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**Warning: Spoilers for both book and movie!**
The Beach by Alex Garland (1996)
The Beach directed by Danny Boyle (2000)
I chose this as the next book I cover because it is written by Alex Garland! My last podcast I talked about Annihilation, which is a book written by James Vandermeer, and the movie is directed by the author of today’s book, The Beach! Before becoming a screen writer and a director, he wrote books! Since he is known as writing sci-fi, I expected this to have a more otherworldly aspect to it. Ultimately, it is otherworldly I suppose, though not in the way I had been expecting.
Richard doesn’t go on “vacation”, he travels. He discovered early on that travel is the cure to almost any problem. For example, when his girlfriend back home dumps him for some other guy, he borrows money and hopes on a plane to a different country. Once there, not only is the pain of the breakup gone, but he also quickly forgets about the girl.
In this story, he is traveling solo, as he usually does, in Thailand. He meets a guy who is ranting about some beach; and the next morning discovers the man has committed suicide and has left a map to this beach he spoke of.
Richard tells two French people he meets, Etienne and Francoise, and the three of them travel to the island.
On their way, Richard meets two Americans, Sammy and Zeph. Francoise especially doesn’t want them intruding on their trip. Richard likes the guys though, and when they head out early in the morning he leaves a map for them to use to get to the beach. They use the map to follow Richard, however this only leads to their deaths.
When Richard, Francoise and Etienne arrive at the beach, at first life is idyllic. Before long though, Richard slowly goes a bit crazy and by the end, and we learn that the cost of living in this hidden paradise is human life.
Thoughts on the book
This book kept my attention, even though the majority of it could be described as mundane. When talking about life on the beach, there are some exciting things, but mostly it’s just describing the ins and outs of beach life. Of course, as you’re reading, you are waiting for the climax because you know things are going to come crashing down at some point in some way.
One reason I liked it so much could be because I would love living this communal/hippie life. Spending you time in the sun and water, working together to do your share in the community. They aren’t totally cut off from technology, they make trips to the nearest island when they need rice and other things like batteries for their Gameboys and Walkman’s and such (remember this is written in the ‘90’s). The only problem for me is that I’m not a great swimmer and am scared to be totally submerged underwater.
Anyway, the slow set up really pulled me in. After the death of Mister Duck, Richard has dreams with him. Then at one point, he starts seeing him during the day and has a relationship with him. This is entertaining, sometimes funny, and is just a nice touch-having the lead character have an imaginary friend.
Then the end really came as a surprise. We’ll get into the details later, but there were certain elements that didn’t surprise me, but there were other things that happened that I was definitely shocked by.
Garland must have a fascination with the Vietnam war, because that plays a big part in this book. I don’t know if he just likes Apocalypse, Now, or if he is interested in the war in general.
The movie was directed by Danny Boyle, who also directed notable films such as Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, Steve Jobs (the 2015 version with Michael Fassbender), as well as 28 Days Later and Sunshine, both of which were scripts written by Alex Garland.
Leonardo DiCaprio is in the leading role of Richard. DiCaprio was fresh off the success of Titanic and was now being paid 20 million a movie! He was cast in American Psycho, but I read they weren’t able to offer him that much, so he went with The Beach instead. Danny Boyle had already offered the role of Ewan McGregor (whom he had worked with in Trainspotting) however the studio wanted the big name of Leo DiCaprio, so McGregor had to be told the bad news. DiCaprio is great in this of course, but I would have loved to see McGregor in the role. I kind of think he would have done even better!
Tilda Swinton seems pretty perfect as Sal, the leader of the commune. She is of course an amazing actress.
Virginie Ledoyen is Francoise.
Guillaume Canet is well cast at Etienne. When looking into him, I thought it was interesting that he was married to Diane Kruger. She is the actress who was in National Treasure, as well as Inglorious Basterds. He has been with Marion Cotilliardfor the last ten years or so and they have two kids together. Cotillard is an Oscar winning actress who has been in big movies such as Inception (which also has DiCaprio, so she and her longtime partner have both acted alongside him), The Dark Knight Rises.
