I got round to reading Alex Garland’s novel a few years after watching Danny Boyle’s adaptation. Really, the film also took me a while to get round to – but only because I’d heard a few negative reviews (in comparison to the book). It ended up having a powerful effect on me, mainly for the way it portrays travel. I liked the idea of being lost somewhere in the world with no plan, no way of being aware. An excitement was always present, while the beauty and the colours of the surroundings really made me dream. I read the book a few years afterwards, sometime around 2004 (eight years after it came out). I finished it on a boat, pulling in to some Greek island and at the time – though a lot younger – I figured I’d just finished the book of a lifetime.
Garland’s story revolves around Richard, a young English traveller in Thailand. His fate is made when he meets a Scotsman named Daffy (Robert Carlyle) who gives him a hand-drawn map leading to what seems like paradise – a beach hidden away on some island, completely inaccessible to travellers. Daffy subsequently commits suicide. With a young French couple, Richard decides to embark on a quest to find this alleged lost paradise (that he barely believes in himself) in search of something to make his journey really worthwhile.
The novel was developed in a way that the film couldn’t be. Richard’s narrative pulls you in and really makes you aware of where he is, what he’s doing, why… a feeling of escape, a longing to be somewhere untouched and unspoiled by society’s waves. It was fast and it took you in. After the first few chapters, I would lift my eyes from the pages and feel depressed with the people walking past me, the conversations and the tasks that didn’t really lead anywhere. Here was this guy, completely lost. I remember feeling so jealous – and this was a powerful effect to stir up.
But as the story continues, the reader’s gradual realization that paradise may not be as heavenly as hoped for and the difficulty displayed in facing up to this truth is the craft of a master storyteller. For a writer as young as Alex Garland was at the time, this was quite an achievement.
As a film, The Beach was really good. The visuals were fantastic and island life entertained and disturbed. It lacked the weight of the novel and displayed its Hollywood nature at times – in the novel, Richard did not sleep with Sal, nor did he fulfil his infatuation for Francoise (Virginie Ledoyen). And though many hated the protagonist’s decent into madness, to me it felt like an incredible turning point, with the video game scene plunging viewers into the bizarre and ever-darkening mood of the second half. The scene where Richard is seen by Keaty, sitting in the shadows is reminiscent of the final sequences of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now – also exemplifying Danny Boyle’s directing abilities and his guidance of the film into thriller territory.
The author’s influences can clearly be drawn from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and this influence is evident in Boyle’s film, though not to the same degree. The madness that befalls on the island’s inhabitants is arguably a little too rushed in the film to be as psychological as both the novel and Golding’s classic have proven to be, but it leaves a lasting effect nonetheless. Perhaps what distinguishes the two efforts most greatly is the film’s slight inability to truly capture a world in its entirety, that ‘moment in your life when you’re a part of something’ – as goes Richards’ description of the experience and something that the novel does so flawlessly.