William Golding’s symbolic novel, “Lord of the Flies”, written in 1954 has been twice been made into films, in 1963 and again in 1991. The less said about the newer version, the better, but director Peter Brook’s earlier screen adaptation succeeds fairly well in conveying the book’s points.
The story deals allegorically with the conflict between Man’s deep-rooted savagery and his humanizing ability to reason. As Golding sees things, we cannot avoid moral disintegration without sensible laws and ethical behavior. Criterion’s DVD transfer of Brook’s film is everything we could expect, and the disc’s extras further sweeten the pot.
The framework for the story concerns a group of young British school children, aged six to twelve, who in the course of being evacuated from a private boarding school during a mythical war are shot down in their plane and crash-land on a deserted tropical island. The adults on the aircraft are killed, leaving the children stranded to fend for themselves. In showing how the kids try unsuccessfully to duplicate the adult world of rules and regulations, Golding is able to build a picture in microcosm of the problems of civilization. As the author once stated in a publicity questionnaire, “The theme is an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature. The moral is that the shape of a society must depend on the ethical nature of the individual and not on any political system, however apparently logical or respectable.”
Golding goes on to say, “The whole book is symbolic in nature…,” which is true, but a good fable needs grounding in a good story, and the author provides a rousing adventure, too. As time goes on in the tale, the children become more barbarous and more willing to follow any leader who will provide them comfort, food, and fun, regardless of cost. In addition to its being a treatise on the decay of humanity, the narrative offers a fundamental profile of human psychology, with each of the children representing a different aspect of the individual psyche. Part of the fun of the book is observing the behavior of the children and trying to determine which part they play in one’s own makeup. The idea is only slightly lost in the movie translation.
Sir Peter Brook, long associated with stage productions, shot his film as inexpensively as possible. He was able to use an island off the coast of Puerto Rico for free, courtesy of Woolworth’s in exchange for a screen credit. His camera and sound crew were minimal, and they took no editing equipment with them. They shot over sixty hours of film and then condensed it to a mere ninety minutes during the next year.
The young actors were mostly amateurs, auditioned from among thousands who applied for the roles. Brook wanted children who not only looked right but would behave as naturally as possible, and he certainly achieved his goal. Unfortunately, the kids often act awkwardly in the film, too, and nothing can be done with the long, clumsy silences that frequently plague the characters’ exchanges of dialogue. The boy who plays Piggy, though, Hugh Edwards, is a perfect delight. He had sent the director a letter saying, “I am fat and wear spectacles,” along with a crumpled photograph of himself and immediately got the job. The most charming scene in the film has Piggy explaining to a group of “littluns” how his hometown got its name changed. It’s a sweet, quiet moment amidst the enveloping turmoil. James Aubrey plays Ralph, the charismatic leader of the group, and Tom Chapin plays Jack, Ralph’s sinister rival.
After the movie, most of the cast went back to everyday lives, but Aubrey surfaced again in the 1983 British film “Forever Young.” Conductor Raymond Leppard provided the sparse but evocative musical score that dramatically punctuates the action.
Criterion’s transfer surprised me a little. It is presented in a 1.33:1 screen ratio as they say it was originally shown in theaters. By 1963 a majority of films projected in movie houses were in some form of widescreen, but for Brook’s low-budget, independent production the use of widescreen cameras or widescreen matting was apparently not an option. Criterion’s black-and-white digital copy was made from a 35mm answer print of the original negative. It is mostly good, clean, with sharply etched if not always deeply marked contrasts; but it also displays a number of small age flecks, noticeable mainly, I suspect, toward the ends of film reels.
The monaural sound was created from a 35mm optical track positive, and it appears to be as good as it can be. That’s not saying a lot, though. It is often too soft or too distanced for easy listening. There is only dialogue to be conveyed, granted, but its limited frequency and dynamic ranges are telling.
The most important extra features on the disc are a commentary track by the director and other filmmakers and a series of book excerpts read by the author. A push of the “Audio” button on one’s remote control switches among the film’s own soundtrack and the other two tracks. It’s quite handy to be able to access instantly the director’s explanation of a scene or Golding’s reading of the same scene from the novel. There is also one complete deleted scene, with commentary, and as a part of the production scrapbook a whole segment of outtakes. Finally, there are included brief portions of a 1972 documentary, “The Empty Space,” showing some of Brook’s directorial methods. English is the only spoken language available, but English subtitles are provided for the hearing impaired. The accompanying booklet contains a short essay by Brook on the making of the film, extensive credits, and a helpful listing of the disc’s thirty-one chapter stops alongside the book’s table of contents for easy reference.
Brook, whose later screen credits include “Marat/Sade” and “Meetings with Remarkable Men,” creates a deliberate and often stagey effect in “Lord of the Flies.” The children, who had little or no acting experience to begin with, never seem to perform with much spontaneity and, indeed, can often appear ungainly in their roles. In spite of this, the film conveys a chilling vitality, an almost documentary vision of a world gone mad. It deserves to be seen and discussed, and Criterion’s DVD affords the perfect vehicle for both.