The Book: A Synopsis

The Beach, by Alex Garland, is the story of a group of backpackers in search of that most elusive concept, the undiscovered paradise at the end of the unbeaten path. They do indeed find it and occupy it illegally along with a mixed group of individuals. However, they quickly find that in their struggle to maintain paradise, they inevitably destroy it.

The Beach is set in modern day Thailand and is a perfect exposition of backpacker culture and attitudes. It follows the adventures of Richard, a twenty-something British backpacker and a French couple, Françoise and Étienne, who he meets on Khao San Road, the decompression chamber of the Asian travel experience.

"You know, Richard, one of these days I'm going to find one of those Lonely Planet writers and I'm going to ask him, what's so fucking lonely about the Khao San Road?"

On his first night in his dingy, cheap hotel, he meets Daffy, his whacked out pot-smoking neighbor. Daffy, with a heavy Scots accent spends the night ranting about some bitch and how she nearly killed him. The next morning, Richard finds that not only has Daffy killed himself, but that he has also left him a secret map. The map shows how to reach a restricted island paradise where a group of backpackers have settled into a comfortable existence. The bitch Daffy was ranting on about, was actually the beach. Richard enlists the help of his new friends, Étienne and Françoise and they set off together to find the hidden beach.

The threesome arrive at Koh Phangan, one of the most overrun islands in Thailand and here Garland gives us some of his most acute and accurate observations of backpacker mentality. With some difficulty the group find a way to reach the island from Koh Phangan, but not without a difficult hour long swim. They first find a massive dope growing operation (every backpackers dream, of course), run by Thais. They are nearly caught, but manage to escape and find the entrance to the beach community that they are seeking.

What follows is nothing short of bizarre. They find about thirty people, of many nationalities, living together in peaceful harmony. They are assigned chores and sleeping compartments and slowly become a part of the new community. The community is headed by Sal, a strict yet spiritually influenced leader.

There are many adventures. Richard kills a shark and becomes a hero. He falls in love with Françoise, but nothing comes of it. One of the members of the group is eaten by a shark and everyone suffers from severe food poisoning. Like the rest of the crew, he smokes a lot of pot, gets a great tan and generally revels in the luxury of leading such a simple, perfect life.

At the same time as Richard settles into the quiet life, something within him changes. At the beginning of the novel he is a shy, awkward young adult, but he begins to develop a more arrogant and domineering attitude. He challenges Sal and she believes that he has become unmanageable. He is sent to patrol the territorities of the compound to minimize the amount of time he spends with the others. Richard has some sort of personal epiphany, but it is not clear what this is.

Shortly after his semi-expulsion, Richard’s biggest mistake comes back to haunt him. While on Koh Phangan, he had befriended a couple of American backpackers who had heard of the beach but had no idea how to reach it. Without telling Françoise and Étienne, he had left them a copy of the map. Upon arrival to the beach, he quickly realizes that its existence depends on its secrecy, on the exclusion of the masses. The path can not remain unbeaten once the word is out.

“There’s no way to keep it out of Lonely Planet, and once that happens it’s countdown to doomsday”

Richard hopes that they never attempt to reach the island, but to his disappointment they do, bringing with them a pair of girls. The four are not as fortunate in eluding the Thai drug lords and are slaughtered. Their bodies are brought to the compound and thrown at the feet of the group’s leader, Sal. Sal had an agreement with the Thais that there would be no more new arrivals. The Thais are furious and demand that everyone vacate the island.

The novel reaches its dramatic conclusion (I will not ruin it for you) that echos the haunting ending of Lord of the Flies.

If you are looking for an easy to read adventure type book, I can highly recommend The Beach. If you are looking to get lost for a few hours in a simple, yet energizing tale, go for it, read this book. And, if you want an in depth, yet informal study of backpacker mentality, this novel does the job and brilliantly so. But, if you are looking for anything else, like information on Thailand or ground breaking work of literature, you are sure to be disappointed.

It is interesting to note that the author himself has been quoted saying that the novel is parody of the backpacker culture, yet the vast and overwhelming majority of backpackers to Asia have read this novel and hail him as their spokesman. This is a title that has been rejected by the author who says that he is against the type of traveler he depicts in The Beach.

The Beach was meant to be a criticism of this backpacker culture, not a celebration of it."1

Why the Movie Sucked So Bad

It is said and written and generally accepted that the book is always better than the movie. This point is brilliantly illustrated by the movie version of The Beach, probably one of the most insulting film adaptations ever brought to the screen.

I don’t know who thought it was necessary to change Richard’s nationality but they were mistaken in doing so. Richard’s British perspective is important to his interactions with the other characters, especially in his meeting with the American backpackers on Koh Phangan. Furthermore, movie-Richard is arrogant and self-centered, whereas novel-Richard is crowd shy and self-deprecating. It’s one thing to slightly alter or enhance a character to bring them to life, it’s another thing to introduce a completely new person.

Adhering to the tenats of Hollywood film making, Richard gets the girl. This is another major disappointment since the tension that thrives between the couple is of major importance and significance in the novel and one which is so central to the understanding of Richard’s character. To add insult to injury, not only does Richard get together with Françoise, who off hand dumps Étienne, but he betrays her love by having a one night stand with Sal.

