Pornography has warped teenagers, says Chesil Beach author Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan's novella On Chesil Beach chronicled the disastrous wedding night of a couple in 1962. But, as a film version is released, the bestselling author says today's teenagers have an equally confused view of sex.
Sitting opposite me in a hotel in London's red-light district, Ian McEwan is explaining why he thinks young people have become frightened of sex.
"Sixteen or 17-year-olds today are battered by social media and peer pressure," he starts. "And online athletic pornography is completely warping their expectations of what the act of love could be.
"I see magazines for girls in their late teens saying, 'Are you getting enough?' or are your orgasms this or that. It just seems like a vulgar pressure that must be very intimidating. So I can imagine they might well say, 'Well, I'll collect stamps instead'."
Mr McEwan, one of Britain's bestselling authors, has been one of the most acute observers of social mores for more than 40 years, and at 69 brings wisdom and intelligence to the sometimes hysterical debate about so-called millennials.
What's more, recent research seems to bear him out. A report based on interviews with 16,000 people born in 1989 and 1990 found one in eight were still virgins at the age of 26, a far higher figure than in previous generations.
It is a conclusion Mr McEwan finds particularly interesting at this moment - a film based on his book On Chesil Beach, about a couple who approach their wedding night in 1962 with no experience and practically no understanding of sex, hit cinemas yesterday. Edward and Florence, played by Billy Howle and Saoirse Ronan, bring wildly different but equally ill-informed expectations of sex to their wedding night, resulting in a disaster that tears their fledgling marriage apart.
"Edward and Florence faced all the problems of a stifling set of social codes and conventions, but we've not moved to any sunny upland plateau of enlightenment," says Mr McEwan.
Edward is a victim of expectations of masculinity: he might have saved his marriage, Mr McEwan says, if he'd offered Florence a cuddle on their wedding night instead of sulking about his wounded sexual pride.
"No-one is talking on social media and in these magazines about the joy of cuddling, it sounds too feeble, but I think a lot of teenagers - though boys would furiously deny it - would probably be very relieved if they did."
When it was published in 2007, On Chesil Beach was the book to be seen reading, and it is one that Mr McEwan, who also wrote the screenplay for the new film adaptation, still feels very close to.
"Bits and pieces of my own past are woven into the novel. My first love, her parents were from an academic north Oxford family [like Florence's family in the book]. I was a child of a rather unliterary household, I shared something of Edward's lack of knowledge about the difference between a croissant and a baguette, which tells you about the state of English food at the time. Chesil Beach [where Edward and Florence go on honeymoon], I've hiked more than once. I think it's the most extraordinary feature of our landscape."
Mr McEwan is engaged and energised when talking about the film. "I'm very happy, I think we've realised what was on the page."
The book is novella-length (some commentators thought it was too short to be on the Booker shortlist) and he has written new scenes for the film, dramatising events briefly summarised in the book. He has changed the ending and "piled up more tragedy for Edward" by showing how Florence flourishes as a violinist in a string quartet after they have separated, underlining what he lost when he failed to fix the damage done on their wedding night.
He started working on the film several years ago with the director Sam Mendes, but "he got offered the Bond movie [Skyfall] and, quite reasonably, accepted it."
The delay was beneficial, however. When he wrote the first draft of the screenplay, McEwan imagined Florence being played by Saoirse Ronan: "It helped me to imagine someone speaking these lines, and I was very taken with her during the filming of Atonement." (Ronan gave an Oscar-nominated turn in her early teens in the 2007 film of McEwan's novel.)
But if On Chesil Beach had been filmed when originally planned, she would have still been in her teens; now she is mature enough to play Florence over the course of several decades.
What is so special about Ronan? "The reason I'm a novelist, not a movie director, is I like the representation of consciousness and its fine detail, and I miss that in cinema. But she really does somehow project the inner life, in silences, in gestures, in mode of delivery of a line. She's a writer's gift in that respect."
She values him equally highly, and has said she hopes she will continue the pattern of filming a McEwan novel every 10 years. "Oh, that's not enough! I'd prefer every two years. Every year maybe," says the author.
The great advantage of the film over the book, he says, is that the audience can hear music he could only describe on the page. "I said to [the director] Dominic Cooke, the sense of the hard work involved in classical music, especially for string quartets, we've got to make that central.
"Saoirse painfully, wonderfully, learnt the bowing, and we got a young violinist whose hands more or less matched hers to crouch behind her and loop her arm round on to the fret, and actually it was a marvellous moment watching the rushes between each take, these two young women falling into each other's arms with laughter."