The Beach. Dir. Danny Boyle. 20th Century Fox. 2000.

In Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Alex Garland’s adventure novel ‘The Beach’ Richard (a young Leonardo DiCaprio) who, dissatisfied with western attitudes, visits Bangkok to seek an exotic new perspective. He learns of an island heralded as paradise and subsequently acquires a map.  Richard and an European couple find the island and the small community which lives there governed by the strict Sal (Tilda Swinton). Richard initially believes he has found paradise, but the freedom comes at a price. The price is that when the community invaded this wild island they became likely prey for a number of animals. They cannot live in the free wild and expect the notion of humans dominating the food chain to prevail. Following a shark attack the community begins to dissolve as Sal forbids any help visiting the island to save the attack victim, instead the community reveals its true colours when they abandon the man in a forest to die. The island community disbands when Sal attempts to kill Richard to preserve what she considers to be a free paradise island.

‘The Beach’ trailer

‘The Beach’ is a blend of the adventure genre and the drama genre. The exotic jungle setting and the male hero are key characteristics of the adventure genre as the audience travels vicariously through Richard. Boyle subverts these genre standards however by using the shark to undermine Richard’s heroism. Although there are elements of the horror genre during the scary shark attack scene Boyle avoids any horror villain status being attached to the shark. The subsequent drama stems from the realisation created by the shark: the cost of freedom on the island is that the community must relinquish the notion as humans they are above being considered prey.

Richard sits stunned, he is unable to fight the phsyical presence of a shark only deal with the conseqeunces. (

The fatal shark attack is crucial in destroying the paradise dream because it exposes human corruption is necessary to maintain the island community. After the attack Etienne calls the community ‘Fucking Animals’. This derogatory use of ‘animal’ exhibits the attitude that humans are superior to animals because they have sympathy. This is the crux of the film. The island is believed to be separate from human society, Sal and Richard repeatedly praise the island for its freedom however when the community abandons the attack victim in the forest Boyle shows the price of freedom and that is corruption. The community in Lord Of Flies breaks down in a similar way; and there is an emergent trope in Paradise literature of hypothesising how humans degenerate when separated from society. Initially the separation is freeing as exhibited in ‘The Beach’, ‘Peter Pan’, ‘Robinson Crusoe’, and ‘Lord Of the Flies’. There is praise for the lack of human rules and no pressure to achieve economic success or adhere to cultural norms. Wendy in ‘Peter Pan’ does not have to grow up, Richard in ‘The Beach’ enjoys the freedom of a foreign land, Crusoe lives off the land, and the school boys establish a new society. However this human civility begins to decay. Wendy decides to leave Neverland after observing her brothers dancing around a Native American fire ( a troubling instance of what is considered non-civilised behaviour but that is Wendy’s view). Similarly when Etienne calls the community ‘fucking animals’ Boyle draws attention to the dissolution of civilised human standards. He uses the phrase ‘animals’ to highlight the hypocrisy of the community abandoning the victim and then pretending it never happened, thus maintaining the farce of civilisation. This hypocrisy directly exposes the necessity of human corruption to maintain an island that is considered free.

 ‘You see, in a shark attack, or any other major tragedy, I guess the important thing is to get eaten and die, in which case there’s a funeral and somebody makes a speech and everybody says what a good guy you were. Or get better, in which case everyone can forget about it. Get better or die. It’s the hanging around in between that really pisses people off.’ ~Richard ‘The Beach’.

Richard answers the troubling question raised about the price of freedom on the island. He claims civilisation is important only because it provides a ritualistic solution to a troubling event. If the attack victim lives; the community continues. If the attack victim dies; there is a funeral, the community continues. Richard acknowledges he believes civilisation is a ritual with no substance underneath. His direct recognition of this undermines the community’s attempt to appear civilised as it seems they only maintain the codes of civilisation to distance themselves from animals.  Animals are thus represented in a natural way with no flourish to suggest there should be a natural distinction between human and animals. The lack of anthropomorphism is vital in distancing the animals so they maintain differentiated from humans. A non-talking animal is difficult to identify with. However it is the humans of the island that seem to exhibit more and more animalistic behaviour intensifying the hypocrisy of claiming their community on the island is civilised. It is therefore crucial that animals are presented within ‘The Beach’ not as a downgrade but as an alternate way of survival.

