The Best Books, Movies, and TV Shows About the Real Hawaii

Multi-dimensional portraits of a complex place

Hawaii has long held a place of fascination in American pop culture. People often portray it as a mythical paradise, far enough away from the mainland to be exotic, but American enough to be an attainable vacation.

It’s a place where characters go to get over their struggles (Byrds of Paradise, Fantasy Island, Island Sun, One West Waikiki), forget their romantic breakups (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), participate in surfing competitions (North Shore, Blue Crush, Johnny Tsunami) and, increasingly, solve all the rampant crime on the islands (Magnum, P.I., Hawaii Five-O, Jake and the Fatman, Dog the Bounty Hunter). Elvis even took a few celluloid trips there himself.

These stories are often written by and star white people. They include some history of the islands, often present that history  in a way that enhances the islands as they relate to America, providing little context to the island kingdom’s colonization or the way America utilized Pearl Harbor as a military outpost long before it granted Hawaii statehood (the attack on Pearl Harbor happened in 1941; Hawaii became the 50th state in 1959).

In 2021, the American fascination with Hawaii came roaring back, first with HBO’s satire The White Lotus and later with the fall debut of Doogie Kamealoha, Disney+’s Hawaiian reboot of Doogie Howser. Lately, more social media attention has turned to the islands as people urge tourists to stop visiting as the state recovers from an overtourism travel boom once flights opened back up last year. Maui County Mayor Mike Victorino even went so far as to ask airlines to limit flights to the state in 2021. (There’s also that whole matter of Ezra Miller being repeatedly accused of assaulting locals.)

We’ve all seen Lilo and Stitch and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. And the less said about Aloha, the better, although that movie is one of, if not the only, mainstream Hollywood movies to examine the U.S. military’s uneasy relationship with the islands.

But beaches, surfing, tropical locales and resorts aren’t all the islands have to offer. If you’re looking for some Hawaiian stories that show the many dimensions of what it’s like to live in Hawaii, check out these selections:

TV

Young Rock

Young Rock
Young Rock.

Sure, the whole premise here is that the show is an extended political campaign for Dwayne Johnson. But it works, and some of it’s best scenes happen whenever the show focuses on Young Dewey’s life in Hawaii. Plus, it features spam musubi on network TV.

Books

The Descendants; House of Thieves

Kaui Hart Hemmings’ book about a man coming to grips with his wife’s infidelity and sudden death gets more into the politics and identity of the islands than its film adaptation does. And Hemmings’ short story collection House of Thieves delivers some more portraits of everyday life in the Aloha State.

33 ⅓: Facing Future

Israel Kamakawiwoʻole, better known as Iz, is perhaps Hawaii’s most famous musical artist. If you haven’t heard his landmark album “Facing Future,” you’ve definitely heard his mashup of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World.” This entry in the 33 ⅓ series of books about albums takes a closer look at Iz’s protest music and the state of Hawaii in the 80s and 90s.

Blue Skin of the Sea

Graham Salisbury’s young adult coming-of-age short story collection set in Kailua-Kona in the postwar years feature some of the most vivid descriptions of the ocean I’ve ever read, and each of the 11 stories in this collection strike that sweet spot of being so specific, they’re universal.

Hawai’i

The one by Mark Panek, not James Michener. This has it all: college football! Real estate schemes! Government debates! Panek exposes the seedy underbelly just south of paradise in this fictional (but not too fictional) yarn.

Aloha Rodeo

As our own reviewer put it, Aloha Rodeo is “an intriguing anecdote spun out into an amiable, if padded, book.” It’s a fun look at a piece of an often-sidelined Hawaiian culture: Hawaiian paniolo, AKA cowboys, who had been roping cattle along volcanoes and pastures long before America expanded to the West.

Five Decembers

Hard Case Crime’s latest is an epic noir/murder mystery, war novel and love story spanning continents and the entirety of World War II. It’s widely regarded as one of the publishing house’s best and just won The Edgar Award for Best Novel. It’s compelling, enjoyable, a great potboiler and paints Hawaii in the ‘40s in a new light.

Movies

August at Akiko’s; I Was a Simple Man

August at Akiko’s, Christopher Makoto Yogi’s slow, meditative film about a man trying to reconnect with his island home after the death of his grandparents, teaches you how to watch it as it goes along. It’s meditative, and it’s actually about the act of meditating. I could feel my breathing calming down and slowing midway through, and I appreciated how the sound design made me stop and want to listen to everything I could find. The music, sound design and cinematography are all top-notch, as well.

Yogi’s latest film, I Was a Simple Man, is an unconventional ghost story where a man dying of cancer starts to see visions of himself at different times of his life. Those ghosts help him to cope with his illness and the way he treated his family over the years. Yogi uses this time-twisting narrative to examine how much the island of O’ahu has changed from pastoral lands to apartment complex towers. It’s never didactic, though, and is purely a character study.

Finding ‘Ohana

A Goonies retread, Hawaiian-style, that provides action, adventure and a tribute to Hawaiian culture as two siblings reconnect with their roots in an attempt to find some lost gold on a treasure map. As a Netflix release, you could do worse. As a kid’s action programmer, it’s pretty great.

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Jake Harris

Jake Harris is a Texas-based journalist whose writing about pop culture and entertainment has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Nashville Scene and more. You can find more of his writings at jakeharrisbog.com or through his pop culture newsletter, Jacob's Letter.

One thought on “The Best Books, Movies, and TV Shows About the Real Hawaii

  • May 23, 2022 at 10:42 am
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    I think The Descendants is a compelling film precisely because the Hawaii it presents is so counter to the “tropical paradise” motif. The shot near the end of depressed, middle-aged Clooney walking on the beach under an overcast sky brings home that this is not a happy place, but one where dreams wash up dead on the shore.

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