Movie Review : The Beach (2000)
It took me all these years to finally watch THE BEACH, because I've never really heard anything positive about it. From scorned post-Titanic DiCaprio enthusiasts to (recently) readers of the brilliant, brilliant Alex Garland novel, nobody seemed to have liked it. In the pre-Neflix era, that review wouldn't have existed. That's how movie-streaming juggernaut changed things. It becomes hard to resist a movie when it dangles by your nose and you have an unscheduled Saturday morning ahead. Maybe it's the John Hodge screenplay that pissed people off? It has very little actual content from the novel, yet it's eerily faithful in its philosophy. Maybe a little user-friendly, but faithful nonetheless.
It's difficult to understand what the story is about if you don't actually sit down and watch the film. Richard (DiCaprio) is a young traveler seeking adventure, who just landed in Bangkok. At a hotel, he meets a strange, high strung Scotsman (Robert Carlyle) with a mysterious story about a paradise-like island, only to find out his new friend committed suicide the next day, by slashing his wrists. Along with his new friends Étienne (Guillaume Canet) and Françoise (Virginie Le Doyen), he sets course for the island, seeking the expansive horizon travelers are usually looking for. They do find something, a peaceful community on the shores of paradise. But nothing can always stay pure. Not with human beings around.
So yeah, I'm a bit confused here. What did people actually dislike about THE BEACH? Of course, the charm of a 450 pages novel translated difficultly to a two-hours film, but I thought now-famed director Danny Boyle made some interesting, daring choices. Thought the cut backs on Richard's struggle with an exotic disease was pertinent. I understood the removal of Jed also (despite him being one of my favorite characters). It gave place to a queasily enjoyable sex scene between Leo and Tilda Swinton. They were overbearing at times, in the novel. Virginie Le Doyen and Guillaume Canet are spectacularly well-casted as Étienne and Françoise and it's somewhat of a display of integrity to hire real French up-and-comers to play such pivotal parts. The biggest difference is the screenplay, but I loved that it didn't try to follow the slow, river-like pace of the novel. It would have been impossible to do it justice, but John Hodge found the right distance to tell the story without suffering from an inferiority syndrome.
Not every choices THE BEACH makes is good, though. For example, casting Leonardo DiCaprio probably was an imperative to make it happen, but it's so different from what he used to do back then, it doomed the project also. Reader of the novel, is it me of Jonathan Rhys Meyers would've been better suited as Richard? Baby-faced Leo looks a little silly, playing Colonel Kurtz. Also, Boyle and Hodge thought it would be mandatory to adapt some details that I thought weren't well-suited to the film and ended up making them look superficial, such as Richard's infatuation with video games. That scene, with the Crash Bandicoot-like interface looked out of peace in such a slow, meditative movie.
In the end, I liked THE BEACH but I didn't have strong feelings about it. It competently translates the points Alex Garland made in his novel about the often meaningless and apathetic quest of travelers to find meaning in everything they do and the proverbial stench of human nature. I had discovered these with the book already, so the deck was stacked against Danny Boyle's film from the start, yet it carried the point across with due diligence. Is it a sin to not live up to transcendent art when adapting something? If you don't want to go through Garland's magnificent novel (I don't know why you wouldn't, though), Boyle's movie will carry the essential message.