On Screen: A Lord for the Lite Generation

Lord of the Flies

Screenplay by Sara Schiff

From the novel by Sir William Golding

Directed by Harry Hook

 

A Castle Rock Entertainment Release

What happens when a novel written by a man who believes in good and evil falls into the hands of filmmakers who believe in nothing but adjustment and maladjustment?

And what happens when the work of a literary artist who strives to distill his story to its mythic essence is brought to the screen by those who apparently have no talent for anything but mild realism and rationalistic explanation?

The answers to the above questions reside in those theaters showing the new adaptation of Lord of the Flies.

William Golding is the only complete novelist of our time. By that, I don’t mean that his vision of life is complete — whose is? — or even particularly expansive. Compared to lordly writers like Balzac or Mann, he is a monomaniac. (But that could be said of practically every writer of this century, good or bad.) I mean that, in realizing whatever vision he does have, Golding is never at a technical loss. There is no novelistic resource he cannot draw upon, no trick he cannot bring off. Description of landscape, weather, ocean, physiognomy; dialogue either stichomythic or interrupted by description or reflection; rousing physical action or the most inward of meditations; settings on desert islands or in medieval cathedral towns or on eighteenth-century frigates; objective cataloging of physical objects or philosophic discourse or symbolic stylization: you name it, Golding can do it.

But though he is rich in device, Golding is strict, indeed parsimonious, in his effects. There is nothing loose in the construction of his novels. This is a man whose idea of a good read is a tragedy by Euripides in the original Greek. And indeed, Lord of the Flies has the concentration, the limited canvas, the apprehension of traps springing shut on hapless mortals that may remind us of Greek tragedy, though in his immaculate plotting Golding is closer to the economy of Sophocles than to the discursive Euripides.

This being so, what cruel Greek god, what sadistic Olympian, what molester of the muses, seeing Golding rewarded for his honest labor with international prizes and high sales, decided to punish this mortal by placing his most famous novel in the hands of Harry Hook and his filmic henchmen?

I haven’t seen Hook’s one previous feature, The Kitchen Toto, but, judging by this movie, he seems to have one ability pertinent to this project: a talent for conveying something of the grandeur and terror of nature. Obviously this is an asset for the adaptor of a book about boys cast away on a desert island. Hook can at least get the tropical setting right and occasionally brings off an action sequence. The very first shot of the boys and their plane’s pilot struggling free of wreckage under water is a cinematic coup. And the beginning of the next scene, with the camera panning around the corner of a reef until the boys’ lifeboat comes into view, is very good. Later, there is a wonderful rendering of the dazed, sodden stillness that follows a tropical storm. If Lord of the Flies were nothing but a boys’ adventure yarn, Hook would be in his element.

But Lord of the Flies is not just a yarn. It’s about an attempt by children to maintain a semblance of civilization without the aid of adults (who are apparently busy destroying civilization proper in a world war from which the boys were being evacuated before their plane crash), and the rapid deterioration of that attempt when some of the fiercer boys create an orgiastic, violent, tribal way of life which seduces most of the other children and that has no place for anyone who won’t conform.

When it comes to rendering Golding’s characterizations, scenes of ritual and supernatural communication, and his undergirding ideas about man’s inherent propensity for chaos, Hook does nothing right. Yeats, in one of his frequent towering rages, once denounced a hapless playwright for having swathed and smothered a great theme in layers of realistic detail: “When he should have been storming heaven, he instead crawled on the floor, searching for hairpins!” That’s the trouble with this movie. Hook and his scriptwriter, Sara Schiff, were so busy making this story plausible that they allowed its power to evaporate. Or perhaps they weren’t really at ease with the source of the book’s power. Original sin? Lighten up, Bill baby.

I don’t fault Hook and Schiff for the many minor changes they have made in bringing the story “up to   date.” The boys are now American military cadets instead of British public schoolboys. Very well, this at least makes their readiness with rudimentary survival skills plausible. The dialogue is now, necessarily, laced with American slang which does no essential harm though it falls on American ears charmlessly (as I suppose British schoolboy argot falls on English ears). Topical references may have been the results of the director improvising with his young actors. But, on the other hand….

One of the most important, indeed essential scenes is the first assembly of the boys after their plane crash. They are summoned by Ralph blowing on a conch that he and Piggy have found, and this shell, held in the hand of each boy who wishes to speak, becomes the chief instrument of the embryonic parliament Ralph seeks to create. As the boys arrive, Piggy takes names: a primitive census. Rankings, duties, necessities are established. This scene, at once realistic and ritualistic, is the inciting action of the whole book: it ignites the attempt to create order.

But by the time the conch is blown in this new adaptation, most of the boys have already met informally around a campfire, have already learned the names of those who have survived the crash, have already done some exploring. So the assembly seems anti-climatic, no more momentous than a triangle rung to summon little campers to lunch. Furthermore, Hook’s staging of the scene is casual, even desultory. (I don’t remember much of the 1963 adaptation by Peter Brook, but I do remember that Brook, a stage director always fascinated by ritual and hierarchy, gave this particular scene its requisite tinge of ceremony.)

