Film of the Book: On the Beach

Directed by Stanley Kramer (1959)

From the review of the book by Nevil Shute:

A devastating nuclear war has been fought across the world, wiping out almost all life. Only in the far South have people survived, so far, but they know that the poisonous fallout is gradually heading their way and the scientists have told them there is nothing they can do to save themselves. We follow a group of characters in the city and suburbs of Melbourne as they figure out how to spend their last few months of life…

You can read the full book review by clicking here

In terms of action and even dialogue, the film stays pretty close to the book for the most part, but there are some differences that I felt changed the emphasis and tone quite a bit. Before I get into those, though, I had some real problems with the casting and what I’ll call the Hollywoodisation of the film. In the book, Captain Dwight Towers is American, but all the other major characters are Australian. It jarred with me throughout that in the movie the vast majority of the main characters speak with American accents. Most of them make no attempt to sound Australian, and there’s a distinct contrast between their voices and the minor characters, many of whom are authentic Aussies.

(I cannot lie – I got very tired of Waltzing Matilda by the time the film was finished.)

The star factor clearly came into play in Kramer’s casting, too. Ava Gardner is about twenty years too old for the character of Moira, so that, instead of a young innocent drinking and playing the field to ward off thoughts of her impending death with her life unlived, we have an older woman who has been drinking and playing the field for decades before the war even began. She’s good, but she’s not the girl in the book, and therefore her story is not so heart-breaking. Fred Astaire is also far older than the character he is playing, but because he’s a secondary character and not involved in romance, I found that didn’t bother me so much – I rather enjoyed his performance, though I felt someone should have talked to him about his eye make-up which looked like a throwback to the days of the silent movies.

Ava Gardner and Fred Asatire – good performances but too old for the roles

Gregory Peck is very good as Dwight and Anthony Perkins is good as Peter, although a sadly Americanised version. The woman who plays Mary, Donna Anderson – hmm. I couldn’t decide whether her acting is terrible or whether the fault is Kramer’s direction, but she’s a real weakness in what is otherwise a solid cast.

As much as warning of the dangers of nuclear holocaust, it seemed to me the book was speculating on how humanity, knowing that its end was inescapable, would deal with its own demise. The film somehow keeps trying to inject hope where in the book there is none, I think in an attempt to create some suspense. While Kramer doesn’t go so far as to change the outcome for humanity, he does change how the people react to it, thus rather missing Shute’s point. I’m now heading into pretty major spoiler territory, so if you’re intending to read the book or watch the film, you might want to skip ahead to the last paragraph…

(The mystery of the invisible baby! Little Jennifer, Peter and Mary’s child, never physically appears in the movie but they might have made a better job of pretending she was there. Elbowing her in the face so you can kiss her mum doesn’t seem very caring…)

* * * * *

Mary, in the book, chooses to go into denial. It’s not that she doesn’t know they’re all going to die, she simply makes a decision to live the last few months of her life as she would if they had a future ahead of them. In the film, she more or less goes insane, at one point becoming almost catatonic. Why? It added nothing and was less psychologically interesting.

Anthony Perkins and Donna Anderson as Peter and Mad Mary

In the book, Shute describes how the people of Melbourne cope with daily existence as shortages grow, and their domestic concerns as death approaches – things like what to do about their farm animals and pets, how long to continue going to work, how to cope without milk and petrol and so on. I said in my review: It’s a slow-moving but fascinating and rather moving depiction of an undramatic end – all the bombs and war and destruction occurred far away; for the people of Melbourne, nothing has outwardly happened and yet every part of their existence has been irrevocably changed. The film shows us very little of these concerns, preferring to concentrate on the minimal action provided by the submarine’s expedition north and on the romance between Dwight and Moira. As a result there’s far less depth to it.

Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner as Dwight and Moira

But the biggest and worst change is the relationship between Dwight and Moira. Dwight’s wife and children are already dead, having been in America during the war. In the book, Dwight, rather like Mary, chooses in light of his own impending death to go on as if they are alive and will all die together, and be together in some form of afterlife. This prevents him from being able to fall in love with Moira as she wishes. In the film, Hollywoodisation demands romance, so they fall in love. The fact that Dwight so easily gets over his wife cheapens and lessens him as a character – a terrible mistake.