Robert Carlyle is Mister. Duck, I wish he would be in more, like he was in the book. Carlyle is great though in the scenes he is part of. Fans of Once Upon a Time will recognize him as the actor who plays Rumpelstiltskin! I remember thinking what a talented actor he was while watching that show, and here he is well cast as the kind of crazy guy.
The book and movie actually have a lot of differences, so there’s a lot to unpack here.
Both the book and movie do a good job setting up the beach life as this perfect place to be. The movie really gives it a lighthearted, fun atmosphere. Even though the beach life seems pretty awesome in the book too, there is a bit of an unsettling undertone. This whole experience begins for Richard with Daffy Duck. So, that is where I will begin.
In both book and movie, Richard meets the Scottish man next door. The next day, there is a map pinned to his door and when he goes to see the Scottish man, he finds he has slit his wrists and is dead. Richard has to go to the police station where they question him about the man. In the book is says he had checked into the hotel using the name Daffy Duck, so the policeman refers to him as “Mister Duck”. Richard tells him Daffy Duck is a cartoon and this isn’t the man’s real name. However, that is what they continue to call him, and throughout the book, it is what Richard calls him as well.
Richard starts having dreams with Mister Duck pretty much right away. At first, there is a lot of blood coming from his wrists, but eventually Mister Duck bandaged himself and there is no more blood.
He starts to form a relationship with this Mister Duck of his dreams, and these dreams are what contributes to the weird undertone of beach life.
In both book and movie there is the whole thing with the Swedes getting attacked by the shark. Karl brings in Sten, who is basically dead. Christo is not there, so Richard goes looking for him. In the book, he had an experience with a cave thing that is an air pocket in the water. He goes to this air pocket and finds Christo and brings him up to the surface. When he gets up there, he hears someone and called out, Mister Duck? And Mister Ducks replies that it is him.
Christo is alive but is only just hanging on. Jed (a character that isn’t even in the movie) has a medical background and so he stays with Christo in a separate tent looking after him 24/7. Prior to this, Richard and Jed had been in charge of keeping watch over things and keeping an eye on new people who might try to make it to their beach.
Now that Jed is looking after Christo, Richard spends his days alone up in the jungle. After a few days of this, it reads,
“Mister Duck was waiting for me at the lookout post, as he had done every morning since the shark attack. I’d had a shock the first time I found him up there, and we’d promptly had an argument. I felt it had been reasonable for him to appear while I was helping Christo in the caves. With or without the phosphorescence, the caves had the qualities of a nightmare—exactly where you’d imagine Mister Duck might show up. But to see him in crisp sunshine, sitting with an unlit joint clamped between his teeth like a cowboy’s cheroot, was hard to take. For as long as the initial bewilderment gripped me, I’d stood gaping while he grinned and tilted his head from side to side. Then I said, “It’s broad daylight, Mister Duck!” I said it angrily because I felt obscurely insulted by the brazen nature of his apparition.
“Broad daylight,” he’d replied evenly, “is what it is.”
I paused. “…I’m not dreaming.”
“Then I’m going insane.”
“Do you want an honest answer?”
He shrugged. “I’d only query the tense. But I’m not a professional, so, you know, seek out a second opinion.”
I threw up my arms, threw them down again, and sat heavily on the ground. Then I reached out and touched his shoulder. It was as dry and warm and solid as my own. Mister Duck frowned when I shuddered.
“You have a problem?”
I shook my head. “Yes, I have a problem. I’m mad.”
“So? Are you complaining?”
“Is that what you’re doing? Complaining?”
He cut me off. “If you’re complaining, buddy, I’m going to tell you right now, I don’t want to hear it.” “I’m just—” “I’m just, I’m just,” he mimicked. “You’re just what?”
“I’m very shocked! Seeing you and…being mad!”
Mister Duck’s face screwed up in disgust. “Where’s the shock in being mad?”
“Everywhere!” I said furiously. “I don’t want to be mad!”
“You don’t want to be mad? Well, well. Mind if I pick you up on that?”
