‘Lord of the Flies’ Still Reigns

You can’t blink twice without seeing The Hunger Games lately. While I haven’t read the trendy book yet, its premise about children committing acts of violence against one another in order to survive in a post apocalyptic world is well known. It’s no wonder that its predecessor, Lord of the Flies comes to mind.

Unlike The Hunger Games, when it was published in 1954, William Golding’s first novel was not initially a great success. In fact, it sold less than 3,000 copies before going out of print in 1955. Luckily, Golding’s novel became a best seller in the ’60s and went on to become required reading in schools and universities.

The novel begins as a plane filled with evacuated British schoolboys crashes, and the boys find themselves marooned on a deserted island. The first boys to arrive on the page are Ralph and Piggy, who both go on to become central characters in the book. Ralph, the book’s protagonist is a “fair-haired”, pleasant and natural leader. Piggy, the witty, bespectacled and overweight boy ashamed, of the mean nickname he’s been given in school, is in my mind the book’s most sympathetic and memorable character.

In the first scene, the reader learns that the boys were evacuated due to a war breaking out. Iggy warns Ralph that the adults he believes will find them won’t. “Didn’t you hear what the pilot said? About the atom bomb?” Iggy says. “They’re all dead.”

When the two find a conch shell on the beach, Ralph uses it to summon other boys scattered about the island. A choirboy named Jack, who turns out to be the book’s main antagonist, arrives with the other boys in his choir. Simon, another boy who has a pivotal role in the book, arrives as well. He’s a quiet, somewhat otherworldly child whose later interaction with the decapitated head of a pig is significant to the book’s title.

The boys eventually split into two separate groups: one led by Ralph, who focus on keeping a fire lit to serve as an SOS beacon for any passing ships; and the other led by Jack, whose domineering and aggressive nature leads his group to concentrate on hunting. The hunting group’s bloodthirsty nature proves overwhelming, and eventually consumes all the boys, including Ralph and Piggy, who represent democracy and reason.

Golding’s novel considers the fine line between human intellect and madness, and is often seen as a parable about democracy and anarchy. Published only a decade after the end of World War II and in the midst of the Cold War, Lord of the Flies is often considered an examination of the aftermath of collapsed regimes where the struggle for power and direction are often a result. Interestingly Golding fought in World War II and was part of the sinking the Bismark (Germany’s key battleship), the invasion of Normandy, and D-Day. Obviously Golding was familiar with the cruelty humans are capable of.

Fear and brutality inherent in the human condition and the drive to survive are themes that have never gone out of fashion. The stakes get even higher when those involved are children, and it’s obviously a big seller. Case in point: all the recent works comparable to Lord of the Flies including the aforementioned The Hunger Games and Japan’s Battle Royal, a 1999 film recently released in the US, based on the book of the same name about high school students forced by the government to hunt and kill each other.

Many other fictional works are no doubt indebted to Lord of the Flies as well, whether it involves people struggling to form a society and survive on a deserted island or a group of boys attempting to manage a frightening situation in the wilderness. TV’s Lost, The Beach, written by Alex Garland, and The Body (later adapted as the film Stand by Me) by Stephen King are just a few that pop to mind. Speaking of Stephen King, he wrote the introduction in the latest “Centenary” edition of the book. In it, he lauds the classic tale:

“I finished the last half of Lord of the Flies in a single afternoon, my eyes wide, my heart pounding, not thinking, just inhaling. But I’ve been thinking about it ever since, for fifty years and more. My rule of thumb as a writer and a reader – largely formed by Lord of the Flies – is feel it first, think about it later.”

The 1963 black and white film version of the book, directed by Peter Brook, is a particularly faithful adaptation. It is pointed out in the DVD commentary of the Criterion edition that there was no screenplay or script to work from and the production team used the novel as the only basis for the film.

James Aubrey and Hugh Edwards were excellent choices to play Ralph and Piggy respectively. Aubrey captures Ralph’s earnestness seamlessly and Edwards is a perfect Iggy, embodying his stumbling, sweet nature and grandmotherly wit like a pro. Tom Gaman nails the spiritual wisdom of Simon and Tom Chapin, who plays Jack, is also appropriately cast. From his first sentence in the film, Chapin is the crisp, shrewd boy who propels the boys’ savagery in the book.

The film begins with an unnerving visual introduction made to inform the viewer of why the boys ended up on the island. Brook does this with a series of photo stills showing schoolboys, a nuclear missile, evacuation notices written on a chalkboard, and a plane going down near an island. The images are set to the sound of school bells and choir music.

Once you get past how pristine the boys look after the plane crash (particularly the choir faction who march up the beach in the beginning of the film as if they were going into Sunday mass), the film is authentic and beautiful in its black and white starkness.

There’s an eerie otherworldliness to the film that captures the disconnect of the boys from the outside adult world, which is quickly coming apart. At one point, a plane goes hurling over the island, making a loud whine. It looks more like a missile than a plane, at which point Ralph looks up and cries out, “a plane!” in an alarmed tone. When one of the small boys claims there’s a beast living out at sea, the silence as all the others look out at the dark stormy ocean is chilling.

The film’s use of silence and music also add to the eeriness, which gives the film the sense of doom intrinsic in the book. It begins to ring so true it’s easy to forget it’s a film based on fiction and not a documentary. It seems unneeded that Henry Hook reshot the film in 1990, especially considering how many critics applauded Brook’s version. The Criterion edition contains extras, including a full-length commentary by Brooks and others on the production team, a deleted scene, excerpts of the book read by Golding, and the original theatrical trailer.

Brooks was nominated for the Golden Palm award at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival and it’s no surprise. The film is a meaningful adaptation of Golding’s novel. Both the film and the book are still as gripping and as relevant now as they were 60 years ago.