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the beach of falesá

Besides poetry Dylan Thomas wrote prose classics like 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog' and 'Adventures in the Skin Trade'. In the 1940's he also developed several film scripts, including an adaptation of a 1892 novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, 'The Beach of Falesá'. The film was never produced and the script was published as a novel in 1964.

A dark vision of Europeans in the copra trade corrupting a Pacific Island, Stevenson's story predated Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' in exploring the theme of the evil side of the 'civilization' the white man brought to the 'savages'. Thomas followed Stevenson's plot faithfully, but replaced its adventurous tough-talking style with a more sinister, brooding atmosphere.

As in all his work, the sea plays an important role, but instead of the Welsh sea this is a tropical, chimerical sea. Falesá has the languid, sundrenched feel of a Gauguin painting, where, inland, strange terrors lurk at night.

He goes on, soft-footed, wary now, spying around him. On all sides are to be heard faint and stealthy scurries; the newly unwoken warnings of little, unseen animals; the prying fingering of gusts of wind from the sea, in ferns, leaves, flowers, and shadows. The lantern and the moonlight make the bush all turning shadows that weave to meet him and then spin off, that hover above his head and fly away, huge, birdlike, into deeper inextricable dark.

The story centers around the Liverputlian trader Wiltshire, arriving in Falesá to replace his predecessor who died under mysterious circumstances. The only other Europeans on the island are two hostile traders, Case and Randall, who maintain their monopoly by cynically exploiting the superstitious fears of the local population. Cunningly engineered by Case, Wiltshire gets involved with Uma, a half-blood girl who has been tabooed by the community. As a result no one on the island wants to trade with him.

Paul Gauguin - What, are you jealous?

The character of Uma tragically symbolizes the evil inflicted by the vice-bringing colonial white man. At one point Wiltshire sums up her story:

Your father, Faavo, your mother, and you. A white man from England, a dark woman from the island, and Uma, my love, who wasn't white or dark - and all the time he gambles and he drinks and he looks for easy money and it never comes. I know, I know. There's hundreds like him, beachcombers, castaways, drunks and gentlemen, gentlemen drunks who never go back - old-timers, landlopers, birds of passage, bums and remittance men, sons of parsons, dodging the police, peddling drugs on the waterfronts - lazy fellers boozing in the sun. I know, I know. And he trails his wife and half-caste kid behind him through all the flash towns and the lost islands. And then he dies, and he's buried Lord know where, and there's nothing left of him but his name which isn't his own. There's life in a coconut shell for you. It happened like that?

When 'The Beach of Falesá' was published, a Time review commented on the fact that the script "ignores the close-shot, long-shot lingo of the camera's eye, implicitly mistrusts the camera's capacity to discern, and with a natural if unnecessary eloquence offers its own scene-setting visions of South Pacific backgrounds." In fact, the published text is technically not a screenplay at all but more like a lengthy and detailed treatment.

One film rule it does follow is to describe only outwardly visible or audible actions and emotions, and avoid subjectivity or internal processes - though it does so in Thomas' typical poetic style ("the fly-loud, flyblown, bottle-strewn bedded room") which most film producers would have itched to eliminate. Of course, he would later perfect this both flowery and scriptlike style in his famous radio play, 'Under Milk Wood'.

Meanwhile, the story of 'The Beach of Falesá' is still waiting to be adapted for the screen, but apparently some New Zealand filmmakers are making a new attempt.

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