I pulled out a cigarette with slightly shaking hands, then put it back, remembering I couldn’t smoke on the island. “Yes. I mind. I want you to go away.”
“Tough. Answer this. Where are you?”
“Leave me alone!”
“Where are you?” he repeated.
I covered my face with my hands. “I’m in Thailand.”
Through the cracks between my fingers, I stole a glance down to the DMZ. My shoulders slumped as I got the gist. “Vietnam.”
“Vietnam!” A great crowing grin spread across his features. “You said it! You wanted it! And now these are the breaks! In country, losing your [mind] comes with the territory!” He whooped and slapped his thigh. “[Screw] it, man, you should be welcoming me! I’m the proof you made it! Rich, I am your lost [mind]! Viet-[freakin]-nam!”
By the end of that day, I was already feeling pretty comfortable with Mister Duck’s presence. And by the end of the second, I realized I was quite pleased about it. He was good company, in his way, and he knew how to make me laugh. Also, as we were spending hours with each other, a lot of our conversation was about commonplace stuff, like places we’d both been to or films we’d both seen. It was hard to stay shocked by someone while you were talking about Star Wars.”
Not only does he have an imaginary friend, but this also isn’t like other stories where the person talks so someone thinking they are real. Then at some point they, along with the reader, discover they have gone crazy and made the person up. Richard knows Mister Duck doesn’t exist and realizes this means he’s lost it. I think knowing you are crazy, and going along with it anyway, is a whole other level of crazy!
When he sees Sammy and Zeph approaching, Mister Duck thinks Richard should have helped them in some way. Later, while they are walking back, he says to Mister Duck,
“You could have got me killed.”
“The rafters probably are being killed!”
“You don’t know that. And I didn’t want that beating [crap] to happen any more than you, so don’t get on some moral high horse. We knew they might be caught. That was understood when we made the decision to make no contact with them unless they got to the waterfall, so what do you want from me?”
“Decisions? I didn’t make any decisions! I wanted you to help them!”
“Steaming in like Rambo, waving an M16 that doesn’t even exist?”
“You could have done something!”
“Like what? You live in a dream world! There was nothing I could have done!”
“You could have warned them before they got to the plateau!”
“I had clear orders not to warn them!”
“You could have broken the orders!”
“I didn’t want to break them!”
“Not for one second!” Mister Duck frowned and opened his mouth to reply, then appeared to check himself.
“What?” I snapped.
He shook his head, his features calming. When he eventually spoke, I knew he wasn’t saying what was on his mind. “That was a cheap shot, Richard,” he said quietly. “About me living in a dream world.”
“You could have got me killed, but I hurt your feelings. God forgive me. I’m a monster.”
“It’s your world I live in.””
In the movie he doesn’t start seeing or dreaming with Mister Duck until he is up in the jungle. In the movie they also have him up there 24/7, rather than in the book where he came back every night and then left again in the morning. It shows him kind of losing it, and in a fantasy world, living his “Vietnam” style commando life. Spying on the farmer guards, setting booby traps and being rogue. They also have this video game sequence in the movie which is pretty funny.
Mister Duck, sadly, is not in nearly as much of the movie as he is in the book. He is there at times, but not a constant companion like he was in the book.
Sammy and Zeph/leaving the beach
K, now time to get to what has been on my mind. I’ve been trying to organize this, but all I really want to talk about is the ending!
I’ll get the movie out of the way first. Zeph, Sammy and the others arrive in the dope field and get excited. (When you arrive at the island their hidden beach is at, you first have to go through a dope field. This is just one of the number of challenges there are in getting to the beach, which is what they intended, in order to help keep it hidden and secret). They are singing and running, then when the guards face them. They are shot on the spot, and one girl is shot in front of Richard (he is hiding down amongst the plants). Seeing this happen right in front of him shakes him out of his delusions.
