Lord of the Flies: Trouble in Paradise

On Film / Essays — Jul 16, 2013

Peter Brook’s film Lord of the Flies (1963) is one of the purest and least compromised adaptations imaginable. The director’s answer to the question of how to translate to the screen William Golding’s grim, allegorical vision of British schoolboys behaving like savages after being plane-wrecked on a desert island was to go directly to the text; the screenplay was, essentially, the book. Brook’s idea was that to give Golding’s novel cinematic form would be to introduce vital evidence of its truth. The book was a “beautiful fable,” he wrote in the Observer in 1964, but as long as its existence was confined to the page, it could be “refuted as a trick of compelling style.” He felt that simplicity and realism were the tools best suited to his task. Using them, he created a powerful drama that was faithful to the mythic quality of Golding’s novel but also added an extra, more literal dimension. Brook’s film isn’t just a tale of lost innocence. It is a minutely focused case study of the behavior of kids in the wilderness.

Brook already had a reputation as a radical experimental theater director with maximalist leanings, having put on a production of Richard Strauss’s opera Salome with sets by the surrealist Salvador Dalí at the Covent Garden Royal Opera House in 1949, a Titus Andronicus at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1955. He would return to that kind of stylization shortly after making this film, with a groundbreaking production of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade in London, one heavily influenced by the extreme expressionism of Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. Yet his version of Lord of the Flies is shot in documentary style. The Prospero-like director and his young cast of schoolkids really were on an island together, not in a studio somewhere. When Piggy, the bespectacled, overweight eleven-year-old boy, is shown clambering through the creepers, we know that the actor really is sweating and out of breath.

Asked why he wanted to adapt the novel for the screen, Brook told a journalist, “Now is a good point in the world’s madness to point up how easily people slip back . . . Here is a pure case: children, and children from the best families, some of them in choir school. Golding puts them down in the Garden of Eden. From nowhere come disagreements and disputes. They do not realize the trouble is within themselves. Finally, they destroy paradise.”

The Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci has talked of why he prefers working with untrained adolescents over professionals: “They are more immediate. They are naked in a way—not in the prison of acting.” This is clearly a sentiment Brook shared. He achieved extraordinary results with his young amateur actors, few of whom ever acted again. There is nothing affected about their performances. Brook’s technique was as close to that of an anthropologist as a conventional film director. He took the kids to the island, gave them a broad outline of what they should be doing, and then turned on the camera and observed their behavior. He shot hours and hours of footage, then took this raw material and winnowed it down into a very taut ninety-minute film that closely follows the trajectory of the book.

This wasn’t an approach that the director was easily or immediately given the freedom to explore, however. The project of bringing Lord of the Flies to the screen had a very lengthy gestation, beginning even before Brook’s involvement and entailing many script drafts by various prominent screenwriters, among them Nigel Kneale, Richard Hughes, and Peter Shaffer.

Ealing Studios’ patrician boss, Michael Balcon, had been the first to option the book, shortly after its publication in 1954. It’s hard to imagine Golding’s savage novel as an Ealing movie, or that Balcon would have given Brook the freedom to be as faithful to it as he eventually was; whether their protagonists were children or adults, Ealing films in the Balcon era celebrated consensus and camaraderie. The kids in Charles Crichton’s 1947 Hue and Cry, for example, may have run amok amid the craters and destroyed buildings of postwar London, but they were good lads at heart, using their guile to thwart a gang of robbers—there was no danger of their lapsing into brutality or murder. At any rate, it soon became apparent that Balcon had no intention of making the movie, for practical reasons. This was, potentially, an enormously expensive film, with no adult stars to help with the marketing. And the inhabitants of the island off Australia where the Ealing shoot was to take place objected to the production’s being done there.

Ealing sold the rights to producer Sam Spiegel for eighteen thousand pounds. Spiegel came from a very different producing background than Balcon did. Whereas Balcon was a pragmatist, overseeing modestly budgeted, well-crafted, character-driven dramas projecting “Britain and the British character” (as reads the plaque on the building that Ealing used to inhabit), Spiegel was a risk-taking showman who had enjoyed huge success with the David Lean–directed widescreen epics The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

Brook came on board as director, hoping to make a “small experimental movie” that stuck close to the novel—all he required was “kids, a camera, and a beach,” as he would write. But that wasn’t what Spiegel had in mind. A new screenplay was officially commissioned from Shaffer, while Hughes was simultaneously set to work on a rival one in secret. Various financiers floated ways of making the film more accessible for an international audience, and even Brook resigned himself to the idea that some tinkering with his original vision was probably inevitable. “How on earth can we possibly agree to change the title, turn the boys into girls, the English into Americans?” the director recalled Shaffer asking him when they were working on a draft. Brook blithely told him to imagine that they had never heard of Golding and were simply trying to make a movie “about a group of boys and girls of mixed nationality stranded on a desert island.”

“If Golding’s book is a potted history of man, so a story of the making of the film is like a condensed history of the cinema, throwing up all the snares, temptations, and heartbreaks of the different levels of production,” Brook would write in the Observer. It is a telling description. Just as the boys lose their moral compasses in Golding’s novel, so too is almost every filmmaker forced to compromise and to abandon the idealism with which a project is begun.

