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ON THE BEACH BY NEVIL SHUTE
ESSAY TOPICS / BOOK REPORT IDEAS
1. In an extract from the Dictionary of National Biography 1951-1960, a contribution by A. P. Ryan posted on the web site of the Nevil Shute Norway Foundation, http://www.nevilshute.org , the following opinion is offered of Nevil Shute’s style: “His natural gift for creating briskly moving plots did not extend to the delineation of character in anything more than conventional terms. He retained to the last the outlook of a decent, average public-school boy of his generation.” Is this criticism positive, negative, or neutral? Do you agree with the comment? Do you like Shute’s spare characterizations?
The doomsday scenario is a staple of fiction in the second half of the 20th and the 21st centuries. Listed below are several books or movies, which are set in a world in imminent danger of annihilation, or after massively destructive global war. Some of these works, like On the Beach , were written during the Cold War, when fear of nuclear war was at its height. Some are more contemporary. Pick one of these works, and consider/answer the following questions: Compare/contrast this work to On the Beach. Which fictional situation seems more realistic or likely to you? If there is a significant difference in style, which version of doomsday do you prefer, and why? Do you prefer a low-key, realistic version of the world’s end, like On the Beach , or something further over the top?
2. The Sum of all Fears, by Tom Clancy, book and movie, 2002: The device of mistaken identity is used here, as in On the Beach . In the movie version, neo-Nazis blow up a football stadium where the President of the U.S. is watching the Superbowl. The President escapes alive, but the CIA Director, played by Morgan Freeman, is killed. CIA specialist Jack Ryan, played by Ben Affleck, races to find who purchased nuclear bomb components from scavengers who found them in the Middle East. Tensions have been escalating with the former USSR, which is believed to be responsible, but Jack doesn’t think so. He scrambles to buy time to prevent retaliation against Russia.
3. Fail-Safe, by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, 1962; movie starring Henry Fonda and Walter Matthau, 1964: A failure in the Strategic Air Command’s “fail-safe” monitoring system sends a “Bomb Moscow” command to American fighter jets, and they destroy the city. As the American President and the Soviet Premier (who are unnamed in the book, but clearly intended to be President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Kruschev) discuss the situation on the White House telephone “hot line”, they decide that the U.S. should show its good faith by sending its own bombers to destroy New York City. This will even the scales, and prevent a global holocaust.
4. Mad Max, The Road Warrior, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, by Byron Kennedy, George Miller, Terry Hayes, 1979, 1981, 1985: Futuristic action movies starring Mel Gibson as Max Rockatansky, a Rambo-esque policeman in a nightmarish, apocalyptic Australia (the first movie premiered in Melbourne). Society has degenerated into bands of roving gangs, maiming and killing each other for oil to power their colorfully customized cars. In the third movie, the setting is after a nuclear war. The polar opposite of On the Beach. (But remember that Nevil Shute loved machinery and raced a Jaguar convertible!)
5. Seven Days in May, by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, 1962; movie starring Burt Lancaster, 1964: an American general attempts a coup to remove from office the American President for signing an arms reduction treaty with the Soviet Union. He is stopped by the President changing his schedule, jamming the general’s communications capacity, and making a TV appeal for the American people to uphold the Constitution.
6. Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, by Peter George and Terry Southern: 1964 movie based on a serious novel, Red Alert, by Peter George. It starred George C. Scott as a demented United States general, and Peter Sellers as an American President and a Nazi scientist in dual-roles. An American Air Force makes a pre-emptive, though accidental nuclear strike on the Soviet Union, though the Strategic Air Command (SAC) tries to prevent it from ever happening. The movie is a tremendously effective farce on the situation facing the world in 1964 and the fear that consumed our nations during that period. The possibility that computers and not real people could cause a war was beginning to become a major concern.
7. Is there a message for the world and the people of the 21st century in On the Beach , or is it purely a cultural product of the Cold War?
8. If Nevil Shute were alive today, and you could interview him, what would you ask? Could he examine international terrorism in a fictional work like On the Beach ? If so, compare/contrast what he might write with On the Beach.
Below are two reactions to Nevil Shute’s ideas. Both quotes refer to the movie version of On the Beach , which Nevil Shute boycotted. In these particular quotes, however, the generalities apply to the book as truly as the movie. One is positive, one negative. Pick one to write about. Compare/contrast that opinion to your reaction to On the Beach . Do you agree with the importance and influence the critic ascribes to the book?
9. The New York Daily News review, December 18, 1959: “This is a would-be shocker which plays right up the alley of a) the Kremlin and b) the Western defeatists and/or traitors who yelp for the scrapping of the H-bomb . . .See this picture if you must (it seems bound to be much talked about), but keep in mind that the thinking it represents points the way toward eventual Communist enslavement of the entire human race.”
10. Saturday Review, review by Arthur Knight: “For all the virtues of ideology and execution, however, there are still some curious lapses . . . one wonders at the complete absence of corpses...It is equally difficult to believe that people would remain as calm and self-possessed as the people here...it all seems a bit too perfect...but these are minor details in a film that aims at something big and emerges as something tremendous...”
COMMENT ON THE STUDY OF LITERATURE
The study of literature is not like the study of math or science, or even history. While those disciplines are based largely upon fact, the study of literature is based upon interpretation and analysis. There are no clear-cut answers in literature, outside of the factual information about an author's life and the basic information about setting and characterization in a piece of literature. The rest is a highly subjective reading of what an author has written; each person brings a different set of values and a different background to the reading. As a result, no two people see the piece of literature in exactly the same light, and few critics agree on everything about a book or an author.
In this study guide, we have tried to give an objective literary analysis based upon the information actually found in the novel, book, or play. In the end, however, it is an individual interpretation, but one that we feel can be readily supported by the information that is presented in the guide. In your course of literature study, you or your professor/teacher may come up with a different interpretation of the mood or the theme or the conflict. Your interpretation, if it can be logically supported with information contained within the piece of literature, is just as correct as ours; so is the interpretation of your teacher or professor.
Literature is simply not a black or white situation; instead, there are many gray areas that are open to varying analyses. Your task is to come up with your own analysis that you can logically defend. Hopefully, these booknotes will help you to accomplish that goal.
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