job."

This Maui-made film featuring an all-local cast takes a simple comic approach to bringing island living and people from every walk of life to the big screen. It’s star-studded—for Hawai‘i viewers, at least—featuring Willie K. as a job-placement executive and Eric Gilliom as a fruit-picking slacker who only wants to have fun. Other scenes feature slam poet Kealoha, comedian Augie Tulba as a traffic cop, Willie Nelson, Henry Kapono, and ‘ukulele phenom Jake Shimabukuro as a Japanese tourist in arguably one of the film’s best parts. The soundtrack might rival the film, which doesn’t take itself at all seriously and instead connects with the parts of Hawai‘i that enjoy a good laugh at everybody and everything. Not everyone will find its unpolished humor funny, but for many, it’s simply good fun.

Under Maui Skies 

By Wayne Moniz. Koa Books (2009); 128 pages

Maui’s history and culture shine in these seven stories by local playwright and author Wayne Moniz, who uses traditional storytelling genres to capture life from Old Lahaina to Kula and beyond. The title story, a classic Western grounded in historical and personal fact, is built on conversations with former Haleakalā Ranch workers. The real-life forbidden love of royal siblings Nāhi‘ena‘ena and Kauikeaouli is resurrected in The Cruel Sun, during a time where “old ways were despondently clashing with the new.” Other stories are simply fun, such as the humorous and spot-on echo of classic 1930s noir in Aloha Sweetheart, or an evocation of legend like the ‘Īao Valley story Luahinepi‘i, which shows that ignorance of history doesn’t mean the history doesn’t exist. All of Moniz’s stories deliver the unexpected, bringing myth, legend, and the island to life in the voice of a natural storyteller.

Hali‘imaile General Store

Hali‘imaile General Store

Also try: Family-Style Meals at the Hali‘imaile General Store by Beverly Gannon. Comforting family-style recipes like enchilada casserole and Bev’s famous chili from her popular, laid-back Maui restaurant couldn’t be more perfect for these times at home with our own families.

Hawai‘i Island

Running for Grace (TV-14; 2018)

A Kona coffee farm

A Kona coffee farm

Beautifully shot on Hawai‘i Island, this kindhearted if predictable film settles viewers into the Kona Coffee Belt during the 1920s. When a physician, played by Matt Dillon, arrives to work on a Kona coffee plantation owned by a haole family, the race relations between the Japanese pickers and the European-descended plantation owner and outsiders like the doctor are immediately apparent. The film luxuriates in its setting and intimate on-screen community, exploring shifting cultural dynamics and even including a cross-class romance. While the pace is much slower than typical modern films, viewers can better embrace the journey of those who came here from many places and made it home, and marvel at just how much island life has changed since.

Waimea Summer

By John Dominis Holt. University of Hawai‘i Press (1976); 200 pages

This classic Hawaiian Renaissance novel by native Hawaiian John Dominis Holt transports readers back to Hawai‘i Island’s ranching mecca, Waimea, in the 1930s, where the teenage hapa-haole protagonist Mark Hull is sent to spend the summer with his uncle, a ranch hand. Undeniably a paniolo story, it’s also very much a coming-of-age tale as Mark seeks to define his racial identity, find a sense of belonging, and navigate the duality and spirituality of Hawaiian and European cultures. The novel is deliberate, shadowy, and haunting, hugging Mark’s interior perspective as he tries to save the life of his cousin Puna and confronts whether to embrace or reject the ghosts of the past.

Also try: Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers by Lois Ann Yamanaka. The author’s debut novel about a young girl growing up and struggling with poverty in Hilo reads authentically in both detail and language. 


Molokai: The Story of Father Damien (PG; 1999)

Mule ride on Molokai, Hawaii

This traditional telling of Father Damien’s arrival in the colony from Belgium, and his eventual death from leprosy, or Hansen's disease, is depicted on-site in windswept, isolated Kalaupapa.

Kalaupapa Place Names

By John R.K. Clark. University of Hawai‘i Press (2018); 398 pages

A researcher explores the place names of Kalaupapa and the lives of leprosy patients exiled there in the late 1800s, including more than 300 letters printed in Hawaiian language newspapers of the time, many never before translated.


Forgetting Sarah Marshall (R; 2008)

Turtle Bay resort

The North Shore of O‘ahu is itself a character in this rom-com starring Jason Segel, Kristen Bell, and Mila Kunis. Though humorously exploring a doomed relationship and a trip to a loosely disguised O‘ahu resort to get on with life, the film also offers a largely authentic depiction of the interplay between island residents who reluctantly share their home with job-creating visitors (like Segel’s character, Peter) and pleasure-seeking tourists who see Hawai‘i as a deluxe playground (like the eccentric rock star played by Russell Brand). It’s funny and entertaining, and subtly reveals another side to the classic Hawaiian vacation.

Hawai‘i One Summer 

By Maxine Hong Kingston. University of Hawai‘i Press (1998); 96 pages

Originally published in a limited, hand-printed run, this slim but evocative book of 11 essays continues to enchant and surprise. It’s all the more unexpected since Maxine Hong Kingston—deemed a Living Treasure of Hawai‘i in 1980—actively tried not to write about Hawai‘i, where she made her home for 17 years, but just about her life. “Though I did try to leave her out, Hawai‘i—people sing of her and speak of her as a Spirit—made her way into these essays,” she writes. “It is very difficult to capture Hawai‘i. Whose point of view among all of Hawai‘i’s people is the right way of seeing?”

Hong Kingston thus accidentally invites readers to view O‘ahu through her lens and accompany her on everyday journeys, from finding her home in the Mānoa Valley with “cascades of rosewood vines, lichen and moss on lava rock boulders,” to soldiers on rest and relaxation during wartime; and from driving along the Windward side, to exciting encounters with tropical nature.

Also try: The Tattoo by Chris McKinney. This fictional story shines a light on the underbelly of life on picturesque O‘ahu and unfolds as a new Hālawa prison inmate gets a tattoo.

Christine Thomas is the editor of Don’t Look Back: Hawaiian Myths Made New and a onetime book critic for many major national and international publications.

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AAA travel alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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