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Literature / On the Beach

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On the Beach is a 1957 novel by Nevil Shute that explores the aftermath of a nuclear war that wiped out all life in the northern hemisphere. The southern hemisphere was left untouched by the bombs, but not the fallout: each year more radioactive material is moved south by seasonal winds, and as the fallout accumulates, life slowly dies off, latitude by crawling latitude.

The story follows a group of people in Melbourne, Australia who go on about their lives as they wait for the inevitable end. With only a handful of years left, desperation is sliding into acceptance. When a Morse-like code is received and identified as coming all the way from Seattle, a stranded US submarine is sent to investigate this glimmer of hope - small and unlikely though it is.

The book was adapted into two movies by the same name, first in 1959 and then in 2000. The 1959 version was directed by Stanley Kramer and starred Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, and a pre-Psycho Anthony Perkins, who struggles with an Australian accent. The first movie has inspired the Strugatsky Brothers to write Far Rainbow in 1962.

Not to be confused with Beach Episode, or at least not what normally comes to mind when one thinks of that. It has nothing to do with bikini girls, and is anything but upbeat. It's also unrelated to the Neil Young album of the same name.

Tropes featured in the book or movie include:

  • After the End: The Northern Hemisphere is already dead. And soon, the Southern Hemisphere will be dead too.
  • Age Lift: In the 2000 adaption, John, Moira, Jennifer and Dwight are older than in the novel.
  • Adaptational Name Change: USS Scorpion SSN-589 in the book becomes USS Sawfish SSN-623note  in the 1959 film. The change from Scorpion was perhaps fortuitous, as that ship was lost at sea in 1968 under unsolved circumstances.
    • The 2000 film changes again to the fictional USS Charleston SSN-704note .
  • Apocalypse Anarchy: Somewhat downplayed. The society never really disintegrates, but at the end, people were just taking stuff from stores. Also, hosting a lethal car race.
  • Arc Words: "Never a dull moment" for the first half of the book. "We all go a little mad" for the second.
  • Artistic License – Nuclear Physics: Nuclear fallout would be a serious problem for the immediate areas surrounding the bombing sites, but even with the total destruction of the northern hemisphere, it's highly unlikely that enough fallout could be carried to the southern hemisphere to completely poison the planet. It's mentioned that the bombs used included cobalt, which would increase their radioactivity, but this wouldn't be a problem for the people in the southern hemisphere if it couldn't reach them. Only the lightest particles from the fires produced by the bombings could reach the far-flung areas of the planet and they would be so light that they'd stay in the upper atmosphere, contributing instead to a resulting nuclear winter.
  • Apocalypse How: Class 3a at the least, presumably a Class 4. Possibly a Class 5.
  • Beta Couple: Peter and Mary Holmes.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: The cyanide pills. Depending on personal convictions not everyone takes them, and some commit suicide in other ways.
  • Cosy Catastrophe: There's nothing left alive in the Northern hemisphere, but inhabitants of the Southern are inconvenienced at worst. Subverted, though, because the fallout will reach them eventually, and everybody knows it.
  • Cyanide Pill: The Australian government provides cyanide pills to its citizens so that they need not die slowly of radiation poisoning.
  • Death of a Child: Graphically so in the 2000 adaptation, where several children are seen dead of suicide poisoning.
  • Death Seeker: John Osborne becomes one over the course of the story.
  • Death World: By 1964, everything outside of Australia, New Zealand and the southern tips of Africa and South America is an uninhabitable, radioactive wasteland. And the fallout's still moving south.
  • Despair Event Horizon: The impending death of humanity. And when the radio transmission proves not to be the result of human activity. And towards the end, when people start developing symptoms of radiation sickness, and know the time has come.
  • Downer Ending: Obviously. Never once does the book's tone deviate from calm acceptance.
  • Driven to Suicide: Everyone. First, mankind, of course, committed (unintentional) suicide via nuclear war, and the last survivors in Australia eventually decide to kill themselves, usually by taking cyanide pills, as they start to finally succumb to radiation sickness.
