Ian McEwan: “Young men are being fed a purely pornographic notion of what it is to love someone”

The best-selling author speaks to Ellie Harrison about adapting On Chesil Beach into a film starring Saoirse Ronan – and modern-day challenges in love and sex

Ian McEwan (Getty, EH)

When it comes to writing about love and sex, Ian McEwan is one of our finest living authors. Whether it’s the aching heartbreak of a father who’s lost his daughter in The Child in Time, unrequited infatuation in Enduring Love, or a couple’s sex from the perspective of a foetus in Nutshell – McEwan’s incisiveness, humour and sensitivity is unmatched.

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The same applies to his 2007 novella On Chesil Beach, which is the latest of the author’s works to be adapted into a film. The screenplay, also written by McEwan, stars Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle as Florence and Edward, a couple on their wedding night in 1962.

On Chesil Beach is, crucially, set in the year before “sexual intercourse began”, according to the famous Philip Larkin poem, and Florence and Edward are virgins, hemmed in by social boundaries and convention. Almost six decades on, what does McEwan think of the state of modern romance? “I don’t know much about Tinder,” he concedes, “but I think young people are under terrifying pressures, completely different from the kind of pressures that Edward and Florence face in 1962.”

The British youth may have been liberated to some extent by the sexual revolution, but McEwan says that our relationship with sex today is only “marginally better” than it was in the post-war years. “I don’t think we’ve reached some sunny upland on this,” he says. “I think young boys in their teens are seeing unbelievable, athletic, pornographic stuff on the internet which really warps their expectations.

“There are huge pressures on young girls to be a certain shape, wear certain things, be in a certain style of whatever and deliver, without much discussion of the emotional truthfulness or affection or kinds of emotional play that would provide the real peak of sexual experience.”

McEwan, who is 69, mentions a study that made headlines recently, which found that an eighth of young people are staying virgins until they’re 26. His eyebrows shoot up as he recalls the figure. “An eighth, that’s quite a lot, that’s quite a big demographic,” says McEwan. “The most commonly given reason is the fear, the pressure of expectation. People are just a bit worried that they’ll fail, they just won’t measure up to the expectations. So I think we haven’t yet got this right, although we’ve got lots of language to talk about it, which I don’t think this young couple had in 1962.

“I think we need to pause and consider what the relationship is between sexual experience and emotional bonding,” he continues. “That’s such a powerful thing, and I think especially young men are being fed a purely pornographic notion of what it is to love someone.”

McEwan tells me he was surprised that somebody else hadn’t already written a story like On Chesil Beach – centred in a hotel room with flashbacks to how the couple met, fell in love, their families and their backgrounds – as “it seemed obvious” to him. In terms of how he conceived the story, he says, “I’d thought for a while about tracking the first few hours of a marriage, when the wedding cake, confetti and boisterous celebrations are over, and suddenly two sexual innocents are in a hotel room with a big bed threateningly between them, and how that might play out.

“And I thought this would be the perfect subject for a contained short novel which would carry with it, in this personal drama, the whole weight of a society of conventions, of things pressing in from the outside, that needn’t be nakedly stated but be there as some influence.”

It was the James Bond director Sam Mendes who originally approached McEwan with the idea of making On Chesil Beach into a film, but after Mendes reluctantly left the project to work on the 007 franchise, McEwan’s film was delayed. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because by the time Dominic Cooke stepped in to direct, Ronan was old enough to play Florence. “I wanted her for On Chesil Beach and she was too young,” he says. “She was 16 when I started but I heard her say these lines, I mean I could really imagine it, and that was one of the good fortunes of the project getting delayed. Suddenly she was 22 and perfect for the part.”

McEwan’s face lights up when speaking about Ronan, who he worked with more than ten years ago when she starred as Briony Tallis in Atonement. “When we’re sitting here talking I feel very, very warmly towards her,” he says. “I feel very proud of her.”

Saoirse Ronan in Atonement (Sky, EH)
Saoirse Ronan in Atonement (Sky)

The premature climax (quite literally) of On Chesil Beach is acted with superb nuance by Ronan and Howle, and is a tragi-comic master stroke from McEwan. What is the key to writing about sex so brilliantly in all his novels? And even in the case of Nutshell, from the very unique perspective of an unborn baby? “I wouldn’t suggest anyone trying that at home,” McEwan laughs. “It’s always difficult. I mean it’s a hilarious and solemn problem for all novelists. Do you just jump cut to the post-coital cigarette, which is what movies used to do?

“Also, it’s very hard to put into writing the subjective states, but again I come back to the emotional states. If you can get the emotions right, then you can write your way into the act itself.

“Sometimes there are extraordinary levels of misunderstanding, and I write about that in On Chesil Beach. As Edward is forcing his tongue into Florence’s mouth and she moans in disgust, he thinks it’s a moan of pleasure and he goes deeper.

“There’s a comedy here too which we shouldn’t forget. Comedy is the great undoing of the erotic. If you have sex with someone and they start laughing, it’s all over.”

The next book McEwan wants to add to his long list of film adaptations – a process he describes as “glorious” and “immensely gratifying” – is Black Dogs, set in the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. “Whereas a novel is an interior, lonely matter,” he says, “[film] is a huge collaborative effort.”

And the novel he is currently working on is set to be just as mind-bending as Nutshell. “I don’t want to tell you what it is because, in summary, it sounds so berserk that if I told it to you I’d probably put myself off finishing it.”

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On Chesil Beach is released in UK cinemas on Friday 18th May


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