When “The Beach” hit American cinemas just over 10 years ago, most of the hype surrounding the movie centered on its star, Leonard DiCaprio, and its director, Danny Boyle. Scant media attention was given to the movie’s core themes, which drew on Alex Garland’s 1996 novel of the same name about a community of Western backpackers veering its way into self-destruction on an anonymous Thai island.
Some critics compared the macabre adventure tale to earlier works like William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” or Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” but few pondered how the story reflected the globalization-tinged insecurities of the age in which it was written. In fact, the most intriguing theme of “The Beach” was not the moral degeneration of the backpackers’ island “paradise,” but the insipid consumerist fantasies that inspired how that paradise should look in the first place. In trying to create the real-world equivalent of a tourist brochure (and in succumbing to the petty social-status rivalries of home), Garland’s characters became an ironic extension of the mass culture they’d tried to escape.
To better understand how “The Beach” reflected the anxieties of its age, it’s worth looking at similarly themed pop-novels written between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of New York’s Twin Towers. We find a spate of British-authored pulp fiction about self-absorbed 20-somethings trying (and failing) to use travel in Asia as an escape from the superficial, directionless, consumerist lives they lead back home.
The most explicit and extended critique comes in Sutcliffe’s novel, which includes an encounter between Dave and a western journalist, who challenges openly and at length not only Dave and his enclave, but also the very possibility that life in a backpacker community might ever approximate anything resembling authenticity:
The real point would have to be about how going to India isn’t an act of rebellion these days, it’s actually a form of conformity for ambitious middle-class kids who want to be able to put something on their CV that shows a bit of initiative … You come here and cling to each other as if you’re on some kind of extended management-bonding exercise in Epping Forest … I suppose you could call it a modern form of ritual circumcision—it’s a badge of suffering you have to wear to be welcomed into the tribe of Britain’s future elite. Your kind of travel is all about low horizons dressed up as open-mindedness. You have no interest in India, and no sensitivity for the problems this country is trying to face up to. You also treat Indians with a mixture of contempt and suspicion which is reminiscent of the Victorian colonials.