I sometimes call myself an American climate activist of the literary kind, but I am not a novelist or a literary critic. Instead, as a 70-something working the runaway climate change beat as a reporter and a blogger, I focus on trying to find novelists and film directors worldwide who might want to mine the growing field of cli-fi novels and movies for themselves.
Me, I’m just a bystander, watching the world go by from my local backyard porch. But in my search for writers and directors who will someday perhaps write the Great American Climate Novel, or make a major movie based on it, my gaze also travels to Australia, where a popular novel published there in 1957 might hold the key to what I am looking for. Yes, I’m talking about Nevil Shute’s pulp novel “On the Beach” and the Hollywood movie of the same title released two years later in 1959 and directed by film-maker Stanley Kramer.
Recently, a reporter in Turkey asked me what my favorite cli-fi novel of all time is and could I name it for her.
“You know, my favorite cli-fi novel of all time is not a cli-fi novel at all but it ties in with my work as a cli-fi advocate and promoter,” I replied by email. “It’s ‘On the Beach’ which was a dime novel paperback from Australia about nuclear war and nuclear winter back in the 1950s, and which had a huge impact on world leaders in the 1960s and 1970s. So I am looking for, and hoping for, an ‘On the Beach’ style of a cli-fi novel about climate change. Who will write it and when? I stay awake at night thinking about this sometimes.”
The movie starred Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Anthony Perkins and Fred Astaire and various sections of the black-an- white movie remain archived on YouTube even now in 2019. You can watch the opening scenes, you can see the tragic ending and closing credits, and many of the moving episodes of the film are still watchable today.
”After a global nuclear war, the residents of Australia must come to terms with the fact that all life will be destroyed in a matter of months,” is the International Movie Data Base describes the movie.
So imagine a movie based that Hollywood might make in the 2020s with a description like this: “After a series of tragic global warming impact events worldwide 30 generations from now, the residents of North America must come to terms with the fact that all human life will be extinct in a matter of years.”
The advertising tagline for the 1959 movie was “The Biggest Story of Our Time!”
The 134-minute movie was made for a budget of $3 million and took in $11 million in ticket sales at the time.
The time frame for the film was the 1960s, of course, and it was set in the ”near future” of 1964.
”In 1964, atomic war wipes out humanity in the northern hemisphere; one American submarine finds temporary safe haven in Australia, where life-as-usual covers growing despair. In denial about the loss of his wife and children in the nuclear holocaust, American Captain Towers meets careworn but gorgeous Moira Davidson, who begins to fall for him. The submarine returns after a reconnaissance mission a month before the end,” is how one reviewer put it, adding this last question: “Will Towers and Moira find comfort with each other?”
So what was the popular impact of the novel and the movie?
“It frightened the hell out of me. I’m still frightened,” is how one Australian woman characterized the film and the movie.
Yes, those words marked the reaction of a young 19-year old Melbourne medical student named Helen Caldicott to Shute’s story of the aftermath of mistaken nuclear war, in which those who never even took sides were faced with the slow advance of deadly nuclear radiation on their shores. The book and movie confronted people with a number of questions: How would you behave if — in the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse — you knew you only have a few weeks or months left to live? Would you carouse riotously, knowing the end is near? Deny that the entire thing is happening? Hope against all logic for a miraculous reprieve? Try to maintain a core of decency in the face of imminent death? Wish that you had done something long ago to prevent nuclear war in the first place?
The story’s effect on Caldicott, who’d just learned about genetics and radiation, was profound. She went on to become both a pediatrician and a feisty anti-nuclear activist, an inspiration to many people worldwide. She is renowned for warning, “It could happen tonight by accident,” and with the onset of nuclear winter, “We’ll all freeze to death in the dark.”
But what about the book itself and the 1959 movie made from it? Karen Sharpe Kramer, widow of producer-director Stanley Kramer (who was well-known for releasing such “message” films as ”Judgment at Nuremberg,” ”Inherit the Wind” and ”Ship of Fools”) said her husband once wrote of the movie he made: “Its subject was as serious and compelling as any ever attempted in a motion picture — the very destruction of mankind and the entire planet.”
The plotline of the movie and the book was simple but powerful. Somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere, some kind of horrible misunderstanding has launched a nuclear war, quickly wiping out most of the world. As one character in the book puts it: “No, it wasn’t an accident, I didn’t say that. It was carefully planned, down to the tiniest mechanical and emotional detail. But it was a mistake.”
Although Australia and a few other countries at the far reaches of the Southern Hemisphere remained untouched, its citizens now had await the coming of the radiation that was sure to kill them all. One movie reviewer in 1960 put it this way: “A city waits, defeated, for the end of the world, whiling away the remaining hours with suicidal sport.”
So imagine, if you will, an “On the Beach” style of novel and movie about runaway global warming set in some future time.
One fiilm critic wrote in his 1959 review of the Kramer movie that “the basic theme of this drama and its major concern is life, the wondrous thing that man’s own vast knowledge and ultimate folly seem about to destroy. And everything done by the characters, every thought they utter and move they make, indicates their fervor, tenacity and courage in the face of doom. Mr. Kramer and his assistants have most forcibly emphasized this point: Life is a beautiful treasure and man should do all he can to save it from annihilation, while there is still time.”
Imagine Hollywood’s take on a new kind of “On the Beach,” this one updated for the world we live in today desribed this way: “The basic theme of this cli-fi drama and its major concern is life, the wondrous thing that humankind’s own vast knowledge and ultimate folly seem about to destroy. And everything done by the characters, every thought they utter and move they make, indicates their fervor, tenacity and courage in the face of doom. The director and her crew have most forcibly emphasized this point: Life is a beautiful treasure and humans should do all they can to save it from annihilation, while there is still time.”
That is why I am looking for the “On the Beach” oF the 2020s or 2030s. Such movies take time and funding to get made.
I will be watching.