He goes back to camp where they are celebrating their new year (in the book it’s called Tet). While he’s looking in at them, the guards arrive. They show the map Richard had drawn for Zeph and Sammy (a big no-no), but Sal had already known about the map, so this didn’t come as a huge moment. They say if she wants to keep her secret paradise, she needs to kill Richard. She pulls the trigger, despite everyone crying and telling her not to. However, the gun isn’t loaded. She falls to the floor, where she is left behind while pretty much everyone else in the camp (I don’t know about Bugs) leaves on the raft.
It then shows Richard in a computer room, checking his email where we see he is still in contact with multiple people from the beach. He opens an email from Francoise, which is a photo that was taken of the whole group and the movie ends positively.
In the movie, Sammy and Zeph are caught by the guards and Richard sees them get beaten. He leaves then, and later hears gun shots and assumes that it’s them being killed.
The beating awakens him, and he realizes he needs to get off this beach. Similar to soldiers, he’s been wanting to see action, but actually seeing it awakens him to the horror of it.
He talks to Etienne and Francoise and they agree to leave with him too. He then talks to Keaty, who also agrees. He tells Jed, and Jed said he will go only if Christo has died by then. In the movie, Etienne takes the place of Jed. He is the one that says he can’t leave the beach while Christo is still hanging on. In both book and movie, Richard kills Christo, because he can’t let a man who is dying, keep his friend trapped on this beach. The movie makes this seem like a difficult think Richard has had to resort to doing, but in the book he doesn’t seem to bent out of shape about it.
He and Keaty then spike the stew that is being made for Tet with a ton of weed. Keaty ends up taking it out, because it keeps floating to the top. There was still enough of an impact though, so the stew, plus smoking weed, plus drinking their homemade alcohol, everyone (except Richard and those he invited to leave later that night) are really tripping from it all.
Richard sees Mister Duck, then soon after the guards come into camp. They beat Richard and make their threats about them not having anyone else come to the beach. When Richard comes to, he wonders why no one has helped him up. He sees that they are all staring at something. He goes over to look and sees that it is the bodies of Sammy, Zeph and the Germans.
Don’t forget, most of the group are not all there, due to the drug cocktail in their system. Sal, as the leader of the group, tries to take control of the situation and gets up and tells them to help her take care of the bodies.
From here, things get crazy. I won’t go into too much detail, but everyone (except those that are sober) go crazy and things get gruesome. Richard and the other three (Jed isn’t here for it because he is in with Christo) stare in shock at what is happening. Then Richard is spurred from this when he hears Sal’s voice reading the note, he had written on the back of the map he had drew for Zeph and Sammy. The guards had left the map with the bodies, and reading this note, everyone realizes this is all Richard’s fault. They then turn on him and start stabbing him, though they are shallow stabs, so it doesn’t cause him to die.
Richard kind of blacks out and has one last conversation with Mister Duck. When he comes to, he sees Jed, Etienne and Keaty holding fishing spears and sees Bugs along with another guy slumped over from being stabbed with the spear. Jed tells them to keep back. Sal steps forwards and Jed gets her in the stomach. It is never clear if she or Bugs die.
From there, Richard, Keaty, Jed, Etienne, and Francoise leave the island on the raft.
When they arrive on the main island, they finally call their families, and are able to get tickets back home. Richard stays friends with Jed and Keaty and sees them often. He hasn’t seen Etienne or Francoise, but he knows he will come across them someday.
In the movie, everyone leaves at the same time, but in the book, Richard says how he thinks about his other friends, and hopes they were able to make it off too. Though he hopes Sal died on the beach, because he hates the thought of coming across her in life.
The beach was founded by three people. We don’t know their real names, because they each adopted the name of a Looney Tunes character. There is Daffy Duck (Mister Duck), Bugs Bunny, and Sylvester. Sylvester’s name is shortened to Sal, and she and Bugs are together.
Richard can’t stand Bugs, for multiple reasons. He is just kind of pompous and always has to take credit for things. The movie touches on this, but the book makes it a bigger point. Right before the Swedes get attacked by the shark, almost everyone in camp gets food poisoning. Bugs needs help, but Richard laughs at him and doesn’t help. This causes even more divisions in the camp. Then the debate about what to do with Karl causes even further disagreements.
