Two people, both defined by their upbringing, are bound by the social mores of another era.
Adapted for the screen by Ian McEwan from his own novel, On Chesil Beach is a gripping, heart-rending account of a loving relationship battered by outside forces and influences first formed in childhood, in a society with strict, inflexible rules about uniformity and respectability.
It is summer 1962, and England is still a year away from huge social changes: Beatlemania, the sexual revolution and the Swinging Sixties.
We first encounter Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle), a young couple in their early twenties, on their wedding day. Now on their honeymoon, they are dining in their room at a stuffy, sedate hotel near Chesil Beach in Dorset. Their conversation becomes more tense and awkward, as the prospect of consummating their marriage approaches. Finally, an argument breaks out between them. Florence storms from the room and out of the hotel, Edward pursues her, and their row continues on Chesil Beach.
From a series of flashbacks, we learn about the differences between them – their attitudes, temperaments and their drastically different backgrounds.
Out on the beach on their fateful wedding day, one of them makes a major decision that will utterly change both of their lives forever.
Novelist and Screenwriter Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan is one of the most celebrated British authors of the century; he has been shortlisted for a Man Booker prize six times and won in 1998 for his novel Amsterdam (1998).
McEwan’s published novels include The Cement Garden (1978), The Child in Time (1987), which won the Whitbread Novel of the Year Award in 1987, Enduring Love (1997), Amsterdam (1998), Saturday (2005), Solar (2010), Sweet Tooth (2012), The Children Act (2014) and most recently Nutshell (2016).
Several of his novels have been adapted into film. His film adaptation credits include Paul Schrader’s The Comfort Of Strangers (1990), John Schlesinger’s The Innocent (1993) and Andrew Birkin’s The Cemenr Garden (1993), which won the Silver Berlin Bear Award in 1993. In 2007, McEwan’s critically acclaimed novel, Atonement (2001), was adapted into an award winning feature film, directed by Joe Wright.
McEwan transitioned into screenplay writing in 1983 with Richard Eyre’s The Ploughman’s Lunch (1983). Subsequent to this, he wrote the screenplay for Soursweet (1988) directed by Mike Newell and Joseph Ruben’s The Good Son (1993). McEwan reunited with Richard Eyre to work on the screenplay for the film adaptation of his novel The Children Act (2017).
In 2008, The Times featured McEwan on their list of ‘The 50 Greatest British Writers since 1945’ and The Daily Telegraph featured McEwan as number 19 on their list of ‘100 Most Powerful People in British Culture.’
Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach is among the most acclaimed British novels of this century.
Published in 2007, it was short-listed for the Booker Prize, garnered glowing reviews and became a best seller.
Ian McEwan started writing a film adaptation of On Chesil Beach in 2010, three years after the novel was published. At this point in his long literary career, he was somewhat disillusioned with the lengthy process of seeing a screenplay go into production as a film – and sometimes not.
“I’d written a couple of scripts in the mid-90s that didn’t get made,” he recalls. “I thought it was a waste of time – that was two novels I hadn’t written. So I just stopped and let others do it. Joe Penhall wrote Enduring Love, and then I was still in that stretch of saying ‘no’ when Atonement came around. I was pleased Christopher Hampton adapted that. I wrote my novel Saturday during that time.
“But after On Chesil Beach was published, my first impulse – not a very good creative one – was: ‘I don’t want to adapt this – but if I don’t, someone else will.’ I couldn’t bear that thought.”
As soon as he embarked on the script: “I got completely engaged and remembered 20 years before how much I’d liked doing this.”
While he was writing the novel, he recalls: “I was too wrapped up in the fiction to think of cinema –and it wouldn’t have been any different even if I had. I’ve always thought of fiction in visual terms anyway, not so much in terms of long descriptive passages, but more in telling details that could act for whole scenes.”
On Chesil Beach is a slim volume, only around 40,000 words long. Ian believes this makes it a good fit for film adaptation: “As a literary form, the short novel or novella can adapt very well. You don’t have to leave two-thirds of it out – you can more or less stay with what you’ve got. They tend to have a fairly ruthless primary plot, with not a great deal of subplot, which suits films perfectly. A lot of short fiction has made very good cinema.”
While he is best known as one of Britain’s most eminent novelists, Ian is pleased to have returned to writing screenplays and feeling part of a film: “You sit alone with those ghosts, writing novels, and it’s so refreshing to get out of doors and collaborate with people – even if it means you no longer play God. It’s good for you.
“Film remains a director’s medium as well as a producer’s and a financial backers’ medium. But that’s a given. If you really felt strongly about it, you could set yourself up to direct your first movie. And I have no wish to do that. So you find the right kind of collaborators and work things that way.”
But as often happens in the film world, it took a long time for the book to make the transition to the big screen.
Yet its producer Elizabeth Karlsen was interested in a film adaptation of On Chesil Beach even before it was published. “Ian’s agent sent me a galley copy of the book,” she recalled. “And I thought: this is a beautifully written novel that appeals to me. There was a simplicity of narrative and a clarity of emotion about it.