Profoundly important to the feel of Golding’s narrative is the utter isolation of the boys from the adult world, their abiding sense as they strive that they must draw upon their memories of the ways adults do things, their resignation to the possibility that no adult will show up to certify their efforts. But Hook and Schiff have perpetrated the lame-brain device of having the adult pilot survive the wreck, first to be nursed by the boys as he lies in a near-catatonic invalid state; then, after he feverishly runs off into the bush, to be feared by them as a “monster” in a cave. (They’re supposedly so convinced by scanty evidence that he’s drowned that they never suspect even for a microsecond that the cave creature is the pilot. Lameness upon lameness.) While the pilot is an invalid, the sense of a juvenile laboratory of civilization is utterly lost, because we keep wondering when this adult will take charge or when he will die. In the film’s second half, when the pilot becomes a “monster,” Lord suddenly seems to become a psycho-slasher movie, with a lurching, shadowy figure reaching out to grab the limbs of fleeing children. This sort of terror, obviously physical, cheaply visceral, is utterly alien to the sort of metaphysical dread Golding wanted his story to evoke. It’s as if Conrad’s Kurtz (in Heart of Darkness) were to scream “The horror! The horror!” because he was being attacked by Freddy from Nightmare on Elm Street.

Worse still is the consistent misinterpretation of Golding’s characters. In this film, the good boys are too good; the bad boys too quickly bad, and bad in the wrong way. The book’s Ralph is a fine, even noble boy, but he can’t help, for instance, betraying Piggy’s resented nickname to the others, and he also can’t help feeling some of the disdain the others feel for this obese, unathletic boy. Ralph is brave and capable of compassion, but he is also a public school “hearty.” His athleticism and poise are what make him a natural leader, but Golding makes it clear that Ralph must struggle to think clearly, struggle to feel deeply. It is precisely the struggle of this basically ordinary lad that finally makes him a worthy protagonist.

But, as fresh-faced and button-cute Balthazar Getty plays him, the movie Ralph is perfect. He never taunts Piggy, is unfailingly sensitive to everyone’s needs, and always comes up with the right practical and moral solutions. This kid, in fact, is ready to become secretary-general of the United Nations, if only that organization were worthy of such a paragon. Master Getty may not be Golding’s hero, but I’m sure he will soon be giving Fred Savage some competition on the covers of teen magazines.

Conversely, Jack is made the wrong sort of villain. He is turned into a sociologically explainable delinquent. Midway through the film, some boys sit around discussing Jack’s pre-castaway notoriety as a car thief. But Golding didn’t intend Jack as a sociopath. (That is the function of Roger, a character without a clear profile in this version.) Golding portrays Jack at first as a vastly energetic, mettlesome boy, who is in his own way as much a natural leader as Ralph. In fact, the two are even attracted to each other before their animosities emerge. What is wrong in Jack is simply the shadow side of what is right in him. His talent for command leads him into demagoguery. By changing him into an easily explained and easily dismissible delinquent, Hook and Schiff completely fumble Golding’s main point: civilization isn’t menaced by the perverts on its periphery; it’s menaced by us, even the best of us, when the best of us are at our worst.

Danuel Pipoly as Piggy has won some praise from critics who disliked the rest of the movie. He is appropriately cast, but I think that it is his obesity that has won him praise and not his performance, which is commonplace.

Not commonplace at all is little, self-illuminated Badgett Dale as Simon. He is quite perfect: a delicate, unostentatious boy who effortlessly projects the calm, the unwary caritas, and the vulnerability of an unfledged saint. But, because Dale is so good, he calls attention to the fact that Hook has truncated Simon’s most important scene, which is also the crystalization of Golding’s darkest thoughts about the human condition: the encounter of the vatic Simon with the pig’s head out of which a demon speaks. To bring off this otherworldly dialogue would require a Carl Dreyer or an Ingmar Bergman; a William Friedkin at least would turn it into Exorcist — like scare stuff. But poor, rationalistic Hook, crawling as always in search of hairpins, can do nothing but show us a pig’s head on a stick and amplify the buzzing of flies, No inner voices. No mystical dialogue. No vision of evil. Many who see the movie without having read the book may vaguely feel that pig-on-a-stick is meant as a symbol but few will guess its true significance.

Golding is a reactive writer. He will often create a novel to refute a book he has read. His Rites of Passage is a sort of reply to Billy Budd; The Inheritors is his literary shrug of disbelief at H.G. Wells’ portrait of Neanderthal man in The Outline of History. The writing of Lord of the Flies was Golding’s reaction against the nineteenth-century boys’ classic, The Coral Island. In Ballantyne’s yarn, three shipwrecked British boys called Ralph, Jack, and Peterkin ably cope with untamed nature, animals, and savages. No problem cannot be subdued by British pluck and decency. All the obstacles in the book are physical ones; moral dilemmas never surface. Now that is the book Harry Hook should have filmed. As an ardent photographer of nature and as a cut-and-dried realist, he would have admirably coped with the Caruso-like exploits of three uncomplicated heroes.

But alas, Hook, probably thinking of himself as an artist, and a twentieth-century artist to boot, full of existentialist torment and insight, resolved to take on a book that its author called an “attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature.” But how can a filmmaker re-trace Golding’s route when he doesn’t carry Golding’s indispensable tracking gear — a firm belief in human evil and a desperate hope for human goodness.

Richard Alleva

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At the time he wrote this review, Richard Alleva was a free-lance writer living in Washington D.C. He still works as a film critic for publications such as Commonweal today.

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