The Beach (2000)

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*. The novel by Alex Garland was a minor sensation. Despite being both a bestseller and a critical success, however, I don’t think it screamed to be adapted into a movie. Movies, as a general rule, don’t handle unreliable narrators well.
*. For another thing, it’s a story about selling out, and selling out is one way of describing the process of page-to-screen translation. In the book, Richard is a Brit and a worm. I can’t remember if he ever has sex with anyone on the island. In the film he’s still a slimy heel, but as played by Leonardo DiCaprio he’s also a star, American, a “conqueror” (director Danny Boyle), and a stud who easily shoulders Etienne aside to take Francoise as his own. He even gets to play the part of Sal’s toy boy on their holiday outing, despite the forceful warning from Bugs.

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*. On the point of making Richard an American, Danny Boyle comments that this was done “to make the film less British . . . and open it out a bit more.” I think what he means to say is that it was done to make the film more commercial. Or sell out. Boyle originally wanted Ewan McGregor but that didn’t work and the studio hired DiCaprio.
*. Making the property more commercial is also the rationale behind Richard getting together with Francoise (and, even less probably, Sal), a “major departure from the book” due to “it being a movie” (Boyle). There’s nothing like making love to a music-video soundtrack in a phosphorescent lagoon.

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*. Finally, the upbeat ending may be taken as another nod to selling the film to the masses. An alternative ending has Sal killing herself but that was considered to be too bleak (though I think we’re left to assume that’s what she in fact does anyway). Instead, we get the whole experience boiled down to a happy-snappy pic on a disposable camera. These kids will always have “their” island.
*. I’ll bet you didn’t know disposable cameras could take a wide angle pic like that. Now you know.
*. Daffy’s map was drawn by Garland (who got a credit as “cartographer”). I don’t see how anyone could find the island, much less the beach based on such a map, which is clearly not drawn to scale and seems rather crude, to say the least. The beach itself is only marked by an X in the center of the island, which can’t have been much of a help.
*. Then again, the CGI island we see in the aerial shot when they first come ashore shows it to be mainly a pile of rock with little vegetation aside from the dope field. Certainly no jungle like what they’re shown running through most of the time.
*. I couldn’t buy that Francoise would swim to the island in a long-sleeve shirt that went out way past her hands, covering them up completely. Who can swim like that?
*. The prettying-up that always occurs when going from book to movie is quite pronounced. The little village of the beachers is Club Med Thailand: no miserable collection of huts and lean-tos for these kids! Boyle, understandably, protests too much in saying on the commentary track that “it is possible to build this kind of thing quite easily.” I’m not so sure.
*. The beachers themselves are the usual collection of buff and manscaped young bodies. God knows where they’re getting waxed or doing their fitness classes. I mean, they’re not just skinny; they’re obviously spending a lot of time working out.

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*. Is this an early instance of what would turn into the genre of tourism terror (cf. Hostel, Turistas, The Ruins)? Maybe, but it’s interesting that the dope farmers here never seem all that threatening, even when they’re killing people.
*. I like Tilda Swinton, but she’s hard to buy as the den mother Sal. She’s too cold and doesn’t seem to be enjoying herself that much. The burdens of responsibility, I guess.
*. But then I have to admit I thought the beach seemed like a nice place to visit but not a place I would want to live. Is that just because I’m so much older than the target audience? Are there that many young people out there who really think that living this sort of life for six years, or forever, would be fun?
*. Wait a second . . . even Bugs leaves Sal alone on the island at the end? After he was holding on to Richard and yelling at her to shoot him? What’s up with that?
*. My big problem with The Beach is much the same as I had with the novel. How is paradise lost? Not through man’s innate sinfulness or will to power, but just through accident and misunderstanding. Without Richard’s giving a copy of the map to the Americans (which is something he can hardly be faulted for), or the shark attack (an unheard of event in Thailand, according to Boyle), everyone would go on living in hipster heaven indefinitely. Or at least until they all die of skin cancer, which given their predominantly northern European complexions won’t be long.
*. The only moral question that’s asked concerns the treatment of the dying Swede Christo, whose suffering disturbs the mellow island vibe everyone has going on. But that need to exclude is the whole point. Paradise is lost because everyone is so afraid of losing it to the tragedy of the commons.

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*. I used the word “hipster” to describe the beachers and I think it fits as an expression of the whole beach mindset. They have come to the island to get away from the waves of mindless consumerist tourism polluting every corner of the not-so-lonely planet, but, as Boyle notes, they are themselves part of the problem, essentially no different from the shallow party crowd they find so disgusting.
*. Paradise has to be exclusive, which leads to feelings of superiority and arrogance. This will be an abiding condition, as Richard gazes with contempt at the screen-watching zombies surrounding him in the cyber café at the end, a group he obviously does not feel a part of despite the fact that he is a customer just like them.
*. And it’s actually uglier than this. In the eyes of Daffy, and later Richard, normal people are “chunky Charlies” who are “eatin’ up the whole fuckin’ world.” They are mere parasites, a virus, or a cancer. As such they need to be exterminated.
*. I mentioned the screen zombies in the cyber café at the end and there may be a link here to zombie culture more broadly. Garland and Boyle would go on to team up on 28 Days Later, and in 28 Weeks Later Daffy (Robert Carlyle) would reappear as rage survivor Don. But who are the zombies? From Romero on down they’re chunky Charlies: mindless consumers, a human disease or cancer that has to be exterminated. Open fire! Or flee to an island sanctuary the zombies can’t get to. Then if strangers show up . . . kill them too. How do you know they aren’t carrying the zombie infection?

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*. Nothing in this movie really gels. Perhaps if they’d decided to make it a comedy, of whatever shade, it would have worked better. Because DiCaprio as Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now is very funny: stealing the farmer’s headband, zoning out in his conversation with Keaty, becoming an avatar in a jungle video game, or eating the inchworm like he’s breaking the last taboo. But when something serious happens it still seems ridiculous, culminating in the Russian roulette business at the end (which doesn’t come from the novel but from The Deer Hunter, because we all know they can’t get enough of playing Russian roulette in south-east Asia). I think we’re supposed to take the ending very seriously, but to me it seemed laughable, right through to the refugees floating on their raft at the end like a piece broken off the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
*. I think I was too old for the novel and I think I’m much too old for the movie. It was panned by critics but did good box office so I guess young people like it because it speaks to them about something or other. Surely not their lives but maybe their dreams and aspirations. This world is fucked so let’s find an island and start a new one. I couldn’t relate. At all.

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