Although best known for its cinematic adaptation starring a post-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio, Alex Garland’s debut novel The Beach is a book about backpackers for backpackers.
A traveller on the Khao San Road is given a hand-drawn map to the proverbial Garden of Eden, an unspoilt island paradise in the Gulf of Thailand that is home to a colony of international backpackers. When he does find this unspoilt paradise and comes to embrace island life he soon discovers its days of peaceful anonymity may soon be numbered.
Engaging, thought-provoking and very, very good, The Beach is Generation X’s take on Lord of the Flies and a cult classic to boot. Mystery, action and adventure complement the exotic locale in this thinking-man’s tale of paradise found and, inevitably, lost.
First published in 1996, this novel is often credited as the book that gave a voice to a generation of backpackers. Whether or not there is any truth to that claim is a matter of opinion, but there is undeniably something about this book that all travellers can relate to.
You see, it’s about more than just shark attacks, armed drug-dealers and graphic Vietnam War fantasies. In fact, it’s not even really about Thailand. At its core, The Beach is about going off the beaten track in search of paradise. Not to mention man’s unfailing ability to spoil, pollute and ultimately destroy paradise when he does find it.
Brutally honest and unflinching, often times surreal and unsettling, The Beach is a startling piece of travel fiction and an indictment of globalisation and commercialism.
Or it’s just a damn good read – it’s all just a matter of perception.
The film, of course, is a different kettle of fish entirely. Different in tone yet relatively faithful to its source material, the 2000 Danny Boyle-directed film was something of a cultural phenomenon upon release – if only because it starred a surprisingly young and fresh-faced DiCaprio arguably at the height of his powers.
The critics were harder to please than Leo’s legion of fans, however, and the film was widely panned. It currently has a rating of just 19% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Sure, it’s uneven in places and it’s far from Leo or Boyle’s best work but the cinematography is gorgeous, having been filmed on location in Koh Phi Phi in Thailand, which almost makes it worth overlooking the clichés and occasional silliness.
The damage the production caused to the beach is inexcusable though.
Looking for more great travel books? See my review of Oh Mexico! Love and Adventure in Mexico City.