As I read, I knew this paradise was a powder keg and I kept waiting it for it to blow. It is a pretty slow burn though. But I thought Richard would predictably end up killing Bugs. My other thought was that he would kill Etienne to be with Francoise. Neither of those things ended up happening though.
Francoise and Etienne
Speaking of Francoise and Etienne, in the movie, Richard and Francoise end up having sex while living on the beach. Etienne finds out, and says he just wants Francoise to be happy and that if she wants to be with Richard instead, then they can go ahead and be together. Francoise and Richard then end up being a couple. When he goes on the rice run, he goes with Sal, and the two of them have sex. Francoise finds out and ends it with Richard while he is up in the jungle.
There isn’t any sex in the book. Richard doesn’t get with Francoise or Sal. Sal isn’t even the one that he goes on the rice run with, he goes with Jed (a character that was left out of the movie).
Francoise seems flirtier in the movie, though I guess that is intentional, considering she does end up dating him instead of Etienne.
In general, I was surprised they were having monogamous relationships on the beach. I guess I assumed “hippies” don’t believe in monogamy. Though in the movie Sal is loose with her sexuality, even though Bugs is her main guy.
On the topic of Sal, as said, in the movie it is her and Richard who go on the rice run. While they are out, Sammy and Zeph approach Richard, while Sal is right there. Richard tries to blow them off, but eventually has to be threatening with them. When they leave, he confesses to Sal about the map.
Later that night they have sex, and the voiceover makes it seem like he had to have sex with her in order for her to keep his secret. Which I thought was odd.
In the book, Jed volunteers for the rice run as does Richard. When they get to the major city, they are separate for most the day. When they meet up at the end of the day Jed is upset because he tells Richard he heard two American’s asking about a beach called “Eden”, are showing people a map, and even use Richard’s name. Jed calms down though and keeps Richard’s secret. While on his scouting detail, when Jed notices Zeph and Sammy with the three others, he requests Richard to join him. He doesn’t tell Sal why, but it is of course because they are there due to Richard.
Jed never really fits into the beach life. He was the first to arrive uninvited and Daffy didn’t like him at all. That is why he has scouting detail, so that he wouldn’t be around camp where Daffy didn’t want to see him. This is also why he always volunteers for rice runs. When he is in the tent looking after Christo, he is also kind of going crazy and talks about how no one ever visits him except Richard and that they don’t care about him.
They sleep on some isolated part of the beach after the rice run, before heading back early the next morning. Richard is up early just walking around. He notices a couple sleeping on the beach, and that the man is dead. They were both on drugs and looks like he had an overdose. Richard doesn’t feel bad for the guy, but he is worried for the girl and doesn’t want her waking up next to a dead guy. He drags the body into the woods, where it will decay, and the girl will think he just left or something. He later tells Jed what he did, and Jed is upset and tells him he should have let the body be.
This is never brought into the plot, and I was kind of confused why this scene is even here. Maybe though it represents Richard’s inability to leave things as they are. I mean, after only being on the beach for six months, he makes quite a dent in things because he doesn’t “let things be”.
Valuing the beach and the “ultimate” travelers experience
In the book, Richard talks about how he has a bucket list of experiences he wants to have while traveling. He met a man who was mugged and almost killed. The man said that in that moment, he felt calm. Alert of course, but calm. When he, Francoise and Etienne get to the dope field on their way in, Etienne is the one who realizes they are in danger and gets control of the situation. Richard does not feel calm at all and is disappointed he doesn’t have that peace he thought would come over him. He later almost drowns when he has that experience in the cave with the air pocket, and again is disappointed in himself. He can now cross “almost dying” off his bucket list, and says that he likes the line, “…calm, alert of course, but calm.” And decides that is how he will describe it when he tells people. This part just kind of shows the fake, pretentiousness “travelers” can have.
