Submarine by Joe Dunthorne / Submarine directed by Richard Ayoade


First of all, I must confess that this is all the wrong way around. I watched the film before I read the book. It was a mistake, I’m sorry, it’ll never happen again, etc.

The film, however, is fantastic. I will discuss this first, simply because I watched it first. Oliver Tate (played by Craig Roberts) is a teenager with a large vocabulary, a penchant for dramatics, and a mission to lose his virginity. He’s an interesting creation: strange, precocious, ordinary and obsessive in equal measure. He is not, in many respects, a likable character, and he captures some of the very worst parts of being a teenager: the tendency to think that knowing lots of things intellectually equals understanding lots of things full stop, the certainty of everything (that you know it all; that your parents don’t), the all-consuming/terrifying nature of sex when one has never experienced it, bullying, peer pressure, rebellion and the self-absorption that inevitably comes with the teenage years.

The film follows 15 year-old Oliver through a series of both ordinary and life-changing events. At the beginning, we see him at school, going through the motions, trying to fit in and getting involved in some playground bullying. It is clear that Oliver is very bright, but also that he susceptible to peer pressure. However from his subsequent actions (writing a pamphlet for the victim of his bullying on how to fit in) it is clear that Oliver is both a) in possession of a conscience (he has thought about events a great deal more than someone without one would have) but b) is misguided in his attempts to act on it.  After this, situations arise that mostly involve the various complications surrounding a girlfriend and a child’s reaction to parental marital problems.

Although Oliver does lots of things along the way that are not likable, there is an undeniable charm to the way Roberts plays the part. He adds a vulnerability to Oliver that means all his actions can be seen through the lens of trying to do the right thing, albeit in a slightly confused, misguided way.

Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins both do a fantastic job of playing Oliver’s parents: his father, a depressed marine biologist; his Mother, an office worker who is tempted by an old flame.

The film’s strength lies in the fact that does not simply tell Dunthorne’s story without attempting to add something to it. The set and costume design are fantastic and the film has a very clear red/blue/white colour scheme. The characters wear duffel coats and carry satchels which gives the film an almost timeless quality, and the grey coastal Welsh sky looks particularly moody, which is apt. Alex Turner of the Artic Monkeys provides the soundtrack (and, funnily enough, looks a little like an older version of Roberts). There are parts of the book that the film misses out, glosses over slightly or doesn’t explore in as much detail, but overall I think it is a great adaptation that remains faithful to the overall mood of the book.

The book is, I think, quite different. It’s ruder (in a good way) and funnier and more uncomfortable than the film. Oliver’s voice has the same tone, but is particularly effective written down; it makes you feel more disturbed by and immersed in his irreverently funny, bleak-but-hopeful world.

“I bought a packet of Trojan® Ultra Pleasure Extra Sensitive condoms: ‘No. 1 in AMERICA’. They smell nothing like a positive first sexual experience.”

One aspect of the book that I really like is that Dunthorne does not romanticise the teenage experience. Chips, Oliver’s friend, is crude and disgusting; Oliver can be cold and unemotional; Jordana is obsessed with setting things on fire; the victim of their bullying becomes, upon moving schools, sex obsessed and flirtatious as a result of reinventing herself. Everyone swears a lot. It is refreshing to see such an honest portrayal of the teenage experience: one where nobody quite knows their place in the world so they try really hard all the time to prove to everyone how grown-up they are and things are awkward and messy and you have to learn that, even if you are clever and have a large vocabulary, you still do not have control over anything.

Dunthorne plays on such perceptions, and much of the book is full of hilarious, self-knowing one liners and razor-sharp observations.

“Exercise II.

Write a diary, imagining that you are trying to make an old person jealous. I have written an example to get you started:

Dear Diary,
I spent the morning admiring my skin elasticity.
God alive, I feel supple.”

Although I never knew anyone during my teenage years who spoke like Oliver Tate, I certainly remember people who thought of themselves in the same terms. The whole book has a ring of truth to it. Not only that, it is hilarious and made me laugh out loud on the bus. Always a good sign, in my experience.


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