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Film adaptations of Lord of the Flies

A guest article by University of Exeter PhD Candidate, Tara Ghai

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is undeniably a twentieth-century literary classic. Given this, it is perhaps surprising that there have been only two cinematic adaptations of his 1954 novel. The first, a black and white version directed by Peter Brook, was released in 1963. This was followed more recently by Harry Hook’s colour adaptation, released in 1990. The two films were produced within very different contexts.

Brook’s film was made less than a decade after the novel was published. The film was produced by the small independent British company Two Arts Ltd, financed by private backers, each giving a few thousand dollars to the project. The low budget demanded a limited shooting schedule; filming took place on a small island off the coast of Puerto Rico. None of the cast was a professional actor, and there was a lot of improvisation as there was not a solid script to work from. The 1963 film has received mostly positive reviews from critics, receiving a 100% fresh rating on the website Rotten Tomatoes.

Harry Hook’s adaptation was produced in a more traditional context. The movie was the combined production of a number of film companies, including Castle Rock Entertainment. The film’s budget of $9 million was more generous than its predecessor, but was not considered ‘big-budget’ by the era’s standards. Filming took place in the summer of 1988 in Jamaica. Like the 1963 film, this version also featured unknowns; however many of these children were actors who had experience working on film and television shows prior to Lord of the Flies. The most famous cast member is Balthazar Getty, who plays Ralph. Getty has had a high-profile career in film and especially television. Despite the films being based upon the same source material, the different eras they arose from, as well as the disparity in aesthetic and writing styles, have produced two very different adaptations. These differences, in addition to the divergences from the novel, will be examined in closer detail below.

Adaptation

Both Lord of the Flies films adapt the narrative from Golding’s novel. Most of the changes made are undoubtedly the result of the translation from novel to film; specifically given each film’s duration. The 1963 film has a running time of 92 minutes, while the 1990 version comes in just under, at 90 minutes. Peter Brook’s film retains the original plot, but omits some of the scenes featured in the novel. The film does not include the appearance of the young boy with the birthmark on his face, and his subsequent disappearance in Chapter 2. While this may seem like a minor alteration, in the book it signals the first sign of a danger that will become ever present as the story continues. Overall, nevertheless, Brook’s film is faithful to the novel; there is little difference in the events that occur, and much dialogue from the book is reproduced.

The 1990 Lord of the Flies features a significant departure from both the novel and the earlier film. Rather than the English schoolboys marooned during an unnamed war, Harry Hook’s film shifts to a contemporary setting. The protagonists are now American boys from a military school, which provides an explanation for their chanting and uniforms. It seems probable that Hook’s film was updated so that it would have more resonance with modern audiences, particularly viewers in the United States. The dialogue and references in the film relate more to the late 1980s, when the film was produced. Piggy gains his nickname now because of taunts about Miss Piggy, the character from The Muppet Show, a television show popular in the late 1970s and the 1980s. Furthermore, the threat to the boys is not from an unknown enemy, as is the case in the novel, but from the Russians; this is revealed in a conversation between the boys. Given the preoccupation with the Cold War that featured in numerous 1980s films, this reference to Russians who may kidnap the youngsters is of a piece with its time.

The biggest break with the novel made by Hook’s film is the decision to include an adult presence on the island. Unlike the novel and the 1963 film, the boys have to care for the pilot, who is badly injured from the plane crash. The presence of an adult, albeit in an incapacitated state, marks an anchor of authority in the beginning, at least. There is less of a sense of the boys being completely responsible for themselves. This is exemplified in a dream sequence fairly early on in the film. Simon dreams that the pilot is awake and looking well. The pilot tells the boys not to worry, as they are about to be rescued. Simon awakes to discover that this was only a dream; the pilot is still feverish and his chances of survival do not look good. While the pilot is still alive, the youngsters have the illusion of a responsible adult. This diminishes their initial responsibility; hoping the pilot’s condition will improve, they expect him to take control when he is able. Thus, there is not the complete isolation from the presence of adults, an aspect that is so powerful in the book and 1963 film.

Simon and ‘the beast’

Although Brook’s film is largely a faithful adaptation of Golding’s novel, there is a significant section of the novel that neither it nor the 1990 film replicates sufficiently. In Chapter 8 of the novel, Simon encounters ‘the beast’. In the book, the lord of the flies actually speaks to Simon; this conversation is at the very centre of the story’s theme. Neither film accurately portrays this encounter. In Brook’s film, Simon looks upon the beast; the pig’s head which is now decomposing. There are several close-up shots of the pig, and particularly the flies around its mouth. These shots, from Simon’s point of view, are edited together with close-up shots of Simon staring at the animal head. The close-up of the flies together with Simon’s intense concentration suggests communication or an understanding of some sort between the two. However, it is in no way as explicit as what Golding’s describes; the film does not express the nature of what is revealed to Simon. Although Simon appears changed by the experience, it is not clear how or why in the 1963 film. Viewers not familiar with the novel might not gather from this scene alone what Simon has learnt.