Then the fact that Sal (and Richard) thought it best Sammy, Zeph and their German friends die, rather than reach their secret paradise. As well as letting Christo die, and in the book, Sal also asks Richard to kill Karl (this doesn’t happen because it seems Karl has run away). Valuing their island paradise more than human life! What’s funny, when I was reading the part where he sees Sammy and Zeph and Mister Duck wants him to do something, I was like no don’t do it! It’ll ruin everything and get you in trouble! I was later disappointed that those were my thoughts while reading that section! Nothing is worth allowing innocent people to die like that.
This is also shown in the movie, where they take the ailing Christo and place him away from camp, so they won’t be reminded of him. Etienne though, as said, sets up a tent and looks after him. In the book, Etienne was looking after Karl, who after the shark attack started to go a little crazy. Etienne seems to be one of the only people who values a fellow human life more than their beach.
Richard is annoyed that Karl is causing a division in the camp, so at one point he tries to kill him. Karl escapes and runs through camp with Richard chasing him. When people ask what’s going on, he says Karl tried attacking him. Etienne says this can’t be possible, because he saw Karl earlier and he was doing better. Sal knows Richard is lying, but she also doesn’t want Karl around, so she too lies, saying he had tried attacking her as well.
Sal in the movie is also shown as valuing her paradise more than human life when she of course tries to kill Richard. This is a very public display, whereas in the book the lives that are taken in order to keep their secret, aren’t common knowledge.
Richard’s attitude towards his time at the beach
Richard was on the beach for six months. During this time, he and everyone else is so engrossed in beach life, they don’t even think of their families or home. In the movie, when he goes on the rice run, he calls his parents. In the book he doesn’t talk to them at all till the end. At one point on the beach, he asks Francoise if she misses home. She says she hasn’t really thought of that. He says that he doesn’t think about it either, he also doesn’t think about his family, and that he just realized it’s weird they don’t think about them. Francoise also notices how odd it is that she doesn’t spend any time wondering how her family is doing and whether or not they are worried about her.
He is writing the book about a year later, and he says when he thinks of Thailand, it usually makes him feel angry.
In the movie, as said above, he opens an email that shows all of them on the beach. The voiceover then says, “And me? I still believe in paradise. But now at least I know it’s not some place you can look for. Because it’s not where you go. It’s how you feel for a moment in your life when you’re a part of something. And if you find that moment…Its lasts forever.”
The movie definitely makes it a happier ending, with him still having fond memories despite how things ended. The book though, things got way more out of control in the end, so of course he’s not going to have mushy stuff to say about it.
Book or Movie
There are a lot of changes from book to movie, and I’ve only covered the bigger ones here. The movie is going for a different vibe than the book, but I don’t blame them. To include the end, and even if they were to include more or the scenes with Mister Duck, it would take on more of a horror movie vide. They weren’t wanting to make a gruesome movie, just an intense one. And they do a good job making the first half seem perfect, even with Richard getting the girl of his dreams, whereas in the book he doesn’t. Then as I said, a sharp turn into things getting intense and paradise is lost for everybody. The movie is two hours long, but it flew by, so that’s usually the sign of an entertaining movie. The acting and production of the movie are good, it’s very 90’s with the music and graphics, which is entertaining in its own way.
The book never dragged per se, but it was a slow burn as I said. Even with the weird things going on, the major drama all happens very quickly. It’s a well written book though and it kept me interested all the way through. As far as which I liked better, I guess maybe the book? Which one I would recommend to people though would depend on what the person is wanting to get out of it. The book gets so crazy and it’s so unexpected. I liked the ambiguity with most of the characters, whereas the movie ties things up, but I wish it would have had us guessing in some ways, the way the book does. The book ties things up with Richard, Jed and Keaty pretty good, since we are told what all three are up to now. But there is some guessing as to the rest of them.
So, yeah, I would say I liked the book better, but it is for sure not a book I would recommend to just anyone, due to the ending. If you want something less graphic but a similar story, stick with the movie!
Also, in 2018 it was said that there was going to be a newer version of The Beach. It wasn’t clear whether it would be a movie or TV show, but Garland himself is who said it was happening. Been three years since then, so if it is happening, you would think we would be hearing about it soon!