Richard lands in East Asia in search of an earthly utopia. In Thailand, he is given a map promising an unknown island, a secluded beach – and a new way of life. What Richard finds when he gets there is breathtaking: more extraordinary, more frightening than his wildest dreams.
But how long can paradise survive here on Earth? And what lengths will Richard go to in order to save it?
I, like most other people in their early twenties when this book was published in 1996, read this when it first came out and was spellbound by it. It was a book like nothing else around at the time; Lord of the Flies for the MTV generation. It was one of those books that just captured the zeitgeist of that moment and, as a result, was a debut publishing phenomenon.
I, personally, was particularly obsessed with it because I was entranced by the idea of just taking off on a backpacking adventure. At this point, I was in the midst of the hard graft of my two year training contract that aspiring lawyers needed to complete to qualify as a solicitor. This involved working long hours and studying for exams at the same time, so daydreaming about laying back on a perfect tropical beach, living some self-sufficient fantasy, was the perfect antidote to this grind for the few minutes I managed to allow myself each day to engage in such escapist nonsense. This was never going to happen for me and, by the end of this book, I was fairly glad of that.
Hollywood made this into a not-entirely-terrible film starring the entirely un-terrible Leonardo DiCaprio but, whilst the film was okay in and of itself, it was fairly disappointing interpretation for the novel’s diehard fans. If all you know of this book comes from watching the film, you need to approach the novel version with this parental advisory ringing in your ears – the book is much, much darker. This being said, don’t let it put you off because the book is also much, much better.
I thought Leo did a reasonable job of carrying over some of the darkness that dwells within Richard’s soul into the film, but the cartoonish nature of the scenes in the jungle distract from this a bit. Unfortunately, its inevitable that a book which relies so heavily on the internal thought processes of the main character to fully round out the plot is going to struggle somewhat in translation, so we can’t entirely condemn Danny Boyle, I think he did the best he could given those limitations. But the book will give you an entirely different perspective on Richard’s nature, and the behaviour of the other travellers in the camp. And the romance with Francoise? Forget it- fabricated by the scriptwriters to please the vagaries of Hollywood moguls. Plus they changed the ending, and not for the better but, once you read the book, you’ll probably understand why this was necessary.
So, coming back to this book 24 years after my first reading of it (I have read it a couple of times inbetween), how has it faired, given that both I and the world have changed beyond recognition in the interim? Did it still move me in the same way as it did in my youth?
No, of course not. Whenever we read books from our youth later in life, we inevitably react to them differently, influenced by the life experiences we have had inbetween. However, it did still move me. I just drew different things from it this time around. And, despite the fact I have read this book half a dozen times, and watched the movie four or five times too, the book still retains the power to shock and thrill me, even though I know everything that is going to happen. This is the power of great writing. It can survive the decades, survive the moving on of the world, of technology, of our own characters, and still find ways to excite and challenge us, new ways that hadn’t occurred to us previously and which keep the reading experience fresh and interesting, as well as being comforting and familiar at the same time.
I would be very interested to see what a reader in their twenties now, who grew up in a world that has moved on from the one Alex Garland was writing about back in 1996, makes of this book and if it resonates in any way with them. Someone who does not have the same emotional attachment and desire to tap in to the vestige of their youth that is tied up in this book for me. Any volunteers? The fact that this book remains in print, and was given an updated cover and new release for its twentieth anniversary, would indicate that new readers are still finding that this novel speaks to them in some way.
The Beach is available in all formats here.
About the Author
Alex Garland was born in London in 1970. He is the author of two novels, The Beach, The Tesseract and an illustrated novella, The Coma, in collaboration with his father.
He has also written screenplays for films including 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go and Dredd. In 2015, Garland made his directorial debut with Ex Machina.