Lord of the Flies

Director: Peter Brook
Screenplay: From the novel by William Golding
Stars: James Aubrey (Ralph), Tom Chapin (Jack), Hugh Edwards (Piggy), Roger Elwin (Roger), Tom Gaman (Simon), Roger Allan (Piers), David Brunjes (Donald), Peter Davy (Peter), Kent Fletcher (Percival Wemys Madison), Nicholas Hammond (Robert), Christopher Harris (Bill), Alan Heaps (Neville), Jonathan Heaps (Howard), Burnes Hollyman (Douglas), Andrew Horne (Matthew)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1963
Country: U.K.
Lord of the Flies Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Lord of the FliesWilliam Golding’s 1954 allegorical novel Lord of the Flies has been a mainstay of high school and college reading curricula for decades, and it regularly appears on lists of the greatest novels in the English language, yet in recent years it has become one of the most misunderstood of great novels. Too many people have begun to dismiss it on the grounds that Golding’s vision of British schoolboys on a deserted island descending into savagery no longer holds power because the atrocities that take place on the page don’t hold a candle to the real-life stories we seem to hear every day about violent acts committed by children (right now on CNN there is a story titled “The Secret World of Teen Cartel Hitmen”).

The problem with this argument is that the shock of children acting like beasts was never the point. Rather, it was the idea that civilization and its organized refinement and curtailment of our behavior was no match for the inherent evil of human nature. As Golding put it, “The theme is an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature,” and human nature doesn’t change. The point of Lord of the Flies isn’t to shock us with violence, which is the province of cheap horror, but rather to disturb us with a simple, unadorned story that illustrates how savagery is not just the defect, but the default, of human nature.

The brute simplicity of Golding’s dark adventure story is almost perfectly captured in Peter Brook’s film adaption. Brook, a daring and unconventional theatrical director by trade, took an experimental approach to filming Lord of the Flies, eschewing anything resembling a slick, studio product and working instead with a rough-hewn, cinéma vérité aesthetic of improvisation, immediacy, and vitality. Brook has repeated in numerous interviews over the years, “All I wanted was a small sum of money, no script; just kids, a camera, and a beach,” which pretty much describes the purposefully shoestring production. Brook’s approach was certainly daring, and it yielded both benefits and flaws. Shot over several months on a Caribbean island with a cast of amateur actors, Lord of the Flies has an organic sense of place and character that is reminiscent of the best of Italian neorealism (the film was shot in continuity, and the character’s costumes were allowed to deteriorate in real time during the production). The black-and-white cinematography has a newsreel quality that helps ensure that the lush, raw beauty of the primordial jungle doesn’t overwhelm the story. Brook and cinematographer Tom Hollyman give the film an additional edge by mixing its overall caught-in-the-moment documentary aesthetic with carefully planned out tracking shots and subtle zooms.

Interestingly, the film opens with a heavily stylized montage of still images that suggest the world has once again descended into war, ending with a downed airplane in the ocean that has stranded 30 British children ranging in age from 6 to 13 on a deserted island. Establishing immediately that the world is at war is crucial in that it provides true context for the children’s behavior: When they start shedding their clothing, painting their bodies, sharpening spears, and chanting “Kill! Kill! Kill!,” are their actions really any different from the adult world from which they have ostensibly escaped? They may be on an uninhabited island, but they bring their inherent violence with them.

While the children at first work together for their mutual survival, voting on everything with make-shift democracy and setting up a system of rules, it isn’t long before the group starts to fracture into competing tribes, one led by the level-headed and seemingly decent Ralph (James Aubrey), whose main goal is to keep a signal fire at the top of the island lit, and the other led by the increasingly bloodthirsty Jack (Tom Chapin), who wants to hunt and uses scare stories about a “beast” lurking in the jungle to scare the others into siding with him. In effect, Ralph wants to get off the island and back to the world he knows, while Jack wants to become one with the primeval jungle, where he is truly free to unleash his inner sadist.