Hook’s adaptation follows a similar line. Simon is first seen approaching the pig’s head in a brief shot. Later, when it has become dark, he is depicted still staring at it as the lightning flashes. It is suggested, therefore, that he has been focused on 3 the animal’s head for hours. Despite this, the 1990 film lacks the intensity of its predecessor’s version of this episode. The shots of Simon are brief, and belie his interaction with what is in front of him. Although the 1990 film had a greatly increased budget, as well as and advances in technical effects, there is no attempt to portray the conversation between Simon and the Lord of the Flies in any form. There is not even a suggestion that Simon has heard something, or is in the possession of newfound knowledge. Again, for those who have not read the novel these scenes will be ambiguous.

Characterisation

Both films retain the attributes of the main characters present in the novel, characterising each of the main players by focusing on their differences, in order to define them. This is probably due to the limited time in the cinematic adaptations in which to develop the characters in the manner of the novel. As a result, the audience is shown merely the surface of these individuals; the intricacies of their personalities are not put on display. The Monthly Film Bulletin reviewer commented on the 1963 film: ‘One wishes … that the performances that Brook has drawn from his inexperienced cast came a little closer to conveying the subtlety of the original characterisations.’ Given that the cast were not actors, it is perhaps unsurprising that some of the performances in the 1963 film appear a little wooden. Whilst James Aubrey is convincing and suitably cast as Ralph, others are not so persuasive. Several of the younger boys seem coaxed at times to say their lines, while Tom Chapin as Jack comes across as stiff in certain scenes. Hugh Edwards certainly looks the part as Piggy, but at times fails to engage with the character’s more intelligent side. He plays the downtrodden aspects well, but is less persuasive when arguing for calm and order.

In Hook’s film, the performances are overall more convincing. Balthazar Getty makes a strong Ralph, displaying both the character’s strengths and weaknesses. Chris Furrh makes for a more convincing Jack, his harsh words seemingly rolling off the tongue. Badgett Dale is soft spoken as Simon, which gives weight to his “victim” status. The characterisation in both films accurately portrays the different outlooks. Ralph is the voice of reason, with Piggy at his side thinking of the big picture. Both films depict Jack as hot headed and the most violent of all the boys. Simon, meanwhile, retains his Christ-like persona, which is evident in Golding’s novel. In both films he appears as a gentle soul. At the beginning of the 1963 film he faints, as he does in the novel. His demise is suitably martyr-like in each film, which gives this significant event appropriate impact, as will be discussed in more detail below. The films employ a different aesthetic style. Although the locations are very similar, the visual and aural devices utilised by each movie make the adaptations appear different.

Direction

Prior to Lord of the Flies, Brook had directed only two other feature films. His background was in directing theatre productions, notably numerous plays for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Hook was also relatively new to film directing when he began work on his version of Lord of the Flies. His first feature-length film, The Kitchen Toto, was released in 1987. Although both directors were fairly inexperienced when embarking on their respective productions, each brought an individual style to his interpretation of Golding’s novel. Brook’s theatre background is evident in his direction of the film. Frequently, there is minimal camera movement, replicating the audience’s fixed position when watching a stage production. When there is camera movement, it is often slight and can appear stiff. An example of this is near the beginning of the film, when each boy gives his name. The camera pans slowly along the row as each of the boys speaks; each time the camera pauses the shot appears static. The emphasis in Brook’s film is firmly on the subject within the frame, rather than an active visual style. The result of this is two-fold; on the one hand the lack of mobility in the camerawork allows for intensity to build within the scene. On the other hand, however, this simplified style at times highlights the mechanical nature of some of the performances.

Hook, conversely, applies a fluid directorial style to his adaptation. There is plenty of camera movement, with Hook often featuring tracking shots of the characters as they move through the jungle. Furthermore, he employs other techniques, such as slow motion, in his visual interpretation of the story. A good example of this is the opening sequence of the film. The very first shot of the film is of the pilot slowly sinking underwater in slow motion. He falls slowly from the above the frame to underneath the frame. After a few moments, Ralph swims downwards into frame and grabs the pilot, pulling him upwards, still in slow motion. Above the water, as Ralph holds onto the pilot, the other boys desperately stay afloat, and water laps over the camera. The shot is accompanied by the sound of the boys shouting to one another. This is starkly contrasted with the next shot, which takes the camera below water again. The quiet and slowpaced score replaces the noisiness above water. The camera pans around, showing the boys flapping their legs, trying to stay afloat. There is a serenity to the underwater shots; despite the panic above, all is quiet below. This opening sequence functions almost as a mirror version of the metaphor for one of the main themes of the story. While the novel suggests that civilisation is the flimsiest of guises, lying above chaos, this scene highlights the stark contrast between above and below the surface. The serenity below gives way to panic above, just as the fabricated sense of order and civilisation will give way to savagery later in the film.

