Ian McEwan: Youth and Sexuality On Chesil Beach

July 30, 2018
We chat to writer Ian McEwan about his film On Chesil Beach, which explores youth, sexuality and the lifelong consequences of the choices we make.

Ian McEwan is an English novelist and screenwriter. In the film world, he is best known for writing the novels that inspired Enduring Love and Atonement.

 On Chesil Beach is the film adaptation of McEwan’s 2007 novella of the same name. The film was written by McEwan, directed by Dominic Cooke and stars Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle. On Chesil Beach is set in England in 1962. The film centres around two virgin newlyweds, Florence [Ronan] and Edward [Howle], and their disastrous first attempt to consummate their marriage. This experience – namely Florence’s fear and disinterest as far as sex is concerned and Billy’s lack of understanding – has lifelong consequences for each character.

McEwan feels a very close and personal connection to On Chesil Beach – and this is what led him to write the screenplay himself. “I didn’t want anyone else to tell the story,” he states, “that was my initial, possessive feeling. I didn’t want anyone else getting hold of it and getting it wrong or making it pornographic. I wanted it to be very tender, and I just couldn’t trust anyone else to do it.”

Ian started work on this film 5 years ago and had Sam Mendes in line to direct, but Mendes left the project to direct Skyfall. “Big mistake,” Ian jokes, “he could have been earning so much more money with me!” After this setback, Ian moved on to other things, but eventually production company Number 9 Films came on board and the film was given new life.

“It all came together once Number 9 Films got involved. I met Dominic Cooke [director], who I didn’t know before, and I felt I could trust him because he’s a theatre director. I prefer to work with theatre directors who are making movies than with directors from the more traditional school – they tend to regard writers as secondary. In the theatre at least, the director is working to realise what the writer has written. In film, there’s this old notion that the writer is a sort of amanuensis to the director, and the most disposable person. I’ve worked on a Hollywood film [The Good Son] where I was immediately sacked, even though it was my own original screenplay.”

Director Dominic Cooke

Despite the frustration that comes with the ‘Hollywood’ side of writing screenplays, McEwan does enjoy the writing process – even though it differs greatly from writing novels. “A screenplay is like the root of a finished piece of work – as opposed to being a finished work of art in itself,” McEwan muses.

“A screenplay stands in the same place as a recipe does to a meal – it’s like a set of instructions that keeps everyone and everything in line during the chaos of filming. The screenplay holds it all together, but it’s not a literary form. There’s definitely joy in writing a screenplay, but it’s more like a joy of anticipation.”

To make the story more appealing for cinema-goers, McEwan made certain adjustments to the story, including altering the ending. “In the novel, the tone of the narrative is summarising a life – we stay with Edward the whole time as his life becomes lonelier and sadder. With a screenplay, you need more drama – some dramatic exchange that would bring life to that summary. So, the first thing I did was to dream up a scene that features a little girl who is obviously Florence’s daughter. This scene represents the lovemaking Florence and Edward never had, and the union they never achieved. It’s also the tragedy that sets the tone for the last act and Edward’s eventual failure and loneliness. He never writes the history books, he never has children, he has lots of fleeting girlfriends and then suddenly he’s an old man living in his parents’ house. The other important scene we added was to have Edward – as an old man – see Florence one more time. Part of the pleasure of adaptation is finding new things in order to bring life to the work in new ways. In novels, you can describe a person’s inner state of mind. With films, you can’t do that in the same way, so you need to find alternatives. Having wonderful actors is one way – and Saoirse [Ronan] and Billy [Howle] were extraordinary in that respect – they are fantastic at transmitting emotion.”

On Chesil Beach is McEwan’s second film with Saoirse Ronan. “I’ve followed Saoirse’s career since Atonement. When I saw her in Brooklyn, I thought ‘I’ve just go to have her’. When I met Dominic for the first time, I said ‘Listen, there is one actor that I really want. Please go and watch Brooklyn, please go and meet her’. He wouldn’t commit, reasonably enough. But then I got an ecstatic email back from him saying he’d met her and that she’d read for the part. I really hoped we’d have her, and in many ways, the passage of time just worked out perfectly. When I wrote the film, she was 16 or 17, so she would have been too young to play the character if I’d made it straight away. By the time we came to make it, she was 22, which was the age of her character, so it just came together.”

Although the film is set in 1962, its themes of love, relationships, sexuality and understanding are relevant to any time. “In many ways,” McEwan muses, “I think we’re living in a lie if we feel that 2018 is superior to 1962. Speaking about men in particular, boys coming of age these days are watching incredibly pornographic material on the internet – they are so unprepared for actual sex, and their attitudes can be so crude. I have school teacher friends, and some of the stories they tell me about boys’ expectations these days are just so gross. I think the media and magazines present young people with images and stories of young couples having successful sex all the time. No one is really talking about it as this really tender human experience that requires intimacy and a great deal of tenderness and mutual acceptance, kindness and humour. One of my favourite parts of the film is just before Florence and Edward have sex, and she says ‘tell me something stupid.’ She delivers that line – which is her asking for kindness and sensitivity – so beautifully, and it’s such a tender moment. I don’t think we should view these characters or the time as a remote and lost past. I think all sorts of people will relate to it – I’ve had letters from people my age, saying the film reminded them of their wedding night, and from people who are 18 or 19, saying they really connected with the representations of sexuality as well. There are so many different types of people out there, and many of them can live without sex. I have one or two friends who just don’t need it, and they live very successful lives, and we need to accept that.”

Although sexuality and particularly sexual fluidity are frequently talked about in 2018, the expectations and fears that surround sex – particularly for women – aren’t explored as much. Florence may appear asexual, but McEwan assures us that it isn’t that simple. “You need to remember that Florence goes on to have three children,” he says. “Maybe, if Edward wasn’t so trapped in the narrative that you need to have explosive sex on your wedding night – which is a completely false narrative – they would have become intimate. But Edward had this notion that he needed immediate success, or gratification. So, Florence tells herself that sex just isn’t for her, and Edward takes that as a gross insult, which it isn’t.”

On Chesil Beach is in cinemas from August 9, 2018. Read our review here

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