Lord of the Flies

I saw Lord of the Flies in childhood, probably three times or so, I would guess. It was one of the few “serious” movies I was introduced to at a young age and felt some attachment to. I’ve seen it multiple times since childhood, maybe another three or so, including just recently. In the meantime, I also read the book by William Golding that the movie is based on—four times total, the most recent being over 20 years ago.

So I’m certainly very familiar with the movie, and the novel it came from.

The basic story is quite simple. Well known too; probably even a lot of people who have never seen the movie nor read the book are familiar with it.

A group of British schoolchildren find themselves marooned on a Pacific island after a plane crash (that killed all the adults aboard, but didn’t even so much as injure any of the kids—think of it as more of a myth or fairy tale set up I suppose, not something at all realistic). They do the best they can to create a makeshift society from scratch in order to secure food, build shelters, seek rescue, etc., but before long they split up into tribes and descend into savagery.

There are many things from the book that the movie is unable to capture, probably less due to any lack of skill on the part of those making the movie than to the brevity of a movie compared to a full-length novel. Off the top of my head, I’ll mention three.

The novel has a decidedly obscure, dreamy, surreal feel to it at times (though far less than the other two Golding novels I’ve read—Pincher Martin and The Spire—which I really struggled to follow and to stay interested in), most notably in the character of Simon. There are significant passages that occur in Simon’s head, as he contemplates what is happening around him and as he imagines he is able to receive spiritual or telepathic communication from the pig’s head that the boys have stuck on a stick after a successful hunt as an offering to the beast they imagine inhabits the dark reaches of the island. You get no more than the slightest hint of any of this in the film.

As I recall in the novel, a substantial amount of time passes before things break down and the boys form factions and turn on each other. The significance of this to me is that it makes the deterioration harder hitting in that the more reflective and self-aware of the boys, as well as the reader, has a greater sense of what is lost. It isn’t just hypothetical that they could have had an island paradise to enjoy with no adult supervision; for quite a while they actually experience that idyllic existence. In the film, it feels instead like things break down very soon after they arrive.

I also always felt in the book that there were significant homoerotic overtones in the rivalry between Ralph and Jack, the two leaders. I’m sure that reaction is informed from my impression of the peculiar relationship that all-male British boarding schools have historically had with homosexuality—formally prohibited and at times harshly punished, but also surprisingly prevalent and at times winked at as an inevitable part of coming of age.

Ralph and Jack, as two alpha males of different styles, are clearly drawn to each other as at least friends, and one wonders if there was more to it, though I don’t recall the novel being explicit about their being conscious of any sexual attraction or ever acting on it. But for a time, though there’s always a volatility to it, they’re buddies of a sort, each one perhaps seeing the other as his only true peer on the island.

From the film, though, you really don’t get any sense that there’s a friendship, a positive relationship, or certainly any subtle sexual attraction, between the two. Instead, from early on they’re presented as polar opposites representing the order versus chaos choice that confronts the boys.

The film has multiple very powerful death and near-death scenes, with the most powerful being the ending, when Ralph, fleeing in terror from the savages the other boys have become and certain he is about to die, is unexpectedly rescued, and then the camera comes in for a close up of his face as he breaks down into tears.

As extraordinary as that closing shot is, I think it hits even harder if you’re aware of the fuller story as told in the book. Without that, you might read Ralph’s emotional outburst as primarily tears of joy or at least of relief that his life has been saved and he’s not going to die after all. But while I think that is some of it, my feeling is that what we’re really seeing is the enormity of Ralph’s sadness over the realization of what they became as opposed to how things might have been. When I look into his eyes I see a lament for the lost opportunity to play, to be self-sufficient, to all be buddies, to form the kind of connection with one other special person that he had experienced in his budding relationship with Jack.

We had all that, we had it in our hands, and look what we did instead.

And the reason that so hits home is because you realize this isn’t a story about kids; it’s an allegory about the human species. Any of us contemplating human history and the present state of affairs could react identically to Ralph—We had all that, we had it in our hands, and look what we did instead—and similarly break down into tears.

A couple other quick things I’ll mention about the movie.

The kids were all amateurs from what I understand, and instead of being given lines to memorize and recite they were told the basics of each scene and invited to pretty much ad lib their dialogue. In particular I remember reading that Piggy ad libbed his whole scene where he is trying to keep the younger children’s attention and keep them from getting scared by relating stories about the town where he grew up, why it is called what it is called, etc. Evidently all of that was just the young actor babbling about himself and his life—his real life—which I find rather charming.

The boy who played Jack had lived in America for enough years that he no longer had much of a British accent. They thought he was right for the part, except that they didn’t like the anomaly of him sounding nothing like the other boys. So they actually had all of his dialogue in the movie dubbed by another boy.

There’s much more I could say about this film. Strong recommendation, with a couple of caveats. One, as noted the book has a certain depth and level of detail that there is no way for a movie to fully duplicate, so this is one of those instances where the movie, as good as it is, falls short of the book. Two, though I think for the most part the amateur quality of the acting and improvised dialogue is kind of appealing, I suspect modern audiences and younger people could experience the film as slow and a bit clunky.

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