Before Filmmaking, Alex Garland Wrote This Bestseller That Turned Into a Leonardo DiCaprio Thriller

Today, Garland is widely known for directing ‘Ex Machina,’ ‘ Annihilation,’ and ‘Civil War.’

Custom image of Alex Garland next to Leonardo DiCaprio as Richard from The BeachIronically, it’s often that some of the worst films in an artist’s career can also be among their most quintessential. While, clearly, most filmmakers or actors would like to enjoy critical commercial and critical success for nearly all of the projects that they invest their time in, there are very few figures within the film industry that have a completely spotless track record. On paper, a collaboration between Trainspotting director Danny Boyle and the young Titanic star Leonardo DiCaprio seemed like a perfect pairing; unfortunately, their work on the 2000 adventure film The Beach was generally regarded as a significant disappointment. Although it’s not ranked as one of Boyle or DiCaprio’s best films, The Beach was inspired by a hit novel written by Alex Garland.

‘The Beach’ Was a Bestselling Novel
Although he is now known as the creative mind behind many great science fiction shows and movies, Garland started his career writing thematically rich adventure novels. The Beach, Garland’s first and best novel, was initially released in 1996. Set in East Asia, the novel follows the young American backpacker Richard as he seeks out adventure. After an encounter with an enigmatic young French couple, Françoise and Étienne, Richard learns of a mysterious island community that has essentially created its own utopia. Obsessed with becoming integrated within the community, Richard sets out on an epic quest, but runs into danger when mischievous characters attempt to take advantage of the island’s resources.

Virginie Ledoyen, Leonardo DiCaprio, Guillaume Canet standing together in The Beach

While it’s rare to see such confident work from a debut author, Garland proved to be wise beyond his years with The Beach. In addition to being a perfect amalgamation of Gen X anxieties and a touching romantic adventure, The Beach spoke to existentialism themes about the perils of creating a utopian society. Garland’s descriptive phrasing gave the novel a strong sense of visuals, which made it perfect for a potential adaptation. Garland’ success drew the attention of 20th Century Fox, and Boyle was hired to helm an adaptation of The Beach. Based on the success of his work on Trainspotting and Shallow Grave, Boyle was seen as a filmmaker who could translate the beloved source material.

Given how popular The Beach has been among readers, the film adaptation needed a major star in the role of Richard. Ewan McGregor was briefly considered for the role, as he had worked with Boyle on Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, and A Life Less Ordinary. However, the success of Titanic prompted Boyle to choose a more bankable star in DiCaprio, initiating a feud with McGregor that wouldn’t be resolved until their reunion for T2: Trainspotting in 2017. Nonetheless, DiCaprio’s popularity was at its height; while The Man in the Iron Mask had been a critical disappointment, there was still a heavy amount of anticipation for his next project.

‘The Beach’ Kicked off Alex Garland’s Relationship With Danny Boyle

Leonardo DiCaprio as Richard standing on a beach in The Beach (2000)

Leonardo DiCaprio, Virginie Ledoyen, and Guillaume Canet burning a map in The Beach (2000)

Despite the lofty potential that the source material had, The Beach was seen as a fairly significant disappointment for everyone involved. Instead of delving into the ethically challenging topics that were so critical to the novel, The Beach skimmed the surface of its themes, resulting in a shallow and unfocused narrative. While it’s commonly cited as Boyle’s worst film, The Beach was first and foremost a failure of adaptation. While screenwriter John Hodge had worked with Boyle to reach great success on Trainspotting and Shallow Grave, his script for The Beach diverged widely from the original novel.

Although the film underperformed compared to expectations, it did not put an end to Garland’s writing career. In the immediate aftermath, he wrote the critically acclaimed science fiction novels The Tesseract and The Coma. However, Garland finally got the opportunity to join the film industry thanks again to Boyle, as they worked together on the 2002 zombie thriller 28 Days Later. The film was seen as a complete reinvention of a genre that had largely been stuck reiterating the work that George Romero had done in the classic Night of the Living Dead films. 28 Days Later changed zombie movies forever, and established Garland as one of the most promising screenwriters of his generation.

Neither Garland or Boyle decided to stick around for 28 Weeks Later, with director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo stepping into helm the underrated sequel. However, Garland and Boyle collaborated once more on the space film Sunshine, an emotional epic that contained many thematic parallels to The Beach. Set in the distant future, Sunshine followed a group of brilliant scientists on a doomed mission to reignite the sun. Similar to The Beach, Sunshine merged many surrealistic dream sequences with emotionally articulate character arcs, creating an immersive sci-fi world that appeased both genre movie buffs and casual audiences.

Alex Garland Has Pivoted Away From Adventures to Science Fiction

Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert Carlyle sharing a blunt in The Beach (2000)

Over a decade after the adaptation of The Beach hit cinemas, Garland made his directorial debut with the modern sci-fi classic Ex Machina. He’d already begun making his mark and had received praise for his screenplays for the science fiction novel adaptation Never Let Me Go and the gritty reboot of the Dredd franchise, The film’s creative take on artificial intelligence spoke to Garland’s brilliance as a storyteller, as evidenced in his debut novel. He was able to unpack the ethical topics in a manner that feels particularly timely. It also showed that Garland could make a tight, engaging thriller that was set within just one isolated location with only a few main characters. Succeeding beyond the scope of its relatively small budget, Ex Machina earned Garland his first Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

Garland is now one of the few filmmakers committed to developing original science fiction projects. While his subsequent films Annihilation and Men were both financial disappointments, they’ve been adopted as cult classics by genre fans. Similarly, his brilliant FX miniseries Devs has been hailed as one of the best hard sci-fi shows of all-time. The Beach adaptation pales in comparison to the extraordinary work that Garland has done in the two decades since its release; nevertheless, it’s certainly the film that kicked him off on his current trajectory.

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