Sunday, January 22, 2006

Don't Hollywoodize it

A year or so ago I read Nevile Shute's On The Beach written in 1957 at the height of impending nuclear holocaust after the destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima with an atomic bomb. The world is being slowly destroyed by radioactive fallout that is inching slowly toward Australia, humanity's last stand. One lone American submarine, captained by Commander Dwight Towers, has made port there and will wait out the remainder of humanity's time under the command of the Royal Australian Navy. The book is an intelligent treatise on the way we handle life in the face of utter destruction and the characters are finely drawn and complex.

Then, in 2000, Hollywood came out with their version of the story and turned it into a movie with Armand Assante, Rachel Ward, and Bryan Brown and turned it upside down. I saw it yesterday.

I didn't mind the story being updated with computers and updated cars, technology, etc., but I do mind that they turned the story upside down and completely missed the point -- as usual.

The relationship between Commander Dwight Towers and Moira Davidson was all wrong. Yes, Moira was still on a self destructive man and alcohol binge counting down the hours until she either asphyxiated on her own vomit or killed by some stranger she bedded until she met Dwight, but Dwight was not the same. He had been turned into a sap. In Shute's book, Dwight was an honorable man who kept his wife and two children alive in his mind, even though he knows they are most certainly dead in a ground zero blast. He knows humanity is doomed but he is going to go down with it into the arms of his family and nothing is going to change that. In Hollywood's version, he sees his family around him, envisions them as they were and as he prefers to believe they still are -- waiting for him to come home -- but it is short lived when he meets Moira and falls into her voracious arms. He is changed by her and not the other way around.

In Shute's vision, Moira is pulled back from the brink of self destructive madness by Dwight's honor and his unshakable belief in his family and his marriage. She stops drinking and realizes that he is an honorable man, the last honorable man on Earth, and that changes her. She helps him gather gifts to take home to his children when his job in Australia is done and even has one made for his daughter. She is in love with him, but she doesn't suborn his honor or his fidelity to his wife. At the end, when Dwight takes his sub and crew away from Australia to sink her at the bottom of the sea with the gifts he is taking to his wife and his children, Moira looks on from the cliffs above the channel where the sub sails past to be close to him when she takes her pill and dies. Hollywood had other ideas.

Dwight goes mad when he realizes his family is really gone, blames himself for not being there when they die, and goes back to Moira when he returns to Australia after one last mission for the Admiralty. He's already succumbed to Moira's wiles and bedded her at her farm after she seduces him with Glen Miller and dancing, but he's going back to the woman he loves. Hollywood gives a slight nod to Dwight's fidelity and honor and makes him a patsy for Moira's self destruction, giving in to her on nearly every point. This Dwight is a man led by his hormones and not by honor, except when he stays with his Executive Officer and best friend while he dies from radiation sickness in the naval hospital. In the end, he forsakes his boat and his crew and his allegiance to America and comes back to Moira in dress whites to die with her, thus gutting the Shute's vision and the honor and decency of the characters just to show a little sex and romance.

Even Jules's death is not as it should have been. Jules died in a car crash during a race and didn't just go to the track, rev up the Ferrari, take it around the track at blinding speeds and then drive it at top speed through a billboard and to a fiery death. Jules didn't commit suicide, but he courted death with every race and death won. That's a huge difference.

While checking out the information to write this review of the 2000 version of On The Beach I discovered there had been another version of the movie made in 1959 with Gregory Peck as Dwight Towers and Ava Gardner as Moira Davidson. I haven't seen it but I have ordered it from Netflix and I will see it, but I'll bet that they have it wrong, too, and they have gutted Shute's core relationship and theme for sex and romance. The one thing Hollywood has yet to understand is that life doesn't always end happily ever after and that there is more to life than neatly tying up the loose ends with sex and romance. Life is messy and it is difficult at times, and sometimes it ends with honor and not with happily ever after -- even if only for as long as it takes to swallow poison to die before the radiation gets you.

Oh, and by the way, I would have chosen an actor to play Dwight Towers with a bit more steel in his spine who doesn't keep his lips pursed all the time who is a bit younger than Armand Assante. And whoever told Rachel Ward that she looked good should have given her a pizza and a sack full of double bacon cheeseburgers from Wendy's first.

That is all. Disperse.

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