Kill the beast

The brutal killing of Simon is one of the most significant events in Golding’s novel. It is critical in its indication of just how feral Jack and his gang have become. While the events beforehand suggest a decline in behaviour and order, it is this incident that depicts the extent of the boys’ degeneration. In both films, the audience sides with the viewpoint of Ralph and Piggy; that is to say, they are horrified spectators who look on helplessly at the violence. This is one of the most memorable scenes in Brook’s film, with both sound and imagery searing the memory. Prior to Simon’s arrival, Jack and his band are wildly screaming and chanting, ‘Kill the beast!’ while dancing around the fire. As it is night, the scene is lit solely by firelight, which provides a wonderfully stark contrast. Many of the shots are close-ups of the boys shouting and dancing. The momentary shots are edited quickly together, capturing the frenzied nature of the scene. As Simon approaches the beach, the boys are ordered to kill the beast by Jack. The camera is placed behind Simon as he approaches, capturing the terror of the boys running towards him with spears at the ready. This is interrupted by close-up shots of Simon screaming as the boys start to attack. Several shots of boys driving their spears downwards at close range are then shown, indicating the brutality of the attack without the need for graphic imagery. As the chants of ‘Kill!’ die down, Simon’s lifeless body is shown gently drifting out to sea. This image is accompanied by the choir music, which was first heard at the beginning of the film when Jack and the other choirboys marched across the beach in full uniform. The music is acutely haunting, not only because of the slaying of an innocent, but also because it serves as a bitter reminder of just how savage the boys have become.

In the 1990 version, the action appears less frantic in this sequence. Just as in the previous film, the boys are running and dancing around the fire as they chant. Most of this action, however, is filmed in slow motion. This adds drama to the proceedings, but produces a less frenzied atmosphere, which had worked so well in the 1963 film. The shots are accompanied by dramatic orchestral music, which indicates the significance of the action. As the film is shot in colour, the contrast is not as stark as in Brook’s film. The fire gives a warm orange tone to the shots. This could be seen as a metaphor for Hell, given its association with fire. As the boys attack Simon, the action is clouded by darkness. It is a low-angle shot, seemingly from Simon’s perspective. Although nothing too graphic is depicted, the stabbing sound of the spears provides enough indication of the violence of the crime. In the novel, both Ralph and Piggy clearly feel guilty about the killing. They are complicit. Neither film fully acknowledges this.

Piggy

Lord of the Flies shows that there is evil in everyone, and that it is simmering just below the surface. The narrative indicates just how easily the façade of civilisation can slip. The death of civilisation is perhaps mirrored in the death of Piggy, the most logical and good-natured character. In the 1963 film, Piggy addresses the boys who are standing above him on the rocks. By this point, Jack’s gangmembers are no longer speaking normally; they screech and howl instead. Piggy asks them whether it is better to be savages or sensible like Ralph. In what appears to be a response, the boys push a huge rock down on Piggy. The scene is shot from both Piggy’s point of view, and that of the boys who tower above. As the rock approaches Piggy, he screams. There is a quick cut to a close-up of Ralph, who shouts out the name of his friend.

The scene in the 1990 film plays out similarly. As Piggy is speaking, the boys appear less feral, taunting him with jibes as he tries to get them to see sense. The rock is tipped on him from above, and Hook’s film actually shows Piggy getting hit on the head by it. As Ralph screams, a close-up shot of Piggy’s bleeding head is shown. The later film appears more adult, both in the language used and in this graphic depiction; however this may well be due to the later period rather than anything else.

While both films offer a fairly accurate version of Golding’s novel, the 1963 film appears to have more of an impact on the viewer. This is because it is closer to the novel, in terms of narrative and dialogue, and because the style of the film is more memorable. The later film seems less real; starting with dream-like opening shots the action on the island appears separated from reality. Critic Roger Ebert commented that Hook’s film had less impact because violent crime involving youngsters had become commonplace. He writes: ‘The story is less poignant nowadays than it once was, if only because events take place every day on our mean streets that are more horrifying than anything the little monsters do to one another on Golding’s island.’ The earlier film will still have an impact on contemporary viewers, however, as the contrast between the initial depiction of the boys and how they end up is much starker. Nevertheless, neither film can convey the complexities of the novel fully. In both films, for example, Ralph’s dialogue at the very end has been cut. It is in critical scenes such as this that the essence of Golding’s work is carved out. Both are interesting films, but neither can match the intricacy and power of their source.