As a 2007 Booker Prize nominee, Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach is beloved by most people that have read it, even though there’s still a debate over whether, at 166 pages, it is actually a novel or novella.
Set in 1962, “On Chesil Beach” revolves around the honeymoon of Edward (Billy Howle) and Florence (Saoirse Ronan), both of whom are terrified of consummating their marriage, while the film also reveals how they met and fell in love.
The fact that it was so popular and successful, and is so brief, always meant that adapting it was going to be a tricky. I recently had the chance to speak to actors Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle and director Dominic Cooke, who were responsible for bringing “On Chesil Beach” to the big-screen, and talked me through that process.
At first I spoke to the three time Academy Award nominated actress Ronan (“Atonement,” “Brooklyn,” “Lady Bird”), who admitted that she only “read the book during rehearsals.”
“I have done it only a couple times. When I was a kid I had done a few films, like ‘Atonement’ and ‘The Lovely Bones,’ when I hadn’t read the book because it was such adult subject matter. So I didn’t read them and I didn’t feel like I had missed out in any way.”
“I have actually found that it is helpful to read through the book for references. But in general I think you are better off just reading the script. So it was great to read the book. I had read the book years before as well.”
“But because Ian had adapted the script himself you knew it was coming from the horse’s mouth. You knew it was going to be authentic.”
Ronan admitted that she discussed the inclusion and omission of certain scenes and moments during the film’s extensive rehearsal process with McEwan and director Dominic Cooke.
“It was so collaborative. There’s a lot of dialogue that we took out. There are scenes that we shifted out. Because so much of it is in flashback as well.”
“Those few days that we rehearsed, me, Dom, Billy, Ian, you could definitely bring forward things from the book that we felt should be in or shouldn’t be in. And we were listened to.”
Billy Howles, who plays Florence Ponting’s love interest Edward Mayhew, also waxed lyrical about this rehearsal time.
“We had to put the book down eventually because Ian had written this beautiful screenplay, and he was there during rehearsals, when we talked about why we thought these people were like this.”
“That was researching social history, cultural history, how that affected who they were and who there families are. We picked the script to pieces and mined it for what it is worth.”
“Sometimes you make the film and then you don’t realize until now why we did things. Of course, you are never going to be perfect and I believe you have to submit to that because imperfection is beauty and beauty is imperfection.”
Howles also revealed that he was a huge fan of McEwan’s novel when it was originally released, and was particularly intrigued to see how he had adapted his own work.
“It is a great novella. The fact that Ian adapted it himself I found interesting. Because I was like, ‘How the hell did he do that?’ I can’t imagine wrangling with my own words like Ian did.”
“Because cinema is itself sculpts time. And the novel sculpts time in a really interesting way. And this idea of chronology and playing around with that. Using flashback as a conceit, if done sensitively, which I believe we do in this, can be a really good narrative device.”
“It is accessible to us as an audience. We understand it. But why do that? You have to justify it. I was fascinated by it.”
As such a big fan of the book, though, Howles confessed that he had some concerns about whether the cinematic version would actually work.
“I was worried that it might be slightly problematic. You make a film three times. You have a script, you film it, and then you edit it. But that has to be a collaborative process.”
“We all have to be singing from the same hymn sheet. Thankfully the hymn sheet was Ian’s script. So because we had the raw ingredients it all worked.”
Not of all the novel could make it into the movie, though, as Howles insisted that some of it was just unfilmable. Not that McEwan had an issue with potential alterations.
“It could just be a description of something. But the art department have done a stunning job of accurately portraying what Ian has described in the book. But there is artistic license and that is permissible. Ian was in favor of that because Ian is the less precious man I have ever met.”
Dominic Cooke, who is primarily known as a four-time Olivier Award winning and BAFTA nominated director, also opened up about his first reaction to the book.
“I was given the script. Then before I met Ian I read the book. And loved it. I knew about the book. The thing is it is such a short novel. The main difference is the last act of the film. Which is alluded to in the book, but is just one page. Then we started work on the script, we added a few scenes, we reshaped things, but we wanted to make the last act more explicit.”
The shortness of the book meant that Cooke didn’t really have any other option but to make some changes.
“The structure is different. It does jump about in the book. But it has more sustained elements. I think we had to reveal the back story gradually in the piece, and connect it to moments happening in the room.”
“There is one moment that is catastrophic, but there are so many decisions and choices that have led to that. You kind of want to see the tributaries that have led to that. A lot of that isn’t their fault. It is bad parenting, societal prejudice, class, and all kind of things.”
You can spot your own differences between Ian McEwan’s novel and Dominic Cooke’s adaptation of “On Chesil Beach” when the film is finally released on May 18.