Have Mercy: ‘Lord of the Flies’

There is a fearful symmetry to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a bizarre reconciliation of opposites that William Blake would have been proud of. The novel details the aftermath of a crash landing of a plane full of schoolboys on an island that is both heaven and hell, its newest denizens both innocent children and nightmarish, primal monsters. This cynical, yet apropos, commentary on human nature cuts to the core for most self-aware readers who witness the baseness of emotions that take over the boys who “go native” as soon as they are left alone on an island untainted by adult rules.

Golding’s novel is paramount to any review of Peter Brook’s 1963 adaptation, The Lord of the Flies, as the film is a disturbingly accurate, stark, black and white, nightmarish visual accompaniment to the startling book it is based on. How deep does this connection go? According to the supplementary material on the Criterion Collection’s 2013 release of Lord of the Flies, Brook’s cast and crew worked without a screenplay to create this realistic, almost documentary-style cinema verite movie. Instead Golding’s novel was used on set to create the dialogue and blocking for this film that was, uncommonly, filmed sequentially in the exact order of events the novel describes.

Visually Lord of the Flies amounts to a beautiful disaster with the same dichotomy the novel demonstrated.The skilled camera of Gerald Feil captures the dark and cynical honesty of the castaways in a rich, unadorned and unobscured black and white that looks less like a movie and more like a window into the story itself with a photographic clarity in every inch of the screen that captures every bit of the beauty of this picturesque island and these innocent kids as well as the perilous horrors of the hidden menace and the inner-cum-outward menace of each of the princely-cum-feral children who claim the island as their own.

James Aubrey is brilliant as the “tribe’s” chief Ralph, earnest and realistic distressed as the order and law he attempts to create is usurped by Tom Chapin’s equally capable Jack (often accompanied by unnerving sound of warlike drums). This duo forms an unlikely “marriage” and “divorce” as the tribe’s harmony builds, coalesces, fractures and finally devolves into a savage hell.

Roger Elwin is excellent in his supporting role as the sociopathic Roger, but there is no way to appropriately capture Lord of the Flies without the proper Piggy. Hugh Edwards is Piggy in virtually every way possible to the point that repeat readings of the novel run the risk of being read in Edwards’ own voice. Piggy’s nervous, yet evolving conscience of the tale in the film, as in the novel, refocuses the plot on the breakdown of the castaways’ society and the end of their innocence just as the peaceful, yet orderly Ralph and Jack’s choirboy gone horribly wrong clash on a burning infernal paradise.

If Piggy is the conscience of the film, Simon (American actor Tom Gaman) is the story’s voice of reason (above and beyond even Ralph). Simon’s evolution is directly divergent of the rest of the mob as he goes from a superstitious fear to a realism that may allow for some form of hope,

The true surprise in Lord of the Flies is how little these child actors actually feel like “child actors”. With few exceptions, the acting rarely seems to be forced or flat. This practiced, well-honed craft aids Brook’s vision of a fly on the wall approach that pulls the viewer into each scene.

The questions of the novel, such as how realistic is this cynical take on humanity, religion and government as well as literally who (or what) constitutes “The Lord of the Flies” and “The Beast” are presented starkly and disconcertingly in the film, never allowing for an easy answer (Brook clearly understands Golding’s literal takes as well as his metaphors) and always challenging the attentive viewer. Golding’s (and, in fact, Brook’s) goal is to turn the then-cliché theme of kid-survivors on an island on its ear and showcase a quite pessimistic prediction of how such events might actually transpire.

Indeed, there is no Swiss Family Robinson, Gilligan’s Island or even Lost underlying positive feeling in Lord of the Flies. Brooks (after Golding) shoots for a pessimistic theme even colder than that of Conrad’s Hearts of Darkness. As the story progresses, the sweet boys’ choral incantations of “Kyrie Eleison” (“Lord, have Mercy”) become a terrifyingly ominous harbinger of corruption and childhood evil. Neither the novel nor the realistically disturbing film it spawned is for the faint of heart.

As with most of their releases, the Criterion Collection’s DVD extras are virtually second to none. Lord of the Flies looks and sounds perfect in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio and is enhanced upon repeat viewings with Brook, Feil, producer Lewis Allen and DP Tom Hollyman. What could exceed a commentary like that? How about an actual commentary by William Golding himself? Golding recorded commentary about the making of and inspiration for his novel along with the reading of passages from the book itself and the Criterion Collection adapts these into a stunning commentary over the corresponding scenes of the film and adding an entirely new dimension to the viewing.

The first disc is further expanded with a deleted scene and trailer (both including commentary), a collection of outtakes, amateur film, behind the scenes footage, screen tests and still photographs as well as a half-hour interview with brook himself. Disc 2 is filled with an impressive remembrance from Tom Gaman over making-of scenes, a new interview with Feil, along with excerpts from a documentary he shot in 1975 and a long interview with William Golding from a 1980 episode of The South Bank Show. The package also includes an in-depth booklet on the cast and crew.

The film itself is shockingly realistic and high-quality even 50 years after its creation, and Criterion’s painstaking manual restoration of the print brings back the original vision of this groundbreaking and influential novel (Lost fans will be stunned at the parallels). Lord of the Flies is one of the truly greatest novel adaptations, now available in its best version yet.

While this is a magnificent film in its own right, viewers will also be hard pressed to resist the urge to read, or re-read, the novel of the same name for comparison, contrast, perspective and, in fact, horror. Upon repeat viewings the horror is no less palpable and all one can do is learn or laugh. As Moe once said on The Simpsons, “You know what I blame this on the breakdown of? Society.”

RATING 9 / 10