  • Drives Like Crazy: Played straight by John Osborne when he's on the streets. His Improbably Cool Car was never designed for transportation, and tends to stall below 50 miles per hour, so he tears around the streets of Melbourne like a madman, only avoiding accidents by being the only car on the road. Averted on the racetrack, though - his caution behind the wheel saves his life at least once, and is the main factor in his Grand Prix victory.
  • Dying Race: The human race, along with all remaining life on Earth. As a result of nuclear war, the last humans are confined to Australia, but eventually the radiation will reach Australia and kill them all as well, and the Australians know that they have only a few months left before the last human dies.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: And Australians largely decide to go out doing whatever makes them most comfortable.
  • "Everybody Dies" Ending: And in this case, that really does mean everybody.
  • Exact Time to Failure: Averted — the estimate of when people in Melbourne will start dying of radiation poisoning turns out to be inaccurate.
  • Face Death with Dignity: In the best Australian way.
  • False Flag Operation: The United States and Great Britain are drawn into the war when Egypt attacks them with Russian bombers.
  • Gaia's Lament: The planet’s biosphere is irreparably damaged by nuclear war, the northern hemisphere is already dead, and all life in the southern hemisphere will die as well from radiation poisoning in a few months.
  • Hard-Drinking Party Girl: Moira, bordering on The Alcoholic.
  • Humanity's Wake: The inevitable end of humanity occurs, with those who survived World War III all eventually dying from violence, suicide, or radiation sickness.
  • Ironic Nursery Tune: "Waltzing Matilda".
    • "Waltzing Matilda" is a song about suicide, which makes grim sense given that the story's theme is the entire world's (unintentional) suicide.
  • Just Before the End: The northern hemisphere is toast; the book narrates the Australian population's attempts to live out their last days in joy.
  • Just Following Orders: Discussed and angrily thrown back at the submarine's captain. Mostly, Australians don't really care if the USSR (China in the 2000 film) or the US fired first.
  • Lost in Transmission: In the book and in the first movie, the Australians hear garbled Morse Code radio messages from the United States (Seattle in the book, San Diego in the first movie), which turn out to be caused by a broken window frame striking a telegraph key. In the second movie, the submarine crew receive a garbled message every day at roughly the same time. They're tracking it to see if it's from a group of survivors, but it turns out to be a solar-powered laptop transmitting on its own. Doubles as an Apocalyptic Log.
  • Mass "Oh, Crap!": When the submarine's crew finds the radio message was not the result of human activity — a broken window in the book and first film, a solar-powered laptop in the second film.
  • Mildly Military: Both played straight and averted by Commander Towers. He's completely by-the-book, but goes easy on his men when they begin to show signs of this themselves. Played straight by pretty much every other member of the American and Australian navies. Justified by the circumstances: there are no enemies left to fight, all missions are scientific in nature, and everybody's going to be dead soon anyway.
  • Nuclear Option: Obviously.
  • Planning for the Future Before the End: Even though they're all fully aware they're going to die within a few months, the characters continue to plant gardens for the following year, talk about getting new clothes and accessories for their growing children, and generally maintain the polite fiction that the world isn't ending in order to Let Them Die Happy.
  • Riddle for the Ages: In the 2000 film. How did a standoff over Taiwan escalate so quickly? Which side fired first?
  • Safe Zone Hope Spot: The transmission coming from the United States.
  • Salt the Earth: The nuclear version.
  • Suicide by Pills: The Australian Government starts issuing cyanide pills for everyone in order to avoid a slow death from the deadly radiation.
  • Title Drop:
    Peter: Do you remember how we met?
    Mary: It was on the beach.
  • 20 Minutes into the Future: The 1959 film is set in 1964.
  • Vomit Discretion Shot: Averted in the 2000 film. Towards the end when the cast develops radiation sickness, most of them are shown vomiting, huddled in vomit-stained clothing.
  • World War III: It began with an Albanian nuke being dropped on Naples, then another bomb on Tel Aviv, followed by Russian-made bombers piloted by Egyptians flying over and attacking Washington and London. Afterward, a full exchange between Russia, NATO and China was inevitable.
  • Wrong-Name Outburst: In the 1959 film, everyone's having fun frolicking outside, including Dwight. Then he accidentally uses the name of his dead wife when he is affectionately calling Moira an "outrageous liar". The mood becomes subdued very quickly after that.

Alternative Title(s): On The Beach