Continuing with my self-imposed cinema class using Netflix with commentaries, I watched both movie versions of “Lord of the Flies,” one after the other on the same evening. It’s been decades since I read the William Golding novel, but over the years it comes up whenever human nature is discussed. There is a website for Golding. http://www.william-golding.co.uk/
Golding’s years were 1911-1993, the heart of the 20th century.
1954: the book was published.
1963: the first movie version was made by Peter Brook.
1990: the second movie version was made by Harry Hook.
Here’s a baseline from the Golding website: “Drawing almost entirely on materials that have never before been made public, John Carey, the distinguished writer and critic, sheds new light on Golding. Through hundreds of letters, unpublished works and Golding's intimate journals, Carey draws a revelatory and definitive portrait of an extraordinary man. In an absorbing and compelling narrative, he reveals a many-sided figure: a war-hero, a reclusive depressive who considered himself a 'monster', a family man, a victim of fears and phobias who battled against alcoholism, and a writer who trusted the imagination above all things.”
Those who say that “Lord of the Flies” is about the Heart of Darkness need to remember that it’s Golding’s heart. As an adventure story about kids, Harry Hook’s version is okay. As an examination of how a nation imprints its culture on youngsters, it misses. Much of the original is premised on English class and empire as taught in boarding schools. One of the commentators noted that when the Brook movie was shown in France, people were appalled. They knew that adults were swine, but Rousseau had taught them that children are natural innocents, directly contradicting the assumption that boys without “rules” naturally become beasts. Americans have no such problem; the frontier and ghettos have taught them that people at every age are beasts -- possibly monsters.
One of the DVD features is Golding reading out loud the relevant passages from the novel while the movie plays out behind the spoken words. He also comments on what he was thinking as he wrote. Two scenes that had to be left out of the movie were lamented by both Golding and Brook: one scene is a calm time of friendship between the two rival leaders, Jack and Ralph, showing that under different circumstances they could become mutual admirers. The other is joyful footage of bare-assed boys set free: leaping into the surf, staging crab races. Golding says one of his controlling visions as he wrote was a boy so ecstatic over freedom in paradise that he stood on his head. The constant Procrustean pressure to fit into the schedules, costs, and assumptions of the producers did change the novel slightly, but not so much as the “American” assumptions of the second script. He said that the “monster,” the dead fighter pilot, was meant to be the sign from the outer world that the boys asked for, dropping in on them with his parachute, but it only showed that the adult world was no better than they were and had no care for them. In the second film the dying pilot is less inscrutable or symbolic -- just a plot device. One becomes concerned for him and wonders why the boys don’t help him more. Then he’s truly a crazy attacker.
As a young man William Golding taught at a Steiner school for a couple of years, which suggests that he was originally more optimistic about the capacities of young people, but when joined with Peter Brook, who had left England to explore avant garde “Theatre of Cruelty” in France where the children’s guardian Rousseau was replaced for adults by Antonin Artaud and de Sade, the tension between optimism and pessimism becomes sharp to the benefit of the movie. It’s Brook who lets Piggy, ridiculous as he is, show his reasonableness, his willingness to ally with women (his aunt) as well as authority figures, and his love of home. Maybe it’s also Brook who gives Jack and his choir an air of Papistry which allies with Cruelty.
In a movie about character, casting is everything. The Brook version gives us a Ralph who is the quintessential intrepid English boy, full of energy and resourcefulness, and capable of immense loyalty and aspiration. In short, Harry Potter. Piggy is a type familiar from Masterpiece Theatre, more usually adult, at once pompous and thoughtful, sometimes ridiculous but also a champion of civilization and fairness. Brook’s version of Jack (the actor was not celebrated as were the two playing Ralph and Piggy) is a portrait of arrogant entitlement that rings true today. Taken together, the three characters are mainstream forces in the unfolding of England in Golding’s lifetime. If reshot today, or even in 1990, necessarily the backlash of empire -- a great influx of people with dark skins from other realms -- would change everything.
In summary (I feel as though I’m writing an assigned essay in school) the book is personal with Golding, then becomes a commentary on British society in the hands of Brook, and finally devolves (yeah, I know that’s a slam) into an American belief that all humans are potentially violent killers, confirmed by the newspapers. Still, the simplicity and intensity of the story keeps it alive, iconic. Brook’s rather shaggy and stupid original pig head becomes Hook’s frighteningly demonic black hog head. The British conviction that they are superior and therefore entitled to make rules, and then the American conviction that they are even MORE superior and will FORCE people to obey them has weakened of late. I wonder what an Aussie version of this plot would be like. I fear that not long ago it would not have been a pig head but an aboriginal human head on the stake. But then, the Tower of London used to sport a row of them, all English heads.
In a needed note of optimism, Brook remarked that the boys and their families kept in touch after the movie and the families said that when the boys got home and back to school, they seemed to be energized by their experience with movie-making. Their grades went up, they had more confidence.
And another footnote: “Edmund L. Epstein, as a book editor in the late 1950s, was so taken by a well-reviewed but not especially popular first novel by a largely unknown British writer that he decided to reprint it in paperback, thus enabling the extravagant American success of “Lord of the Flies.” Epstein died on April 1, 2012, in Melville, on Long Island.”
“The Coward-McCann hardcover sold 2,383 copies.
“The 1959 paperback sold 4,300 by the end of the year, 15,000 in 1960, 75,000 in 1961,” Mr. Carey wrote, “and by some estimates half a million by the end of 1962. Several cultural commentators noted that Golding’s novel had replaced J. D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” as the bible of the American adolescent.”