This is one of the few instances I can recall in which the film was more enjoyable than the book. Both media portray the subject identically in some respects: this is the fictional account of a New Zealand family decimated by alienation from their Maori warrior roots, and by the domestic violence, poverty, alcoholism and nearly overwhelming hopelessness oozing from that rupture. In addition, the media share most factual aspects of each key family member: Jake Heke, the alcoholic, abusive father who celebrates his work layoff and is eventually abandoned by the surviving members of his immediate family; Beth Heke, the abused mother who struggles to keep her family together, rediscovers her ancestral roots and eventually abandons Jake to save herself and her surviving child (ren); Grace, the early teenaged daughter, a writer and dreamer of a life far beyond her family's slum neighborhood, but who is raped and commits suicide; Nig Heke, the oldest son, who replaces his family with his street gang; Mark "Boogie" Heke, the second oldest son who gets into criminal trouble and is forced to live in the government's custody but is eventually "saved" by it through his deep discovery of his ancestral roots. Beyond those similarities, the media diverge.
1. The Book
The book is somewhat difficult to read because the writing style is messy, crammed with exclamation marks and uses no dialogue. It feels at times that the author, Alan Duff, is ham-handedly making his moral points about alienation from the Maori tradition and the resulting evils. A significant "factual" difference between the book and the movie is that the book allows us to believe that Jake his daughter's rapist, leaving him a relentlessly brutal, wife-beating, daughter-raping drunk. Compared to watching the movie, reading the book was drudgery. Of course, literature lacks the cinematic devices available to the movie industry.
2. The Movie
a. Acting and Character Development
The movie was a low-budget masterpiece, largely due to the acting quality and technical/dramatic devices. Directed by Lee Tamahori and using Duff's screenplay, the movie benefited immensely from the acting quality and technical/dramatic devices. Temuera Morrison as "Jake" and Rena Owen as "Beth" were superb. Aided by the movie's factual shift that plainly names one of Jake's drinking buddies as Grace's rapist, Morrison's Jake is nuanced. He is still a wife-beating alcoholic but he is also a duet-singing, muscular, handsome man with enough virile animal charm, passion and occasional sweetness to explain why-in-the-world Beth is attracted to him and stays with him for as long as she stays. Rather than showing us a one-dimensional human animal, Morrison portrays a wide range of emotions from gentle to callous. Rena Owen's performance is also first-rate: a naturally beautiful actress, Owens portrays Beth as much more than a perfunctory trapped and beaten slum wife; she is also earthy, captivating and charming as she tries to keep her splintering family together, relishes her ancestral roots and finally leaves Jake. She also moves deftly from one characteristic to the next: arguing with Jake, she is firmly says, "Our people once were warriors. But unlike you, Jake, they were people with mana, pride; people with spirit. If my spirit can survive living with you for eighteen years, then I can survive anything." Almost immediately afterward, when Jake viciously beats her, we see her wounds and weakness.
The deeper examination of "Boogie's" character in the film is also valuable. When first in the government-run boys' home, Boogie has violent tantrums, as he has learned violence from his father and other violent people in the slum; however, the movie shows Boogie learning his heritage from his guardian, Mr. Bennett, and the soothing, transformative effects of Boogie's new connection with his ancestry. The reconnection with his indigenous culture gives Boogie new-found self-esteem and meaning. Meanwhile, Grace is an utter victim in the movie; however, her suffering and death become redemptive for her mother, Beth: Grace's funeral is a turning point for Beth, who reconnects with Maori traditions at the funeral, realizes that at least some of her alienation stems from marrying an outcast who has no respect for tradition, and Beth begins to see a way out of hopelessness; Beth seeks retribution for Grace's suffering and death, then frees herself from Jake. In a very real sense, it takes the tragedy of Grace's suffering and death to awaken and free…