FILM REVIEW: Lord of the Flies (1963)

Lord of the Flies (UK, 1963)
Directed by Peter Brook

Starring James Aubrey, Tom Chapin, Hugh Edwards, Roger Elwin

The ideas and imagery of Lord of the Flies have become so deeply engrained in our culture that it would be very easy to accuse any film version of skimming the surface. The concept of a dark beast lurking in the heart of well-meaning Man may be far more ancient than William Golding's novel. But there is a danger that any adaptation could embody the theme without doing justice to the story, relying on layman knowledge or consensus to carry the action.While this criticism can be fairly levelled against the 1990s version, there is no such cause for concern with the vision of Peter Brook. In adapting Golding's chilling and pessimistic novel, he has done justice to the source material while putting his own blend of artistic naturalism onto the story. The result is a subtle and sinister film whose sense of dread creeps up on you and eventually overpowers without warning. While aspects of it haven't aged that well, it still stands as the definitive adaptation.Brook's skill as a director, both on film and in the theatre, has always been allowing the material to speak for itself. The brand that is Peter Brook bestows upon a production certain expectations of quality, but this derives from a captivating whole rather than individual gimmicks. Brook clearly understands the pattern and composition of Golding's prose, and very rarely feels the need to impose his own attitude onto the visual rendering of it. This is a sign of confidence in both the source material and in one's capabilities as a director.The one notable exception to this comes in the opening credits. As the various names flash past, we see images of English civilisation at its supposed peak - all choir boys and straw boaters - intercut with ICBMs and B52s. In one particularly haunting image, we see the image of a bomber drawn on a boy's textbook in a photo full of smiling faces in uniform. This is a novel way of introducing the theme, and probably stems as much from the novel as from the experience of filming it. While much of Golding's work is about the threat of nuclear war, Brook shot large portions of the film in the Bay of Pigs, not long after the Cuban Missile Crisis.The central idea of Lord of the Flies is that Man is inherently savage: that within every seemingly civilised, rational and morally upright individual, there is a dark-hearted beast which will reveal itself even in the most innocent of circumstances. The film is the visual equivalent of a thought experiment, a philosophical game in which theories are tested hypothetically and judged according to the behavioural responses they produce. Golding concludes, as does Brook, that Man's murky, Hobbesian desire for self-preservation overrides everything else, to the point where tribalism is commonplace, murder is justified, and objective truth (should such a thing exist) holds no sway whatsoever.There has been some discussion over the years about the relationship between Golding's thesis and the Christian position on Mankind, i.e. the role of Sin, the long-term effects of the Fall, and the possible role of grace and redemption. Brook brings these discussions to the forefront and seems to suggest that the teachings of Christ provide no resistance to or adequate means of containing the beast, at least without proper application. The choirboys, who enter singing 'Kyrie Eleison' ('Lord, have mercy') along the beach, turn out to be the most ruthless, merciless and hierarchical group on the island.Lord of the Flies is not specifically anti-Christian because of this development. The characters are assessed and leaders emerge on the basis of physical strength and the ability to command respect. This is a quarrel between reason and instinct, between head and heart (or stomach), rather than an outright rejection of Christianity in favour of atheism or any other seemingly opposite doctrine. If anything Christian imagery abounds in Lord of the Flies, with the island serving as the world outside the Garden of Eden, the plane crash doubling quite literally for the Fall, and the arrival of the sea captain at the end as either the coming of Jesus or the arrival of the New Heaven and Earth.In its emphasis on instinct and tribalism, Lord of the Flies could come across as a purely nihilistic work - a film which explores the idea of life being totally pointless, and the only natural part of human behaviour being the desire for power which manifests itself in utterly amoral violence. But one of the successes of Brook's adaptation is to demonstrate how even the most morally skewed civilisation has some form of supernatural basis, either in its recognition of a God-like force, or its need to create such a force to justify itself.The warrior tribe formed by the choristers begin to talk about a beast which lives on the island, which must be contained by sacrifices or killed if the group is to survive. The sacrifices which they offer to the beast, in the form of a boar's head on a pike, immediately take on a supernatural quality, consolidated by the scenes of them hollering on the beach and dancing around the fire like Native Americans. The beast is like the distant, jealous God from the Old Testament: no-one has the courage to meet or confront the force which seemingly controls them.Both Golding and Brook are very even-handed in their treatment of both the political and supernatural aspects of the events on the island. The subtle orchestration of the meeting scenes, where the conche is passed around and people voice their opinions on what should be done, ably demonstrate both the strengths and weaknesses of both democratic government and militaristic barbarism. One of the most striking images in the film is that of the boar's head; as one of the boys stares at it, the camera zooms in onto the flies slowly eating it away. It's as disturbing and discomforting an image as the cockroaches at the start of Blue Velvet, both in its weight and in its ability to make one feel queasy.All of these visual and narrative touches are in keeping with the source material while putting a particular artistic and cinematic stamp on the events that unfold. This balance between loyalty and artistic licence allows Brook's adaptation to be entrist without being reductionist. In other words, you can read as much into the film as you like, without either having the themes shoved down your throat or feeling like you are watching something that has been severely abridged or bowdlerised. Considering how familiar the material is in English literature, this is quite an achievement.The performances in Lord of the Flies are all of a pretty decent calibre. Brook did not work from a specific script: in a foreshadowing of Mike Leigh's rigorous method of improvisation, he would give the young boys a rough idea of what would happen in a scene, and then allow them to ad lib with minimal prompting. It takes a while to adjust to their delivery, but they are generally convincing, particularly a young James Aubrey as Ralph.The problems with Lord of the Flies surround aspects of either the source or the adaptation which have dated. The ending of Lord of the Flies remains a classic deus ex machina (in more ways than one); with all that has gone before, it would have been scarier and more radical for the film to have ended with Ralph being killed, cementing the beast's triumph and subverting the Christian imagery. Aspects of the dialogue, such as the social attitudes of the boys, have not aged very well, and the sound design is occasionally a little stilted. Because of time constraints Brook was forced to record the sound for each scene after they had shot it, resulting in a couple of synching issues or odd deliveries.Lord of the Flies is a fiery and faithful adaptation which has more or less retained its potency after nearly 50 years. Notwithstanding the dated aspects and the on-going problem of the ending, it captures the pessimistic, despondent tone of Golding's work beautifully, and has many scenes capable of generating either outright scares or hideous chills. It remains the definitive adaptation of the book and one of the highlights of Brook's career in film.

Verdict: A faithfully haunting adaptation


Rodders said...

I remember reading Lord of the Flies for english over and over and over, to the point where I was utterly sick of it. Maybe i'll seek this film out in a year or so, when i'm less sick of it. But a very well written and in depth review, well done

Daniel Mumby said...

Thank you Rodders :) As I said at the start, it's easy to not do it justice (or by extension to be sick of it) because the outline or story is so well-known. Hopefully when you see it in a year or so you'll appreciate it :)

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