Ultimately, however, Brook had the good fortune to avoid that all-too-common fate. Spiegel was also thwarted by Golding’s book, and Brook was able to make the film on his own terms, returning to his simple but unorthodox intention to “improvise straight from the original novel.” This meant shooting it for relatively little money. The budget secured by the film’s young American producer, Lewis Allen, was around a hundred thousand pounds, and even less than that was available to pay for the production by the time a deal had been concluded with Spiegel for the rights to the book.

Balcon’s and Spiegel’s problems with the material point to a paradox inherent in the task of adapting Lord of the Flies. The novel is at once a quintessentially British one and one that excoriates the very idea of British fair play and derring-do. There is a brutal pessimism at its core that alienated potential backers of the film version drawn initially to the story’s escapism and adventure (and perhaps explains why Brook’s film wasn’t a big box-office success). When boys murder one another and set up their own satanic religion, you can’t pretend that you’re watching a cross between The Swiss Family Robinson and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Golding had been a schoolmaster at Bishop Wordsworth’s School before he wrote the novel. And Brook went out of his way to establish the story’s English roots. The film opens with its one stylized sequence, a series of still images. (The approach is intriguingly similar to the one taken by Chris Marker’s La Jetée, made in 1962.) As a bell rings, we see photographs of what appears to be a typical English prep school. The camera moves across a picture of boys at their desks in a classroom as we hear a teacher pompously intoning lessons about geometry and reciting Latin verse. There are shots of a choir singing and of spectators in deck chairs watching a cricket match, intercut with Dr. Strangelove–like images of rockets, warplanes, and children being evacuated.

These still images are Brook’s way of letting us know that the kids are stranded on a remote desert island because they have been caught up in a war and their plane has crashed. On one level, then, the opening montage is simply economical contextualization. You can’t help but notice, though, the extreme pains that Brook takes to tell us at the beginning that these are English schoolboys of a certain type, especially given that Golding provides no such contextualization at the outset of the novel. They are from a privileged background. Their fathers are leaders—military commanders, politicians, captains of industry. The factionalism and brutality that the boys show on the island aren’t that different from the behavior described in other English schoolboy tales, from Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s School Days (1857), with its archetypal bully Flashman, to the first volume of Roald Dahl’s autobiography, Boy (1984).

“After all, we are not savages. We are English—and the English are best at everything,” Jack (Tom Chapin), the head of the choirboys, declares early on in the film. Inevitably, he turns out to be the most diabolical character, terrifying the other children with tales of the “beast” lurking somewhere in the interior of the island. It’s a slyly subversive moment. Jack looks and sounds like a younger version of those English protagonists found in countless imperial adventure stories—the selfless, well-mannered, and well-spoken hero ready to die for king and country. The irony is that he is a little monster. With no natives to colonize, he bullies and rules over his classmates instead.

The boys in Lord of the Flies are on the cusp of adolescence, but sex is never an issue. There is no mention of women, whether girlfriends or mothers. If there is a homoerotic element to the story, it is very well buried. What is evident is that the kids don’t behave well when adults aren’t around. “You know, there is a lot of stealing and beating up goes on in boarding schools,” James Aubrey, who plays the young hero, Ralph, told the press at the film’s premiere at Cannes, as if keen to remind them that this was not some outlandish fantasy.

There is, though, a strain of surrealism here. Brook relishes the incongruity of the image of Piggy (Hugh Edwards), suddenly transplanted from the home counties to this tropical island. “Hoy, wait for me! I can’t hardly move because of all these creeper things.” Equally striking is the early shot of Jack and the other choirboys, in their full regalia of black capes, ruffled collars, and hats, marching in file along the beach—the kind of image that you can easily imagine in a Luis Buñuel film, making fun of the Catholic clergy.

At first, the boys experiment with democracy, taking down names, holding their own leadership votes, and trying, in a very British way, to impose rules and regulations. Piggy is the intellectual and the rationalist. Ralph is his ally. But Jack is an adolescent fascist who uses the specter (and excitement) of the beast to browbeat and entice the other boys into abandoning these attempts at order and following him. Class is an issue as well, even in this remote wilderness. The reason Jack so despises Piggy is not just his appearance but also the fact that he is not of the right caste. Yes, Piggy is fat, wears spectacles, and looks like Billy Bunter, but the real problem is that he’s from Camberley. He’s suburban, lower-middle-class—an outsider among all these blue-blooded chorister types.

The ability of cinema to communicate details like these is just what inspired Brook to film the novel. On-screen, the boys’ descent into savagery can’t be dismissed as an abstraction; it becomes something very real. On the film’s release, many critics were unable to look past the surface of those all-too-believable schoolboys, finding that they diminished the menace of the story; the movie version of Lord of the Flies was compared unfavorably with the novel, for not managing to peer far enough into the heart of darkness. “The visible drama of the castaways is present,” Dilys Powell wrote in the Sunday Times, but “the suggestions of horror beyond are almost entirely lost.” That was missing the point, however. It is precisely the fact that these characters somehow visibly remain politely spoken prep school kids enjoying an escapade—even after they have painted their bodies and are screeching “Kill, kill, kill” while dancing around a fire—that those familiar little choristers are capable of such unspeakable barbarity, that makes the movie infinitely frightening.

There is a wonderful irony in the film’s final shot, when salvation looms in the shape of an adult’s knee—as if the grown-up world will provide shelter from the savagery that the kids have orchestrated. It was, of course, those adults and their bombs that put the children on the island in the first place.