Chesil Beach
Love and sex are different things in “On Chesil Beach.” COURTESY MONTCLAIR FILM

On Chesil Beach
Saturday, April 28, 8:30 p.m., MKA Upper School, 6 Lloyd Road
Wednesday, May 2, 11:30 a.m., Clairidge 2, 486 Bloomfield Ave.


For Montclair Local

Melissa D. Sullivan contributes to the Montclair Local column “All Write Now,” which reflects the writing life. 

As an author, I always find it interesting to see a movie when the script is adapted by the author of the original underlying material.  There is always the fear that the writer became too enamored of their own words to allow the other artists – the director, the actors, the cinematographer – the space necessary to communicate the story in the new medium.  At the same time, if you love the book, it is downright painful to see some of the changes deemed necessary to make the adaptation work as a movie.

All of this is heightened when talking about a writer of Ian McEwan’s caliber.  Just the first sentence of his 2007 novella, “On Chesil Beach,” shows how simply and elegantly he can pull us in: “They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.”

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Suffice to say, I was worried about “On Chesil Beach,” staring Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle as the young and clueless couple and appearing in the first week of this year’s Montclair Film Festival.

But I shouldn’t have been.

Through the use of flashbacks, McEwan has created a version of his book that is different but just as effective as a movie.  By going back and forth in time, the movie uses visuals to efficiently translate the distance that the glowing Florence and ambitious Edward needed to overcome to make their marriage a success.  For example, the difference in class between the two is a significant theme in the novella.  In the movie, this is quickly and humorously shown through an awkward tea, where Florence’s mother is cold and disdainful, asking whether Edward is the right sort of person, appearing all the while like a Margaret Thatcher look-alike.

In addition to visual cues, the movie makes great use of music to bring out McEwan’s themes. Florence is an accomplished musician, and throughout the movie, the passion missing from her wedding night is clearly visible in her enjoyment in her art, as she plays her violin in her quartet or throws her arms wide in pure enjoyment of the octave leap in Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 in D Major.  More telling, in music her self-confidence is plain, as she directs her fellow musicians with firmness and precision and later, when she tells Edward of her dream to play at the famed Wigmore Hall and how she wants to create something “glorious.” In and through music, it is clear that Florence knows herself and what she wants from life.

In contrast, the scenes in the hotel room are almost silent, the only sound coming from heavy breathing and their fumbling attempts to undress as Edward and Florence strain to finally consummate their marriage. In the same year that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards met Brian Jones and the Beatles played their first gig, Florence and Edward may be doomed by silence.

So for all those McEwan fans out there, never fear.  “On Chesil Beach” is one of the rare book-to-movie adaptation that hasn’t lost anything in translation.


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