I read Beaches thinking, as many people do, that the book would be better than the movie.
Here’s the thing, though: It wasn’t. I was actually a little shocked at how loosely the film is based on the novel. In this interview, Beaches author Iris Rainer Dart was asked about how true the movie was to her book. Here was her response:
“The movie was true to the spirit of the book. I was on the set of the movie while they were shooting a scene that I never would have written, and I was trying not to show that it bothered me. Bette Midler asked me what I thought and I said, “It was good.” She said, “Oh Iris, do you get upset every time we shoot a scene that isn’t in your book?” And I said exactly what I felt at that moment: “Honey, you are starring in the movie of my book. How bad could it be?” Did they change things? Yes. But ultimately the film was about having a friend who helps you out in this world with laughter and dignity, and that’s the story I wanted to tell. So if they veer off a bit, it doesn’t really matter. My version of the story is in the library, the collaborative version is on the screen. Why shouldn’t that be okay?”
With that in mind, I’m not going to list out all the differences between them, because that would take too damn long. So I’ll just let you in on a few of the key differences. But let’s start with some similarities. At the beginning of both the book and the movie, the famous singer Cee Cee Bloom is rehearsing on stage when she gets a mysterious phone call that pulls her away. Then comes the backstory. This introduction to the girls in Atlantic City is where the movie stays truest to the book. It’s my favourite part of the story by far, because it’s such an honest look at how uncomplicated it is to make friends when you’re a kid. The two girls have a fun day together and all of a sudden they’re best friends for life. That’s all it takes. As I read this part of the book, I couldn’t help but sing “Under the Boardwalk” a-la Bette Midler in the movie.
Moving ahead in time to adulthood, we come to a long chapter set in Hawaii. One of the reasons the movie version of Beaches is better than the book is because it cuts this chapter out. The two couples, Cee Cee (CC in the movie) and John plus Bertie (Hillary in the movie) and Michael, are spending some time together when things get weird. Michael tells Cee Cee he’s wanted to sleep with her since they first met, and of course Bertie overhears the whole thing. But then, despite the fact that Cee Cee is her “best friend”, Bertie’s reaction is to assume that it was somehow Cee Cee’s fault and, even worse, she blames herself instead of putting any blame on her husband:
“Bertie’s eyes opened wide. She was filled with disgust and rage. She put her hands to her hot face, and then rushed into the bathroom and closed the door. She looked at herself in the mirror. Red skinny face, squashed with pillow marks. Hair flying everywhere. Ugly. Horrible. No wonder Michael hated her. No wonder he didn’t want to make love to her and wanted to make love with Cee Cee.”
Then Bertie just cuts her best friend out of her life completely and stays with Michael despite it all.
And that brings me to one of the main differences between the book and the movie: the two women at the centre of the story. The novel’s Bertie is not at all like the movie’s Hillary (played by Barbara Hershey). In the film version, Hillary is a kick-ass lawyer type who goes on protests and joins marches. In the book, Bertie doesn’t need to work so she volunteers at the Home for the Crippled Children. Obviously that’s a perfectly respectable way to spend your time, but Bertie’s lack of ambition or drive makes the book seem a little flat. Even in the end when she has to take on all the expenses that come along with receiving treatment and care for a terminal illness, money isn’t an issue for her, so there’s just no tension. While Bette Midler does such an amazing job with CC in the movie, her character in the book is not nearly as likable. And worse, without the music from the film, you really notice how unremarkable the story is. Here’s how Roger Ebert put it in his 1989 review:
“This is a movie completely constructed out of other movies – out of cliches and archetypes that were old before most of the cast members were born. It is difficult for a filmgoer of reasonable intelligence to care about characters whose lives are re-enactments of cliches: If these people are as smart as they think, why can’t they see that their lives are a bad B movie?”
When reading the book, it’s hard to tell why these two women continue to be friends at all. They only seem to love each other when they aren’t actually together. The nostalgia of the friendship they once had is what pushes their relationship forward. The movie has some scenes that help to establish friendship: CC & Hillary playing cards in the laundromat and dyeing their hair at home. They seem to like each other much more in the movie than they do in the book.
Alright let’s wrap this up. I’m going to assume that you know how Beaches ends, but if you don’t you might want to stop reading now.
In the movie, Hillary is diagnosed with a virus in her heart called cardiomyopathy, and when she learns about it she immediately goes to the library to research it using some giant books. In the novel, Bertie is diagnosed with ovarian cancer and decides to send her child, Nina, away because she doesn’t want to put her through the pain of watching her die. Cee Cee goes against Bertie’s wishes and brings Nina to stay with them anyway. It’s only in the last few pages of the book that Cee Cee realizes the best option is for her to keep Nina when Bertie dies, and all it takes to convince Bertie of this is for Cee Cee to give a speech about how she can teach Nina all about her because she’s saved all the letters they wrote to each other throughout their lives. And just like that, after one paragraph-long speech, Bertie agrees to hand over legal custody of her only child to her on-again-off-again bestie.
Both the movie and the book feel manipulative. You are supposed to cry in the end because you are supposed to believe that these women were best friends who would miss each other dearly. But after reading the book and rewatching the movie, I’m not so sure I buy it. I didn’t even cry when “Wind Beneath My Wings” started playing. And if you really want to feel manipulated, watch this year’s awful remake that aired on Lifetime. I agree with this IndieWire review when it asked the following question: “Remaking a beloved film isn’t always the easiest task, but what happens when the original wasn’t all that good to begin with?”
I doubt that I’ll watch Beaches again, and to be honest I kind of regret reading the book and doing this comparison at all. I should have just listened to the soundtrack instead. “Oh Industry” and “Otto Titsling” are still brilliant.