In 1957, Nevil Shute published his 21st novel, On the Beach. The story had originally appeared as a four-part story in a London periodical, being bound up into a single edition later that year along with new material that wasn’t included in the original stories.
Set in the then-future of 1964, the book follows a group of people who struggle with the realization that they are all going to die from radiation poisoning. World War III has wiped out most human life, with only a few pockets of population in Australia, South America and Africa remaining.
Shute’s writing style is one of rich detail that won’t appeal to everyone. If you don’t mind wading through his use of his extensive military knowledge and incredibly thorough descriptions, though, he crafts fascinating stories.
The book contains a striking juxtaposition of serious discussions about war and death in alternation with depictions of seemingly “normal” everyday life that carries on despite the fact that most of the world has been annihilated by nuclear war. The confusion, desperation and denial of the scenario comes through greatly in Shute’s writing. It’s very clear that none of these characters want to believe that the inevitable — death of all human life — is actually going to occur, despite the fact that scientists have given them a six-month time table of safety as the nuclear radiation continues to spread.
The novel begins with a complete focus on Peter and Mary, a couple who live in relative peace at a beach house. They have a young daughter, and Mary concerns herself with her daughter’s well-being rather than giving any thought to the world’s destruction that surrounds them.
Peter and Mary remain a large part of the novel’s focus, with straight-laced American officer Dwight, alcoholic Moira and adrenaline junkie John Osborne (renamed “Julian” in the film) coming to share some of the spotlight as the novel progresses.
Shute’s novel is a heavy one, making commentary not only on war and the state of the world in his time (a topic still relevant today), but also a commentary on death in general and how we view it. The novel’s characters must face the topic directly because they all know that death is coming for them sooner rather than later. Aligning with Shute’s exploration of death, this is one of my favorite dual-significance passages in the novel, which discusses the nuclear conditions that the characters are facing while also discreetly discussing death in general:
“They walked a step or two in silence. ‘It’s all knowledge,’ he said at last. ‘One has to try and find out what has happened. It could be that it’s all quite different to what we think. The radioactive elements may be getting absorbed by something. Something may have happened to the half-life that we don’t know about. Even if we don’t discover anything that’s good, it’s still discovering things. I don’t think we shall discover anything that’s good, or very hopeful. But even so, it’s fun finding out.’
‘You call finding out the bad things fun?’
‘Yes, I do,’ he said firmly. ‘Some games are fun even when you lose. Even when you know you’re going to lose before you start. It’s just fun playing them.'”
The chilling words of T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” are printed in various editions of the novel, and Shute’s work was inspired by the poem.
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang, but with a whimper
On the Beach is an example of a somewhat rare case in which I saw the film long before ever reading the book. In fact, I had no clue who Shute was until last year, when I stumbled upon his World War II-set novel Landfall at a used book shop. I saw On the Beach for the first time about four years ago, but having discovered it pre-blog I had never looked up the full cast and crew list and seen that it was based on a novel. I have since had very good luck finding vintage pocket paperbacks of his novels at thrift shops, and I ended up running across On the Beach (1974 Ballantine Books paperback edition) at my local Goodwill.
The film was released in 1959, and the novel was adapted into a film again in 2000 (but I haven’t seen that one and really have no desire to).
The 1959 film follows the same general premise and trajectory of Shute’s novel, with a couple of major differences that the author was not happy with upon seeing the final product of the film.
The most notable changes are in the relationship between Dwight and Moira and the film’s ending. Though Moira is attracted to Dwight in the novel and longs for him to fall in love with her, their relationship remains platonic throughout the entire book. They are a source of companionship for each other, but Dwight remains faithful to his wife and children, who are presumed to be dead in America. This lack of romantic action is important for the character of Dwight — it says a lot to the reader about who he is as a person. Dwight and Moira grow and in many ways make positive changes throughout the novel due to their platonic companionship. This also allows for a great degree of emotional investment on part of the reader. Moira’s longing for a perfect life where she could marry Dwight and make a life for him exists only in a different world, where they will not soon be meeting their end. Moira’s longing gives the reader a sense of all of the unfulfilled wishes that will be caused by the nuclear war.
The Dwight-Moira relationship in the film is decidedly more romantic than the relationship in the novel. Dwight is still a respectful and moral man, as portrayed when he refuses to take advantage of a drunk Moira who shows up hoping to seduce him. The fact that they do form a romantic (and eventually physical) bond in the film completely changes the story’s significance, though. The viewer gets no sense of Dwight’s loyalty to his pre-war life. He becomes an entirely different character, who is tempted to stay in Australia with Moira in the end. The sense of mutual respect and understanding between Moira and Dwight (which in the novel stems from Moira’s acceptance of Dwight’s loyalty to his wife) is lost.
In the novel, Dwight also seems to have a very matter-of-fact understanding of how it will all end: he will die while sinking the US Navy’s final ship, and he will be rejoined with his family in the afterlife. Things aren’t so clear-cut in the film. Dwight seems to seriously consider staying with Moira in Australia and dying with her, and the character loses that sense of loyalty to his family and to his duties as a Naval officer.
Having read the novel now, and knowing that both Shute and Gregory Peck (who accepted the role due to his own strong feelings about nuclear war) were unhappy with the changes made to the story in order to capitalize on Ava Gardner’s status as a sex symbol, I like the film a bit less than I did before. However, it is still in general a solid adaptation of the novel. It’s a classic drama that remains worth watching, but anyone who’s a fan of the film should give the book a look for an even more harrowing exploration of the characters and their feelings about the war.