'Lord of the Flies' Is an Inferior Take on William Golding's Classic Novel

The 1963 film Lord of the Flies is a transcendent experience in accurate filmmaking. The 1990 film Lord of the Flies is only a movie.

Lord of the Flies

Director: Harry Hook
Cast: Balthazar Getty, James Badge Dale, Andrew Taft, Edward Taft, Chris Furrh, Danuel Pipoly, Gary Rule, Michael Greene, Bob Peck
Length: 90 minutes
Year: 1990
Distributor: Olive Films
MPAA Rating: R
UK Release Date: Import
US Release Date: 2015-04-28

Peter Brook’s 1963 adaptation of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) is a bold experiment in accuracy to the source material, as well as an enthralling, challenging, and disturbing film in its own right. That film not only keeps the setting and characterizations of the book intact, but also does the near impossible by bringing the viewer onto the island and into the pages of the book itself; reportedly, there was no screenplay used during shooting, with Golding’s novel serving that purpose.

In 1990, Harry Hook’s adaptation of Lord of the Flies was released. While hardly a waste of time, the film is a large departure from the novel. The film starts out beautifully, if disturbingly, which is fitting for the original Lord of the Flies. The pilot of the crashed plane is seen descending bloodily through the ocean waters until a uniformed boy reaches through the blue to rescue him. Then the surviving boys assemble on the island surrounding a strange object, inquiring what it might be. “A glow stick”, answers one of the boys in a distinctly American accent.

Yes, not only did Hook and screenwriter Sara Schiff change the boys’ origin from a British preparatory school to an American military school, but they also updated the story to contemporary times with then-current technology, idioms, and cultural references. Although profanity and mentions of Rambo might have made the film seem more familiar to '90s audiences, the sense of stark and shocking realism that the original film captured so well gets lost, and the remake never quite feels like that dark mirror held up to our own human nature. In sad fact, the movie is much closer to a movie about a bunch of boys running around an island going feral. The lessons and allusions of the novel and first adaptation feel heavy-handed and far too obvious in this remake. In short, while the 1963 film, in its black and white darkness, brings the viewer into the film with depth and shock, the 1990 movie is the experience of watching actors reciting lines and making a movie.

There are some quality performances in this film, however. Balthazar Getty is a relatively convincing Ralph, Chris Furrh is a conniving and chilling Jack, James Badge Dale makes a sympathetic Simon, and Danuel Pipoly brings the appropriate pathos to the role of Piggy. The issue is that these always feel like performances, not like the natural realism of the original film. On one hand, comparison to an earlier, superior film might be unfair and cause this remake to suffer from the comparison. On the other hand, when a perfect version of the novel has already been made, does there truly need to be a reimagining?

The darkness of the original may be lost here, but the use of color is not to the detriment of the film that it could have been. This is largely due to the cinematography of Martin Fuhrer, who uses his lens to soak up every piece of beautiful light, flora and fauna on the island. A burned tree on the beach at sunset is worth actually pausing the Blu-ray to appreciate the frame as a light painting. That opening rescue scene of two characters floating in an unforgiving blue sea is another example of beautiful (if desolate) composition, perfectly captured for the film and made better than every by the magic of Blu-ray. The same is true for the audio, making the conch trumpet echo through the cliffs as well as your living room. Every insect and animal sound of the forest is given life on Blu-ray.

For all the beauty in sight and sound that we get on Olive Films’ 2015 release of Lord of the Flies, the closest thing to a “bonus feature” that we are given is an interactive menu with scene access. What is this, a throwback to 1999 DVDs? There is no director’s commentary, documentary explaining the making of the film or even theatrical preview to give the viewer an additional reason to buy the disc.

This leaves the intent as obscure as the title character in the film itself. In the novel and in the original film, the pig’s head on the spike makes for an ominous and terrifying totem and omen, as is the omnipresent (if rarely seen) Beast. Here the pig’s head is just a pig’s head, and “the Monster” (as it is called in the newer film) has lost much of its metaphor and meaning. This is, of course, somewhat fitting and a microcosm of the entire production. There are some very good parts, but while 1963’s Lord of the Flies was a transcendent experience in accurate filmmaking, 1990’s Lord of the Flies is only a movie.


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