The end is also changed for no reason that I could think of. In the book, Dwight follows military norms to the end, scuttling the submarine so it can’t fall into the hands of a now non-existent enemy. In the film, he and his crew sentimentally set out for home, wishing to die in America. This also ruins the book’s sad end for Moira, choosing to die looking out over the bay where Dwight’s body lies in his sunken vessel. In the film, she watches him leave her, not out of a sense of duty but out of some kind of sickly sweet patriotism. And then Kramer tacks on an over-the-top warning to humanity about the dangers of nuclear weapons, obviously not realising that, if you feel you need to spell out your point, then you’ve failed to make it.

Spelling out the point…

* * * END OF SPOILERS * * *

You know, before I started writing this I was intending to give the film five stars – I did enjoy watching it. But as I’ve been writing it’s been going down in my estimation – the perils of over-analysis! So now I feel quite generous giving it four.

★ ★ ★ ★

And that makes the decision very easy this time…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

THE BOOK!

* * * * *

40 thoughts on “Film of the Book: On the Beach

  1. Yay for the book!
    I’ve been hanging out for you to review this and it didn’t disappoint. Ava Gardner was lovely, but she wasn’t the Moira of the book. Like you, the changes to the story annoyed me. Waltzing Matilda was definitely over-used.
    This was also made into a two-part mini series around the late 1990s which follows the book, but it was much darker than this version and was set in modern times. I can’t forget the scenes showing the most atrocious behaviour as the end came closer, even though I wish I could. I loved seeing Melbourne in the remake, though.

    • Yes, I’m afraid Ava was just too old to play that part, though I was glad they didn’t try to pretend she was a twenty-year-old. I think it was when they were away fishing and all the drunks kept singing Waltzing Matilda over and over that I began to wonder if the end of the world would really be such a bad thing…

      I reckon I’d have enjoyed the film more if I hadn’t just read the book – it is good, but just not as good. That change to the ending really annoyed me though – it took the heart out of it. I saw stills for the remake while I was searching for images… not sure I want to see what they’ve done to it…

  2. If I’m being honest, FictionFan, it’s almost always the book for me, and this case is no different. I was especially thinking about your comments on casting. I think those choices matter more than people think, and they can enrich a film or take away from it. I’ve felt that way about more than one film adaptation I’ve seen…

    • Me too, especially if I read the book first. Yes, the casting in this was a bit odd – not so much that they were mostly American – that was fairly standard back then, I think – but that they didn’t try to match the ages of the people in the book. Moira didn’t work nearly so well as a mature woman as she did as a young woman in the book.

  3. I didn’t see the film. But I can understand your frustration with it. Casting well known actors rather than actors who really fit the roles was par for the course in Hollywood back in the day (and sometimes today too). Makes you wonder why they bothered at all!

    • Yes, it’s that star factor and I suppose it made sure they got big audiences, but I really felt there must have been a female star who was closer to the age Moira was in the book. And as for those American accents! Mind you, they just recently made a film about Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I of England, and they cast an Irish woman and an Australian… !!

  4. The book is still on my list to be read so I avoided the spoilers. At the moment I don’t think I’ll try and find the film, but will come back to your review after I’ve read the book. I do agree with you about the jarring effect that ‘wrong’ accents can have and how they can undermine the integrity of the story.

    • In retrospect, I think it would have been better to leave a longer gap between reading and watching with this one. The film is actually very good, but those differences niggled. Yes, I think they’re better now at trying at least to match accents to the characters but it’s still awful sometimes. I was complaining when they filmed Sunset Song that they cast an English actress in the role, so she had to fake a Scottish accent… I despair sometimes…

  5. Haven’t read the book or seen the movie but I’m now intrigued to do both. Kramer is rather famous for not “directing” his cast but just letting them do what they think; that might be part of the problem here. Do you think you would have liked the movie better if you hadn’t read the book?

    • I didn’t know that about Kramer – interesting! yes, I do think I’d have liked the film better if I hadn’t read the book, or even if I’d left longer between them. I actually really enjoyed the film while I was watching it – it was only when I started thinking about all the differences that it went down a star. I do think the book has more depth though…

    • Yep, the book usually wins for me too, especially if I read it first. The exception for me is Hitchcock – generally speaking I prefer his film versions to the books he loosely adapts. But I think that’s because in those cases I saw the films first…

  6. This one passed me by 🤭 However, I mostly always choose the book. I guess they were banking on the names to draw audiences, it’s a shame though when they don’t stick to actors who fit the characters.