You might wonder if the film is better when not compared to the novel, but I must destroy this fantasy, since book or no book, this film is a bad film. Most of the characters, aside from Richard, remain painfully undeveloped, the plot leaves a sour taste and the film lacks narrative flow of any kind. The unique style of Danny Boyle comes in here and then, but it sticks out as awkward and inappropriate. In no way is this film pleasurable to watch and unless you are a big fan of Leonardo DiCaprio, it is best that you pretend it was never made.

The Controversy behind the Movie

The Beach was filmed on location in Thailand in Maya Bay on Koh Phi Phi Leh on the west coast. Fox Company, the producers of the film, was granted permission by the Royal Forestry Department 2 (RFD) of Thailand on the condition that they would put everything back and monitor the area for a full year following the completion of filming. Within days there were large environmental protests in Bangkok and many feared that plans to change the layout of the Bay would irreversibly damage it. Many did not feel that a film team had the knowledge or would take the necessary precautions to prevent a disaster. Fox Company promised to restore the site of filming to its original splendor and according to the RFD have done so. Even now, almost 3 years after the completion of the film, it is difficult today who is right.

Here is a description of the precautions and preparations undertaken by the film crew during shooting. It is exceptional to say the least.

Reef Check, a non-profit, UN-endorsed project that surveys and evaluates coral reefs world-wide, has monitored Ao Maya and other areas in the Phi-Phi islands for several years. When Reef Check's Thailand coordinators, Robert Cogen and Anne Miller, visited the production site after filming was under way, they published the following:

We were surprised to find that all of the trash and debris were gone. Not just on the beach, but in the water, too. A boardwalk trail had been constructed and about one-fourth of the foliage removed. All of the bigger shrubs, the figs and wild hibiscus were still there. Tight lines along the boardwalk bore signs to stay on the walk and out of the brush. Further back, there was a wooden platform and stairs to a small deck at the hole in the rock. There were chemical toilets off to one side. There was not a baggie or a cigarette butt anywhere. All of the construction had been cleverly done so that it was completely removable. There would not be a nail hole or strap mark on a tree. All of the driftwood that had been far back of the beach was still there. I thought the area behind the beach looked better than it had in years. Brush and grasses that had been removed were being cared for in a nursery on the island.

During the last days of January, there were more stories of coral damage, sand removal and, most awful, the planting of coconut palms. My partner, Anne, and I went back. A large barge was anchored in Lo Sama. More than half a dozen lines led off in all directions to anchors. Two large catamarans were tied up alongside. The barge was connected by a floating, wooden walkway to a wooden deck on shore which led through the rocks to the deck I had seen before. Anne and I checked every anchor. Each one was buried in the sand. None of the ropes touched any coral. No coral appeared to have been damaged in any way. In fact, the coral looked a bit healthier than it did in December. I inquired and was told that the catamarans, which came from Malaysia, did not pump any sewage into the water-all of it was retained, unlike the local boats. New mooring buoys with sand anchors had also replaced some that had been tied around coral heads.

I walked to the beach. The decks and stairs were all set above the landscape so as not to crush it. Lines and signs prevented access to the surrounding landscape. The deck had been expanded to approximately seven meters square. Again, the construction was exemplary by any standard. The area behind the beach was otherwise as I had seen it in December. The beach itself now had a forest of 60 coconut palms planted in the sand. Each was still in its burlap sack, watered by buried plastic lines, and could be easily removed. No new brush had been removed. Two areas of access from Ao Maya to this area had been widened, the sand pushed to one side, easily replaced. I wandered the water's edge, then back along the trail, double-checking my observations, wondering about the demonstrations in Bangkok, and why The Beach was the target of all this environmental ire. 3

It is clear that the Fox Company was as careful as possible to inflict as little damage as they could. At the center of the issue, however, was the not the treatment the area received during filming (inarguably great), but over how the Bay would recover post filming. A recent report shows that the sand dune that was bulldozed is not restoring itself naturally. There are, however, other possible reasons for this. Since the filming, Maya Bay has become a popular destination for visitors to the area and is often called Leonardo Beach. There have also been a number of illegal Full Moon Parties on the beach. Those very same backpackers that are depicted in the film are helping to ruin the bay, leaving trash and debris in their wake.

Here is an excerpt from the ongoing reports written by a group of Thai students working to restore and protect the island.

In February 2000, we went back to Phi Phi to find out what has happened to the beach and dune. At that time, Fox, was about to pull out as their one year obligation to put everything back in order had expired. What we found there was a considerable amount of damage on the dune mainly caused by the severe storms during late 1999. However, locals claim that the sections left untouched by the bulldozers survived in a better condition. Now they are concerned that the dune won't be in a fit state to survive the next monsoon. 3

There is little recent information on Maya Bay available, so although, I would like to conclude this node by telling you if the environmental situation there has improved or deteriorated, I’m afraid I can not. If anyone has been to the area or has anymore information, please /msg me and I will add it.(with reference to you, of course)

1 For the full interview with Garland, go here:
http://www.thaistudents.com/thebeach/garland3.html

2 For more detailed information on the legalities of this contract go here (half down the page):
http://thaistudents.com/thebeach/environment.html

3 To read more of these reports go here:
http://thaistudents.com/thebeach/phiphi_0200/index.html

Other Sources:
http://www.thaistudents.com/thebeach/garland3.html
http://thaistudents.com/thebeach/phiphi_0200/joecummings.html

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