DiCpario confronts the Mako Shark model in this staged scene. (

The animals fall into two distinct categories: under human employment or wild. Initially this divide advertises human superiority. The first animal on screen is a caged snake; property of Bangkok  residents used to make money off tourists. The snake is reduced to a commodity. Yet later the wild shark is a force of nature that forces the community to choose either: to stay on the island accepting you are subject to the same violence as any other potential prey (i.e. you are not more special than any other animal on the island) or leave. Where the caged snake is a part of human capitalism, the wild shark destroys the hypocrisy of civilisation that suggests human superiority.

Director Danny Boyle and cinematographer Darius Khondji against the backdrop of the Island.( IMDB)

The first instance of human superiority occurs when Richard is provoked into drinking snake’s blood. The snake is caged in a dark room; an eerie green light is used to make the snake look frightening. A shot from behind the snake portrays Richard is sweating, breathing heavily, and his eyes are wide with fear. Boyle showcases the effect of the snake on Richard rather than the animal itself to show how the snake is used as a commodity. The audience is placed in the same position as Richard; both are enticed by the image of the snake as dangerous (an image manipulated by the snake owners and by Boyle).  Boyle presents the snake as dangerous to elevate Richard’s status to showcase his bravery for drinking the blood.  However there is a sense of mockery because the snake is caged. Richard never challenges the snake. The mockery comes from Richard being made to feel inferior to the caged snake. His fear comes from the inversion of his accepted belief of human superiority because when faced with a dangerous animal he feels threatened. Richard appears sweaty and over frightened in a room with men with much calmer postures. By contrast he seems ridiculous because it is clear the other men feel no fear of the snake because they know the snake is under their control. By contrast, the calm men exhibit their human superiority over the snake and thus over Richard. The scene becomes more absurd when Boyle emphasises how little danger Richard is in from the snake by using a shot to emphasise the thick bars of the cage. The shot distances the snake from the audience and Richard appears particularly foolish to exhibit such fear of the reptile which is clearly under the control of humans. Where there is no real threat from the animal, there can be no real bravery at besting it. Where he is mocked in this scene by appearing as the only frightened man in a room with calm men and a caged snake by contrast Richard’s heroic status soars on the island when he kills a wild mako shark..

Richard sits amongst the blood of the victim, shocked by the goriness of the attack. (

The cinematic techniques used in the mako shark scene showcase Richard’s heroic qualities. His triumph over a wild animal is heralded over his previous blood-drinking of a caged one. There is an extra sense of daring connected to besting wild animals and this stems from the representation of wild animals exhibiting the quality of freedom. When Richard kills the mako shark the scene is originally set in the present to build fear but jumps forward in time to Richard regaling his heroics to an awed crowd. The killing scene continues but because it is now told through the voiceover of the known successful Richard the focus is upon Richard’s manipulation of the story to showcase his own bravery. The emphasis of this scene is now on the manipulation of the shark. who has now been reduced to a character in Richard’s story.

The visuals of the shark are employed to make Richard appear as brave as possible. A shot of the shark swimming underneath Richard, the quick cuts, and close-ups create a fear; but a pleasant fear because the audience know the shark is killed. Boyle emphasis the falseness of Richard’s account by embellishing the attack; there is a shot when Richard locks eyes with the shark and claims a divine connection:

      ‘And at that instant, it was either the shark or me. The shark knew it, I knew it’~ Richard ‘The Beach’ 

Boyle extends this further when Richard jokingly claims the shark spoke to him:

      ‘Hey Richard, enjoy your dinner’~ Richard speaks for the Mako Shark ‘The Beach’.

