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Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies(1963)

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teaser Lord of the Flies (1963)

There may not be a more difficult filmmaking task than translating a classicnovel to the big screen. The verdict from viewers who love the sourcematerial is almost always that the book was better. But if you stop tothink about it, that makes perfect sense.

If you've read the book, you've already seen the "best" version of thefilm. Your imagination cast the actors, designed the sets, and stationed thecamera right where you felt it should be. The most a director can hope forin such a situation is to somehow suggest the guiding emotions that intrigued andfascinated readers of the book in the first place.

Though Peter Brook's Lord of the Flies (1963) is an expectedlyproblematic adaptation of William Golding's cult novel, Brook showed characteristicchutzpa in how he decided to interpret the material, and it's still more compellingthan the 1990 color remake. In a nutshell, Brook and his actors just made itup as they went along. It would be hard to imagine another director,outside of maybe Robert Altman, heading to Puerto Rico to film this picturewith a bare-bones crew and a cast full of amateur actors...with nothing buta worn copy of the book to guide them!

Even without that kind of risk-taking, Brook may have had the deck stackedagainst him from the start. Golding's narrative is arguably too on-the-nosefor proper filmic representation. In it, a group of British schoolboyssurvive a horrible plane crash, then wash ashore on a remote, unpopulatedisland. All the adults on the plane have been killed, so the kids elect abenevolent leader named Ralph (played by James Aubrey in the movie), who doesthe best he can to establish a makeshift, civilized society.

Unfortunately, Jack (Tom Chapin), the lead hunter of the group, has otherplans for their little community. Jack and his followers form a separatefaction and become savages, complete with war makeup. They take it uponthemselves to brutalize an overweight, much weaker boy nicknamed Piggy (HughEdwards), and are soon creating myths about a monster that supposedly livesin the jungle and requires a sacrifice. (You can hear Joseph Campbellsaying, "I told you so!")

This is powerful stuff, especially when you consider that these savages were previouslya prim group of British schoolchildren. But Golding seems to think it's the unavoidableoutcome of the situation, never mind his carefully calculated socialmetaphor. In the movie, the children's retreat to their murderous instinctsis fairly frightening, but comes too quickly, and seems too obvious. Thebook's dreamlike horror is blunted in the process.

Still, the picture is often fascinating. Brook, who was already a legendarytheater director at the time that he made Lord of the Flies, placed the children in the proper setting, then fed them the basic storyline anddialogue until they began to inhabit their characters. "Britishfilms are financed and planned and controlled in such a way," he once said,"that everything goes into the crippling concept of screenplay. And abreakthrough can only come about thoroughly and satisfactorily if theworking conditions can be freed, so that smaller crews and lower budgetsgive people the opportunity to take more time, and go back on their tracks,if necessary, without anyone worrying them."

This Godardian conception of filmmaking might have worked better had Brookhired trained performers. If anything, he seemed to have put too much faithin Golding's ideas. You could argue that Lord of the Flies, as Brook designed it, would have worked from beginning to end only if the kids hadactually turned into murderous brutes.

Expecting the worst, however, was often a part of Brook's MO as adirector. Kenneth Tynan once wrote that Brook's stage work suggested "thatpeople stripped of social conventions are rotten to the core." Thispicture, then, is a fully appropriate mating of director and material, andthe results are just as fittingly reckless.

Director: Peter Brook
Screenplay: Peter Brook, based on the novel by William Golding
Editors: Peter Brook and Gerald Feil
Producer: Lewis M. Allen
Music: Raymond Leppard
Principal Cast: James Aubrey (Ralph), Tom Chapin (Jack), Hugh Edwards(Piggy), Roger Elwin (Roger), Tom Gaman (Simon).
B&W-90m. Letterboxed.

by Paul Tatara

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