When The Beach hit American cinemas just over 10 years ago, most of the hype surrounding the movie centered on its star, Leonard DiCaprio, and its director, Danny Boyle. Scant media attention was given to the movie’s core themes, which drew on Alex Garland’s 1996 novel of the same name about a community of Western backpackers veering its way into self-destruction on an anonymous Thai island.
Some critics compared the macabre adventure tale to earlier works like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies or Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but few pondered how the story reflected the globalization-tinged insecurities of the age in which it was written. In fact, the most intriguing theme of The Beach was not the moral degeneration of the backpackers’ island “paradise,” but the insipid consumerist fantasies that inspired how that paradise should look in the first place. In trying to create the real-world equivalent of a tourist brochure (and in succumbing to the petty social-status rivalries of home), Garland’s characters became an ironic extension of the mass culture they’d tried to escape.
Contemporary sociological and anthropological tourist-behavior studies underscore how these backpacker protagonists are influenced less by their exotic surroundings than the social dynamics of home. In a 2002 study of independent travel communities for the journal Ethnography and Social Anthropology, tourist scholar Christina Anderskov identifies independence, frugality, and acceptance of the locals as central tenets of backpacker culture.
But as novels like The Beach illustrate, these values are largely a self-directed rhetoric within the insular confines of indie-travel social circles. As Anderskov acknowledges, backpackers seek each other out, and the travel communities themselves—not the host cultures—ultimately become the focus of travel. Instead of looking for nuances and complexities within the host culture, independent travelers frequently cling to signs of subcultural authenticity in each other.
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