“I saw it as a portrayal of a young woman at a particular time, and what that meant for her – defining her creative ambitions and her sexual being, her own self.”
She contacted Ian’s agent Stephen Durbridge and said: ‘I like this. I’m interested.’ But he had bad news for her: director Ang Lee was set to make the film.
“Then from a distance,” Elizabeth recalls, “I watched its progress as it went to various producers, production companies and directors. We’re a very small community, so you hear things. And the years just passed.”
Fast forward to 2015, and she found herself at a party celebrating the 25th anniversary of BBC Film, talking once more to Durbridge: “I said to him: ‘What happened to Chesil Beach?’ And he said, ‘Nothing happened. Why? Do you want to do it?’ I said ‘Yes, absolutely.’ And then just over a year later we were filming.”
Ian McEwan had already written a screenplay for On Chesil Beach: “I started some years previously, writing it for Sam Mendes. But it languished. It’s hard to fund these films.
“It then went through two or three other production companies, and I’d just given up on it. I’d got used to the idea of it not being made, and got involved with other things.”
But then Durbridge mentioned Elizabeth’s interest – and, says McEwan: “She brought this whole new life to it.”
Under the banner of Number 9 Films, Elizabeth and her partner Stephen Woolley have been responsible for some of the most distinctive British-produced films in recent years – including Their Finest, Carol and The Limehouse Golem.
“My career is defined by projects I feel passionate about, but don’t happen immediately,” she reflects.
“Things have a way of coming around. It’s the same with ideas – they get under your skin. When they stay with you, you think you should do something with them.”
For On Chesil Beach, she sounded out ‘only a couple of directors’ – one of whom was Dominic Cooke, one of Britain’s most eminent theatre directors, who had been Artistic Director at the Royal Court and is Associate Director at the National Theatre. At this point, he had directed the Shakespearean history trilogy, The Hollow Crown, for BBC television.
“I was a big fan of Dominic, and had wanted to work with him for some time,” Elizabeth explains.
“We’d talked about a couple of ideas that didn’t come to fruition for various reasons and while he was in post-production on The Hollow Crown, I’d sent Ian’s screenplay for On Chesil Beach.
Dominic Cooke is a British award winning theatre, television and film director and writer. After graduating from Warwick University, Cooke started at the Royal Court Theatre in 1995, and became the Artistic Director and Chief Executive of the Royal Court Theatre from 2006 to 2013. He also spent time at the Royal Shakespeare Company where he directed critically acclaimed plays.
Cooke made his television directorial debut in 2016, working on BBC’s acclaimed series The Hollow Crown: The War Of The Roses. In 2014, Cooke was awarded the CBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List for his services to Drama.
Though Dominic Cooke is regarded as one of Britain’s most eminent stage directors, On Chesil Beach marked his debut as a feature film director. But he was hardly unfamiliar with the film business: “My Dad was a film editor, and I worked at editing, witnessing the creative process.”
“Dominic responded immediately, and told me he was interested and I met with him. Then I met him with Ian, who was a bit nervous, because it had been quite a long time for him. You necessarily have a feeling of anxiety. But he and Dominic immediately had a great rapport, and I think Ian felt he could entrust Dominic with realising the screenplay as a film.
“Dominic talked to him about some changes he had in mind for the script, so they worked very closely together on the next pass of the screenplay.”
After Elizabeth Karlsen had persuaded him to let her produce his script, he met director Dominic Cooke: “We immediately got on. I said to him: what do you want to do differently with this?
“I think the only major thing he wanted changed was that we should actually see the accident that leaves Edward’s mother brain-damaged. That seemed to be a cinematically stronger idea. And then there were little things that we had no disagreement about, really. I was grateful for his fresh energy.”
“I didn’t read On Chesil Beach when it was first published,” says Dominic Cooke. “I got a script before I read the novel.”
When he compared the two, he was surprised by how ‘pragmatic’ Ian McEwan had been in his adaptation: “He is so specific about character and place. I was impressed by how he had taken the essence of the novel into the movie. It conveys the importance of how people talk – or don’t talk –about sex. And it’s clear how these two young people are affected by the time they live in.”
While the film is faithful to Ian McEwan’s novel, a few changes were made from the shooting script: “Most of the flashbacks are re-ordered,” says Dominic. “We grouped them together differently. There was an emotional logic that started to be revealed, and we wanted to be sure the audience wouldn’t be asking questions that took them out of the main story.”
He believes there are two major themes running through the story: “It’s about people being born in the wrong time. And then it’s also about a fatal decision that defines someone’s life. Ian is obsessed by moments that play out, or an event that shapes your life.
“The story is so interesting about the accident of when you’re born, and how much that shapes you. If only Florence and Edward had been born a few years later.”
Dominic recalls that the film’s music was recorded in Studio 2 at Abbey Road studios, where the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper: “It made me think of the amazing changes that happened in the mid-60s. There’s never been anything to compare with it. The 1960s was such an important time – the rights, the equalities, everything.”