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…)

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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…

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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…


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On the Beach by Nevil Shute

This is the way the world ends…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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…

Shute’s depiction of the end of the world is a bleak and hopeless one, but it’s shot through with the resilience of the human spirit. This stops the read from being quite as bleak as the story – just. In most dystopian fiction, there are options even at the worst of times: will humanity rise again, or sink into savage brutality? Will some feat of courage or science stave off the end and bring about a resurrection, perhaps a redemption? There’s none of that in this. Any time anyone hopes that survival may be possible, that hope is promptly and definitively dashed by the scientists. So all there is is one question – how will the people choose to live and die? As civilised humans or as terrified beasts? It’s the ‘50s, so take a guess…

Born out of Cold War fears of nuclear holocaust, this is a terrifying look at how easily humankind might bring about its own destruction. While that fear no longer consumes us to the same degree – oddly, since our combined nuclear arsenal now is even greater than it was then and a narcissistic moron has control of the biggest button – we have replaced it with other terrors: new pandemics, the failure of antibiotics, soil exhaustion, over-population, water wars, and of course our old friend, global climate change. We are uniquely creative in finding ways to bring our species to the brink of extinction, so the question of whether we will face our communal death with dignity is ever present. Shute chooses to suggest that we will. I’m not so sure.

Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire in the 1959 movie version

It’s very well written with the characterisation taking the forefront – the war and science aspects are there merely to provide the background. Peter and Mary Holmes are a young couple with a new baby. Peter is a man, therefore he understands the science and has accepted the inevitable. Mary is a woman, therefore the science is way beyond her limited brain capacity (it’s the ‘50s) and she’s in a state of denial, planning her garden for the years that will never come. Peter is in the Australian navy, and has been assigned as liaison to the last American submarine to have survived, under the command of Captain Dwight Towers. Dwight knows his wife and two children back in America must be dead, but he is clinging to the idea that they will all be together again, in some afterlife that he doesn’t quite call heaven. Peter and Mary introduce Dwight to a friend of theirs, Moira Davidson, a young woman intent on partying her way to her end. These four form the central group through whose experiences we witness the final months. Gradually, one by one, more northern cities fall silent as the invisible cloud creeps closer.

If you’re expecting action, then this is not the book for you. The things that happen are small – difficulties with milk supplies, decisions having to be made about how to deal with farm animals, the heart-wrenching subject of what to do about domestic pets, whom the scientists think will survive for a few weeks or months longer than humans. Is suicide morally permissible when death is inevitable? Do people pack the churches or the pubs, or both? How long do people keep going to their work, to keep the streets clean, the shops open, the lights on? 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.

Book 50 of 90

I found myself wondering how such a book would be written today. I imagine it would be filled with roving gangs, pillaging their way through the remainder of their lives, raping and murdering as they went. There would be desperate attempts to dig shelters, stockpile resources, store seeds and genetic material against a possible distant future. Perhaps people would be looking to escape into space, or build protective suits or find a way to place themselves in stasis. Refugees would flood southwards in advance of the cloud and turf wars would break out over territory and food. Rich people would be holed up in gated communities with armed guards to protect their useless hoards of gold and jewels. And poor people, just as stupid and greedy, would be looting everything they could lay their hands on. There would be screaming, hysteria, fights, panic, drunkenness, crazy cults and orgies. People would be leaping like lemmings from cliffs. No doubt thousands of young people would be recording it all on their iPhones, hoping against hope that they’d go viral just once before they die, while TV executives would have turned it into a mass reality show, complete with emoting diary room scenes… “So how do you feel about knowing you’re going to die horribly…?”

Nevil Shute

But in Shute’s version, there’s an acceptance, a kind of politeness about the whole thing, where everyone remains concerned about each other more than themselves, and people continue to pay attention to the instructions of the authorities. No refugees – people simply stay where they are until the fallout gets them, and then they quietly die. Were people’s attitudes different in the ‘50s because of books like this, or were books written like this because people’s attitudes were different? It’s this kind of stoic decency that makes me so nostalgic for that world, even though I suspect it never really existed. If humanity succeeds in bringing about our own extinction, then I’d love to think we could face it with this level of dignity. But I don’t.

