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,Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies (1963)

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, Jack (Tom Chapin), the lead hunter of the group, has other plans for their little community. Jack and his followers form a separate faction and become savages, complete with war makeup. They take it upon themselves to brutalize an overweight, much weaker boy nicknamed Piggy (Hugh Edwards), and are soon creating myths about a monster that supposedly lives in the jungle and requires a sacrifice. (You can hear Joseph Campbell saying, "I told you so!")

This is powerful stuff, especially when you consider that these savages were previously a prim group of British schoolchildren. But Golding seems to think it's the unavoidable outcome of the situation, never mind his carefully calculated social metaphor. In the movie, the children's retreat to their murderous instincts is fairly frightening, but comes too quickly, and seems too obvious. The book's dreamlike horror is blunted in the process.

Still, the picture is often fascinating. Brook, who was already a legendary theater director at the time that he made Lord of the Flies, placed the children in the proper setting, then fed them the basic storyline and dialogue until they began to inhabit their characters. "British films are financed and planned and controlled in such a way," he once said, "that everything goes into the crippling concept of screenplay. And a breakthrough can only come about thoroughly and satisfactorily if the working conditions can be freed, so that smaller crews and lower budgets give 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 Brook hired trained performers. If anything, he seemed to have put too much faith in 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 had actually turned into murderous brutes.

Expecting the worst, however, was often a part of Brook's MO as a director. Kenneth Tynan once wrote that Brook's stage work suggested "that people stripped of social conventions are rotten to the core." This picture, then, is a fully appropriate mating of director and material, and the 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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