'The Beach', Alex Garland's debut novel was a stunning success on its publication in 1996. Its triumph was not limited to the young-traveller market, although it is probably within this group that it has achieved its 'cult' status. Garland is, quite simply, a man who knows what he's writing about: from his careful detailing of Richard's travel habits to his affection and disillusionment with the Thai tourist trail, Garland's writing gives an impression of authority, but without wishing to be the last word on the subject.
The story of 'The Beach' is driven by the ideas behind modern travel and by the characters. It is the tale of Richard, a young British backpacker, who is left a map to a mythical beach by a crazed Daffy, who then commits suicide. It follows Richard's journey to the Beach with Françoise and Etienne, a French couple he met in his Bangkok hotel, and his life in the community they find there. From this point Garland details the disintegration of Richard and of the beach community.
Richard, the central character of the novel, is a classic anti-hero – it is as if Jack from 'Lord of the Flies' has grown up and gone travelling. His moral ambiguity does not manifest itself fully until halfway through the book, although his desires to see danger and to 'do something different' are made plain early on. To the reader the appealing thing about Richard is his inclusiveness. Gone is the idea of the traveller as a loner, someone apart from the run of the mill, someone with special qualities. Richard, however, belongs firmly in today's 'pop culture' – a guy who lives Vietnam war movies, breathes computer games and has as many foibles as any other human being. In many ways he is more flawed than the majority of The Beach's other characters. Richard shows up their good characteristics through his lack of them: Jed's common sense, Sal's leadership, Keaty's friendliness, Etienne's trusting nature and Françoise's simplicity. While Richard is the link into the action of the novel the reader is always aware that we see events from his perception. Richard admits he is not omniscient, he doesn't know what is going on in the others' minds, and he is reluctant to share his dislike of Bugs in case it turns him into the outcast.
In Richard's moral collapse Garland queries what life in such an intense, isolated community can do to a person. Richard is completely absorbed into the life of the beach, and does not realise that in desperately trying to prevent potential new arrivals to the community he will trigger the event he is trying to prevent, the collapse of the beach system.
Throughout the novel Richard continually identifies with Daffy, and eventually realises why he was the one given the map. The Beach community was set up to keep the area away from the normal travel trail, to keep it pure. To that end the three founders: Daffy, Bugs and Sal (Sylvester) only invited selected travellers to the beach, but word got out and others began to arrive. Daffy alone realised that the beach could not be hidden, and so he set out to destroy it swiftly, bringing a madness to the little world. Richard meanwhile enjoys his time on the beach – and forgets that he left a map for some other travellers so that his whereabouts would be known. From the minute these travellers appear on the neighbouring island the community begins to unravel, and Richard relishes his involvement in trying to prevent it whilst unwittingly setting the stage for the final disaster.
The Beach is a compelling journey with Richard as he explores Thailand, and discovers things about himself that perhaps he'd rather not know. Garland's writing is fluid and pacey – the speed of the tale never slackens, even when Richard is reflecting in his imaginary conversations with Daffy. The major characters are well rounded – Richard describes both good and bad points, even of those who he dislikes and, while many of the other beach residents are named, Garland wisely refrains from drawing too many into his mix. It is an incredible confident debut novel, and one he just about managed to follow up successfully in the complexities of 'The Tesseract'.
'The Beach' was one of those novels that achieved both popular and critical success and that, combined with the current vogue for travel, made it a natural choice for a movie adaptation. However, for all its lush locations and much hyped cast, the resulting film was distinctly underwhelming. The adaptation was handed over to the hot British team of Danny Boyle, Andrew MacDonald and John Hodges, the creators of the brilliant 'Shallow Grave' and 'Trainspotting'. The trio were looking to improve on the slightly depressing reception accorded to their third film 'A Life Less Ordinary', but rather than delving into some of the ideas of Garland's novel they chose to focus on the relationship between Richard and Françoise.
Hodges' script took several liberties with the source material that added little to the final result, and these combined with certain denigrating comments made on Richard's character, based partly on the author, left Garland slightly sore. The casting of Leonardo di Caprio as Richard also left Ewan McGregor cold. McGregor had been set to appear, but when Di Caprio expressed an interest in making this his first movie since 'Titanic' Fox opted to sign the bigger star. To accommodate this, casting changes were automatically made to the script. Richard became an American traveller, while Sal – in the book a resolutely democratic yet controlling American leader of the group – became British, a doyen of her little empire, and was played by Tilda Swinton. In fact, both these actors performed solidly. Di Caprio, in particular, went some way towards reconvincing the world that he could act, and they were ably supported, particularly by the two young French actors: Virginie Ledoyen (Françoise) and Guillaume Canet (Etienne).
The film was let down by the story the film-makers created from the novel, rather than by the execution. For fans of the book the most sacrilegious alteration was the turning of Richard's relationship with Françoise (all one-sided in the book, despite Richard's dreams) into a dreamy romance. Perhaps the film-makers had never experienced the situation of Richard in the novel and so felt it unrealistic, or perhaps they simply believed that it would be ridiculous for Françoise to resist Di Caprios obvious charms. Whatever the reasons, the result was that Richard spent more of his time agonising over his love life than being the pro-active character of the novel.
Due to this change the supporting characters were downgraded, mostly to become recognisable faces. Sal and Bugs remained as Richard's antagonists while Etienne became a love rival rather than one of the community's conscience. The most radical change in this respect was the loss of Jed, the beach's watchman, a slightly reticent man, sharing some of Richard's enjoyment of danger but in a more restrained manner. Jed's most important moments in the plot were split between Sal, Etienne and Keaty, Richard's best friend on the beach, ably portrayed by Patterson Joseph.
Richard's mental collapse, so central to the book, appears in the film to be triggered not only by the imminent new arrivals, but also by Françoise's break-up with him. Rather than being an exploration of the characteristics innate in Richard: a desire for danger, procrastination and a willingness to take serious risks, his breakdown becomes a series of disturbing images. These involve Richard in a computer game in the jungle, bouncing off the walls of a tiny bamboo hut, and lots of glimpses of a blood bespattered manic Robert Carlyle (Daffy). In addition the end of the film is a diluted version of that of the book. Richard is less complicit in the disaster and the beach collapses completely, rather than receiving a mortal wound. The final image is one of Richard's happy memories of the beach, rather than the books' ending: 'I have a lot of scars.'
Despite the problems in the story, Boyle created a wonderful looking film, although with a cast full of gorgeous young things filming in Thailand, it's hard to see where he could have gone wrong. The disappointment of the film stems more of the apparent waste of Garland's novel than anything else. The all-important beach is stunning – white sand, crystal seas, and a sophisticated community. As usual with films from this trio, the soundtrack is outstanding. All Saint's infectious main theme 'Pure Shores' was one of the biggest sellers of 1999, and the image of Richard, Etienne and Françoise arriving at the beach to Moby's 'Precious' became an instant classic. The rest is a solid collection, mostly of dance tracks.
As a whole the film of 'The Beach' is a disappointment. Standing alone as a film it has much in its favour: a solid cast, decent script, fantastic setting (for all the environmental protests over the importing of palm trees to the beach). However, in any adaptation of a book to screen, the original material cannot be ignored in relation to the final result, and the book was wasted. The potential was there for the film to cast a glimpse into the debate over the influence of films and computer games on individuals, and to show a few of the problems of mass travel. Instead the film fell short, and settled for being a romantic drama, and displayed little of the flair and darkly comic tendencies of Boyle, MacDonald and Hodges' earlier work. The film fared fairly well, better with the public than with the critics, but was in no way the triumph that had been hoped for and predicted.