Browsing in a second-hand bookstore in Hyderabad recently, I chanced upon Alex Garland’s The Beach. It was a yellowing copy, printed in 1997, a year after it had first been published. The cover had a blue eye superimposed on a beach with three near-perfect footprints. I debated whether I should buy it or not. The price was an attraction: `50. The blurbs at the back and one in the front cover suggested I buy it. I’d watched the film sporadically on television late one night, and I did not have clear memories of it. In fact, I did not remember anything except sea scenes and Leonardo di Caprio swimming and running around in the jungles, half-naked, pretending he was in a Vietnam war movie. What helped tip the scale was a trip that I’d made to Thailand some years ago.
We had flown to Phuket and then on to Phi Phi Don, an island off Phi Phi Leh, where The Beach had been shot. Controversy still swirled over the filming of The Beach. The contours of Maya Beach in Maya Bay, Phi Phi Leh island in the Gulf of Thailand, had been altered for the filming and Thai courts had ruled for restoring the beach where sand dunes had been shifted and coconut trees uprooted to make the beach picture perfect.
I’d expected to see a scene straight out of The Beach when our long-tailed boat finally glided over aquamarine waters into Maya Beach, ringed with tall cliffs on all sides which cupped the lagoon. The lagoon itself was perfect, with hardly a wavelet rippling across its placid surface. The beach was stunning, at least what little I could see of it. There was a stunning array of high-speed boats all jammed up against the white sand and several flotillas of long-tailed boats as well. And more were steadily coming in. It was barely 10 in the morning. The part of the beach that was left over was swarming with bikini-clad tourists who were crowding the water as well. I scrambled on to the hot sand looking for a place where I could pretend to be a beached whale. The sun was hot and all available shade was taken. I guessed there might have been more trees before Danny Boyle happened along and before the tsunami which visited later as well. I remember reading somewhere the author saying that if a Leonardo di Caprio-scale film such as The Beach was made, some damage was to be expected after all, and didn’t it in a way raise environmental awareness?
Everybody was busy taking pictures. I am sure that all the frames had strangers in them. There was little recollect from Boyle’s film. I’d not been impressed by Slumdog Millionaire either. Vikas Swarup’s Q&A had been far better; the film was so disjointed in comparison that I found it incoherent. That was probably what clinched my decision to buy the book. Afterwards, I had to wait in queue to read it, after my wife and daughter. It was worth the wait, though. It was written cleanly, surely, smartly, and moved very quickly, especially towards the end. It had a suicide, shark attack, spear fishing, marijuana farms, and no sex. It is a terrific book. Can’t say the same for the film. Am I prejudiced? Or do books in general offer a way better experience than their celluloid versions?