When the model shark’s mouth moves to form these words it is at this moment that the shark looks most unrealistic. Previously the quick cuts had insured the shark attack looked realistic but this moment interrupts the realism and exposes the use of a model.  This interruption exposes this image of a shark is false and a creation of Richard to exaggerate his bravery.

The important difference between this killing and the fatal shark attack is that this shark is seen to be manipulated via Richard’s story-telling process, in the fatal shark attack the shark is absent, visually suggesting it has not been manipulated by humans. The absence of the shark prevents it from being represented as a horror villain, Crawford states representations of sharks are ‘not only exploitative and sensational but evince a tendency to credulity’[1]. Where the image of the mako shark was manipulated to bolster Richard’s status the absent shark shatters their delusion of a human-centric, paradise island. The shark attack reduces humans to shark prey. A birds-eye view shot of the red blood trail against the white sand mimics the shark inflicted wounds and shows the broken delusion of human superiority. This shark has killed  to survive and the gore of this scene and uncomfortable music prevents the characters from anthropomorphising the shark, they can only deal with the aftermath-the chilling realisation there is no special ‘human’ protection from wild animals, humans are not superior on the island.

The audience views Richard’s contemplation through the snake’s cage. (

Two summative points…

  1. The shark’s successful killing shocks the community because it reveals how easily they resort to leaving the victim to die.  The representation of the shark as an equalising natural force compels the community to recognise their imposition of civilisation is simply an act. The film centres around trying to find and maintain a paradise island but the shark attack reveals the price of freedom is corruption. The shark interrupts the community’s hypocrisy with the reality that they are not civilised. The shark is not glamourized, there is gore and blood but not excessively. The cinematic techniques present animalistic life as an alternative possible way of living for humans if you can handle the truth of perhaps being killed horribly.  Therefore the shark is presented as a reality check and an equaliser.
  2. The difference in the representation of wild and employed animals is crucial because the film argues it is the life of the wild animal that is being offered as an alternative. The caged animals symbolise the shackles of society. However the price of wildness is the realisation humans are not superior to animals.  There is the recognition civilisation is just a barrier erected by humans to distance themselves from animals. The removal of it; whilst generating a sense of freedom also eradicates human superiority. Boyle uses the contrast between domesticated and wild animals to prove this: the snake is used as a commodity for duped tourists, but the wild powerful shark commands respect from the humans which alters the community’s view of the island. Where the captured animals are mocked, the wild animals are heralded for their freedom and the main point of contention in the film spins upon the realisation a human cannot truly be free without playing an active part in wild life and this involves equally being considered food

A bird’s eye view shot visually likens the blood trail to a wound carved into the island.(

Like ‘Jaws’ Boyle’s shark exposes the ‘collision between wilderness and community’ however  Boyle’s concealment of the the shark shows he wishes to champion the naturalness of the attack over the sensationalised monster in ‘Jaws’ [2]. Boyle’s shark kills for food not for an ulterior motive. The attack is sudden, there is no tension like in ‘Open Water’ because the focus is upon the shark interrupting the false dream of paradise not about creating fear of the shark. ‘The Beach’ focuses upon the decay of human civilisation. While separated from society the community maintains the codes of civilisation to sustain the notion of human superiority which identifies humans as inherently dominant over all animals. The fatal shark attack exposes the hypocrisy of their action: they behave in an uncivilised manner when they abandon a dying man and try to pretend they are still civilised. The fatal shark attack proves if humans wish to believe they are free from society they must accept the price of being equally preyed upon. The contention of the film focuses upon the community’s corrupt attempt to act wild and claim it is civilised behaviour.


[1] Crawford, Dean. Shark (London: Reaktion Books, 2008); see chapter 4.

[2] Silet, Charles LP, ed. The films of Steven Spielberg: critical essays. Vol. 94. Scarecrow Press, 2002. P.10

Further Reading: