Lord of the Flies
Among those of us who value books as discrete physical objects – which is slightly more of us than is comfortable for Amazon’s share price – film tie-in editions are a wearying necessity, a crude imposition of a completely different style of art for crass commercial reasons. There are some exceptions. Over forty years after Miloš Forman’s film adaptation and no-one bats an eyelid when a new edition of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has Jack Nicholson on the cover. Another is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Peter Brook’s adaptation, reissued here on a stuffed Blu-Ray by the Criterion Collection, is faithful enough for pictures of Hugh Edwards’s tragic Piggy to front new editions today.
It is, unquestionably, a very faithful adaptation. One of the extras on this new set features Golding himself reading from his novel, matched perfectly to scenes from Brook’s film. There’s also an excerpt from Gerald Feil’s documentary The Empty Space, about Brook’s experimental methods with actors. This should make for the ideal adaptation; faithful, yet also full of new, life-giving ideas. Unfortunately this is the first Criterion UK release where the extras have been in the position, not of supplementing an enjoyable film, but trying to persuade me that the headline feature is better than it is.
Let’s start with the big problem. Lord of the Flies has a cast made up entirely of children, which today wouldn’t be a problem. Think of all the various recent films, from The Girl With All the Gifts through The Nice Guys to Room, which have been stolen by a brilliant juvenile performer. Back in the 1960s, though, whatever techniques make modern child actors so good had yet to evolve. The children in Lord of the Flies are almost universally stilted, expressionless, declamatory. For a while this gives it a nice, uncanny, Blue Remembered Hills feel, as though this desert island adventure was just an eerie childhood fantasy. Then it begins to grate, then you disengage from the film entirely.
The other problems I have with Lord of the Flies stem from a slight skepticism around Golding’s book, one of a canon of works that take Thomas Hobbes’s most famous sentence from Leviathan – that life without the State is “nasty, brutish and short” – and stretch it out to a full-length story. Those who still hold to the belief that the political Right is for small government and the Left is for big government might assume that was a Left-wing moral, but these stories always feel terribly reactionary to me. In their acceptance that the natural state of man is dog-eat-dog, they paved the way for Thatcherism to come in and say “So why fight it?” I do genuinely believe the unquestioning acceptance of this view has made it harder for people to imagine a fairer society. There’s also the question of whether viewers are more horrified than entertained by these stories. The most popular TV series in the world right now – Game of Thrones – is essentially Hobbesian in its view of human nature, yet I doubt many of its viewers are holding out for a Blair-like figure to emerge and implement constitutional reforms to Westeros’s monarchy.
Granted, it feels more disturbing when the fighters are all children. The impact of the violence is muted by the obvious care Brook has taken to insulate his young cast from any of the nasty business, but it still carries a charge. There is, very obviously, meant to be a message about Britain’s Empire-fed superiority complex in here – “We’re not savages!” chirps one of the children, “We’re English, we’re the best at everything!” – but it is seriously confused by the use of tribal body paint as an indicator of ‘savagery’.
Brook is one of the few theatre directors whose occasional work in film reveals a serious stylist – his 1971 King Lear was attacked by critics for swamping the text in visual sturm und drang, which is not something anyone’s going to say about Richard Eyre or Nicholas Hytner any time soon. The third act of Lord of the Flies does benefit from this, with Tom Hollyman’s chiaroscuro cinematography giving the battles a seriously apocalyptic feel. By this point, though, the performances had already lost me, and the overfamiliarity of Golding’s message made the ending feel less shocking and more inevitable.
Still, those extras. Apart from the ones already mentioned, there’s a full audio commentary with Brook, Feil, Hollyman and producer Lewis Allen, an excerpt from an edition of The South Bank Show about Golding, and a small but revealing 2008 interview with Brook about the production problems. Best of all, there is a compilation of previously unseen footage and photographs shot by the child actors themselves, accompanied by a reminiscence from the sole American cast member Tom Gaman. I particularly enjoyed his anecdote about the British children going back to school after the shoot and being teased for being in an X-certificate film. Those lost boys did get back to civilisation in the end, although they probably wished they’d stayed on the island.