It’s ‘Islington supper club fiction’ – Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Martin Amis. Those literary giants gifted with the ability to be noticeably highbrow while also distinctly trashy. Prose slick and slippery enough it can be consumed while your little darlings are wreaking havoc around you in your open plan poggenpohl kitchen. But layers of plot complex enough to cultivate conversations at North London dinner parties. Perhaps it’s this duality, this ability to be James Joyce and EL James (ok maybe not quite that far) that sets traps for those trying to bring the books to the big and small screen. With the possible exception of Atonement, none of the screen adaptations of these titans of fiction’s work has quite hit the mark. The BBC’s 2010 attempt at Amis’ 80s classic Money totally missed the point. While the big screen versions of McEwan’s Enduring Love and Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending took what were intricate and finely crafted masterpieces, rounded off the edges, applied a thick coat of cheap gloss and turned them out as tacky carbon copies of what they once were.
Dominic Cooke’s On Chesil Beach, doesn’t plumb these depths – helped in part by a screenplay written by Ian McEwan himself – but it gets dangerously close. It’s not flippancy to say from the first second of the film I was somewhat disappointed. On Chesil Beach is a book drenched in sadness. I had expected an onslaught of bleak, not an opening scene with a jaunty rock and roll soundtrack. Fortunately the music soon improves. Tense concertos and soaring crescendos are used to stitch together flashbacks and accompany awkward bedroom encounters. Encounters executed by Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle with the perfect amount of carnal desperation mixed with almost-slapstick humour. We join the newlyweds, Florence and Edward, on their honeymoon in a 1960s Dorset hotel. As they prepare to consummate their marriage, it soon becomes clear that both are in uncharted waters.
The book this is not. McEwan has elaborated the characters and expanded their back-story. This is perhaps inevitable, given the task of turning a 166 page novella into an almost two hour long film. A complex weave of flashbacks add depth but in places disrupt the flow of the main plot, giving the film a disjointed feel in places. We learn of parental illness for Edward and possible childhood abuse for Florence. We also track the couple’s relationship from the moment they meet – as perfect a portrayal of love at first sight as I’ve ever seen. More disappointing are the couple’s lovey dovey saccharine jaunts to the cricket pitch and concert hall – more Ryan Reynolds than Romeo. But it all gets a lot more Rom-Com when we find out these scenes are there to tee up a new and altogether more Hollywood ending. This new finale gives the film a sense of closure and circularity. But in doing so hugely cheapens it and kills off the complex sense of tragedy and unknowing achieved by the book. All of this is not helped by two of the worst sets of facial prosthetics I have ever seen in any film, past or present. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the film. It’s planning and execution is leagues above last year’s adaptation of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. The acting is solid and the production is slick. The messages about time, relationships and sex are still there. But, well, it’s just not the novel.
So why are we filing this film, like many before it, under the category of ‘the book is better’? Format has to be part of the answer. Novels can layer up experiences, jumping between locations and years far more easily than film and TV can. Genres, or perhaps in this case ‘classes’ (highbrow vs. trashy), can be welded together in books in a way they can’t in film. When the characters, the setting and the action are all in your head you can edit in the trashiness and dilute down the highbrow to your taste. Books are more flexible precisely because they are more subjective. Film requires you to buy into a more specific interpretation. But it’s inevitable this means losing some of the ambiguity that gives many novels their appeal in the first place. Film-makers are required to pay their money and take their choice – uplifting or downbeat? Stylised or rustic? Trashy or highbrow? Authors like Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Martin Amis are great because they can skirt between these dual aspects. Partly because of the canvas they work on, partly because of their skills as story-tellers and partly because of their preparedness to trust the reader to take from the book what they will. Film makers don’t have as much artistic leeway to grant the viewer this trust. Mix that with pressure to appeal to big numbers and put bums on seats and it’s hardly surprising they often err on the side of trashy.