A thought-provoking and intelligent portrayal of one possible end – well written and with excellent characterisation, and which, as so much early science fiction does, tells us as much about the time in which it was written as the future it’s ostensibly about. Not perhaps the most cheerful read in the world, but thoroughly deserving of its status as a classic of the genre.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 15 of 20

TBR Thursday 203…

Episode 203

Well, people, I’ve read nothing this week. Nada. Zilch. Don’t ask me why – I don’t know. Don’t ask me what I’ve been doing with all that extra time I must have had to do other things in – I don’t know. Don’t ask me when I’m suddenly going to start reading again – I don’t know. Don’t ask me when I’ll ever write the outstanding reviews that have been waiting so long I’ve pretty much forgotten the books – I don’t know. Don’t ask me how many books are on my TBR – I don….

Oh, OK, I do know the answer to that last one actually. Up 2 again to 224, which considering I haven’t finished a book since 18th June isn’t as bad as it might be. Don’t you judge me!

Here are a few more that I should be reading soon, but don’t ask me when – I don’t know…

All oldies this week and all from my 20 Books of Summer list, which would be going much better if I was actually reading…

Historical Fiction

This is a re-read of a book which I remember enjoying so I should be on safe ground with it. And it will complete another of the Main Journey destinations on my Around the World challenge…

The Blurb says: India 1942: everything is in flux. World War II has shown that the British are not invincible and the self-rule lobby is gaining many supporters. Against this background, Daphne Manners, a young English girl, is brutally raped in the Bibighat Gardens. The racism, brutality and hatred launched upon the head of her young Indian lover echo the dreadful violence perpetrated on Daphne and reveal the desperate state of Anglo-Indian relations. The rift that will eventually prise India – the jewel in the Imperial Crown – from colonial rule is beginning to gape wide.

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Spy Thriller

I might be the only person in the entire blogosphere who has never read a le Carré novel, but that’s about to change! This one is from my Classics Club list…

The Blurb says: Alex Leamas is tired. It’s the 1960s, he’s been out in the cold for years, spying in Berlin for his British masters, and has seen too many good agents murdered for their troubles. Now Control wants to bring him in at last – but only after one final assignment.

He must travel deep into the heart of Communist Germany and betray his country, a job that he will do with his usual cynical professionalism. But when George Smiley tries to help a young woman Leamas has befriended, Leamas’s mission may prove to be the worst thing he could ever have done.

In le Carré’s breakthrough work of 1963, the spy story is reborn as a gritty and terrible tale of men who are caught up in politics beyond their imagining. With a new introduction by William Boyd and an afterword by le Carré himself.

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Science Fiction

Another from my Classics Club list and the winner of the last Classic Club spin, although I’m very late reading it. Have I read it before or haven’t I? I don’t know! I certainly feel as if I know the story but I’ve realised that with a lot of these classics I think I’ve read long ago, I probably actually know them from a film or TV adaptation. Time will tell…

The Blurb says: After a nuclear World War III has destroyed most of the globe, the few remaining survivors in southern Australia await the radioactive cloud that is heading their way and bringing certain death to everyone in its path. Among them is an American submarine captain struggling to resist the knowledge that his wife and children in the United States must be dead. Then a faint Morse code signal is picked up, transmitting from somewhere near Seattle, and Captain Towers must lead his submarine crew on a bleak tour of the ruined world in a desperate search for signs of life. On the Beach is a remarkably convincing portrait of how ordinary people might face the most unimaginable nightmare.

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Don’t know what to categorise it as…

Oh, dear! After my reaction to Book 1 in the Jackson Brodie sorta-crime/maybe-literary/possibly-contemporary/maybe-none-of-the-above series, I can’t say I’m looking forward to this one at all. But at least my expectations are so low that if it surprises me this time, it can only be in a good way…

The Blurb says: It is summer, it is the Edinburgh Festival. People queuing for a lunchtime show witness a road-rage incident – a near-homicidal attack which changes the lives of everyone involved. Jackson Brodie, ex-army, ex-police, ex-private detective, is also an innocent bystander – until he becomes a murder suspect.

As the body count mounts, each member of the teeming Dickensian cast’s story contains a kernel of the next, like a set of nesting Russian dolls. They are all looking for love or money or redemption or escape: but what each actually discovers is their own true self.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?