    • It’s actually very good, and if I hadn’t been comparing it to the book it would have got five stars, despite the American Australian accents! But I did feel they could have tried to get a star who was closer in age to the Moira of the book – her age actually mattered in explaining how she behaved. Ava Gardner was very good though – just wrong!

  7. I’ve not read the book OR seen the film. I find I often have issues with the casting. If only the directors/producers would ask my advice… 😉

    • Haha – yes, I feel they should run these things by us before they start filming! 😉 I do think it’s a problem when you’ve loved a book – an adaptation can be destroyed if the actor doesn’t match your own mental image. This film would have worked better for me if I hadn’t read the book, I think… but they’re both very good.

  8. I haven’t read the book or seen the film, but from your review, I think you’re being mighty generous in giving this movie four stars, FF. I suppose it’s an ongoing beef of mine for Hollywood to take a serious subject and trivialize it, then to hit viewers over their heads with “the moral of the story.” Gee, every writer knows that if you have to spell out in so many words your premise, you haven’t written your book well enough. However, movies are big business, and Hollywood knows people want to see their favorite actors and actresses, even if they’re badly cast for the roles.

    • Yes, I can live without heavy message-thumping in either books or films, and I didn’t think Shute did it in the book – he just told the story and assumed his readers would think for themselves. I can understand the star factor to bring in audiences, but I really felt there must have been a star closer in age to the Moira in the book – Ava Gardner was very good, but she wasn’t right for the role…

  9. I’ll read the book at some point, but I think I’ll pass on the film. It sounds like the production team were more interested in marketing the product by employing big name actors than they were in remaining faithful to the book. It seems rather an odd choice to make the Australien characters American, and that would have really irritated me if I had read the novel beforehand.

    • The American accents did annoy me, although I think that was fairly standard back then. Ha! Mind you, it’s only a few months since I was complaining about the casting of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I in the new film – an Irish woman and an Australian! So maybe nothing’s changed…

      Both the book and the film are very good though – if I hadn’t read and watched them so close together I’d probably not have noticed most of the changes.

  10. I really liked the book, despite it being a bit depressing, but I hate the idea of Ava Gardener as Moira, and the changes that Americanise it too much.

    • Yes, it’s a pity, because Ava Gardner is really very good in it – but she’s just not the Moira of the book. The American accents did annoy me, but I suppose it was standard back then… and might still be standard now, in fact! Tchah! 😉

  11. I want to read the book and see the movie! I love love love Ava Gardner. She was born in a small town in NC and she later went to high school in a town I once lived in. I had to look it up because she looked so old in that one picture, but it says she was 36 at the time. Still too old for the character, but not as old as I thought given that picture. Lovely review, FF! You’ve definitely inspired me!

    • D’you know, I looked up her age too and was surprised she was only 36 – to be honest, she looked several years older. I’d have put her in her early forties. I wondered if maybe she’d knocked a few years off her age, as I believe lots of actresses did back then when it was so hard for older women to get parts. She is very good in it, though – I enjoyed her performance even though she was wrong for the role, and at least they didn’t try to pretend she was a young girl…

  12. My impression after reading your review of the book was that it would be hard to turn into a movie because it isn’t that apocalyptic, end of the world, Hollywood story. But too bad they didn’t make a greater effort to adapt the story that was already there, which sounds interesting. I do hate it when American movies feel the need to insert American patriotism in where it isn’t needed. It feels like a cheap emotional ploy (and one that does nothing for my Canadian heart!)

    • Yes, I agree, and I’m sure that’s why they probably felt they had to have the big romance scenes, but unfortunately that took away a lot of the depth of the book, I felt. But it’s really not an action-packed story, so would have been hard to adapt without some changes, I suppose. I do get fed up of the ultra-patriotism of America, then and now. It always seems to me it’s like any other kind of love – if you’re secure in it, you don’t have to keep declaring it… 😉

  13. I think I stumbled across this film once and really just kept watching for Gregory Peckory! The book sounds very interesting and I’ll add it to the list. I think a problem for films of books at this time is that the film going audience was seen as much less intelligent that the reading audience so films were often changed to meet the dimness of the viewer!

    • Ha! Yes, I think you have a point! They definitely felt the need for a big romance in every film, even when the world is ending! They’re both very good, but I felt the book had more depth and a bit more meaning. It’s well worth reading – I hope you enjoy it if you get to it sometime. 😀

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