Yet, while Ralph and Jack are pitted against each other—one wanting to maintain the vestiges of civilization and the other embracing naked savagery—Brook emphasizes their similarities, as well. Crucially, he lets us see that Ralph, despite representing the civilizing impulse, still embodies the kind of casual cruelty that is the first step toward the dehumanization that Jack embodies. The first person Ralph meets on the island is Piggy (Hugh Edwards), a sensitive, intellectual, overweight boy with glasses who confides in him the mean nickname he hates and begs him not to tell the others, which Ralph promptly does. Thus, although Ralph is eventually aligned with Piggy as the story’s combined voice of reason, his thoughtless, mean revelation of trusted information for a cheap laugh forms the foundation on which the other boys stand in ridiculing and ostracizing Piggy—and eventually much, much worse.

Brook’s unconventional approach to the film eschewed a script and instead favored improvisation directly from the novel. The film follows the novel’s narrative trajectory quite closely, although the intensely realistic visual approach made it almost impossible for Brook to include some of the book’s more mythical and potentially surreal episodes, particularly the scene in which a quiet, pensive boy named Simon (Tom Gaman) thinks that a decapitated sow’s head that has been stuck on a stick in the ground as a gift for the “beast” is speaking to him. Golding used this episode to make explicit the book’s themes, but Brook discards it completely, allowing the literalness of the action to pick up the slack.

The result is a deeply effective film that captures the essence of Golding’s fable while also transforming it into something more directly tangible. Brook’s approach has its weaknesses; the sometimes rough nature of the editing, which pared down 60 hours of footage to 90 minutes, draws too much attention at times, and the disconcertingly false sense of sound, which is meant to be impressionistic, is sometimes at odds with the intensely realistic tone of the imagery. Yet, even with those flaws, Lord of the Flies captivates in the same way Golding’s book does and holds us in its rough grip, shaking us with the painful revelation of our own flawed nature. As Brook put it in his autobiography The Shifting Point, “My experience showed me that the only falsification in Golding’s fable is the length of time the descent to savagery takes.”

Lord of the Flies Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Lord of the Flies is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.37:1
AudioEnglish Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • Audio commentary by director Peter Brook, producer Lewis Allen, director of photography Tom Hollyman, and cameraman Gerald Feil
  • Audio recordings of William Golding reading from his novel, accompanied by the corresponding scenes from the film
  • Deleted scene, with optional commentary and Golding reading
  • Interview with Brook from 2008
  • Collection of behind-the-scenes material, including home movies, screen tests, outtakes, and stills
  • Excerpt from a 1980 episode of The South Bank Show featuring Golding
  • New interview with Feil
  • Excerpt from Feil’s 1973 documentary The Empty Space, showcasing Brook’s theater methods
  • “Living Lord of the Flies,” a piece composed of footage shot by the boy actors during production, with voice-over by actor Tom Gaman
  • Trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring essay by film critic Geoffrey Macnab and an excerpt from Brook’s autobiography The Shifting Point
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJuly 16, 2013

    This is the third release of Lord of the Flies from the Criterion Collection, the first two being a 1990 laser disc and the second being a DVD in 1999. As each release improved on the previous, so has this new Blu-Ray, which features a restored 4K digital film transfer, supervised by editor and cameraman Gerald Feil, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack. The 4K transfer was made from a 35mm composite fine-grain and a 35mm duplicate negative, while the digital restoration work was done in 2K. The resulting image is superb throughout, with first-rate detail, contrast, and black levels and virtually no signs of age or wear. While the film was made on a low budget, the imagery is consistently impressive, and Criterion’s excellent technical work on the transfer has it looking better than it has since its initial theatrical release. As with the previous releases, the decision has been made to frame the film in the original camera negative aspect ratio of 1.37:1, even though it was screened theatrically at either 1.66:1 or 1.85:1 (I imagine that the open aspect ratio is Brook’s preferred mode, and it is clearly Feil’s preference since he supervised the new transfer). The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35mm optical print track. While I have never been a big fan of the film’s impressionistic sound, which to me detracts from the immediacy of the imagery, it is presented here with commendable fidelity.
    Criterion’s Blu-Ray release adds to the impressive assortment of supplementary material that appeared on both their laser disc and DVD. The previously available material includes a fantastically informative audio commentary by director Peter Brook, producer Lewis Allen, director of photography Tom Hollyman, and cameraman Gerald Feil; lengthy excerpts from an audio recording of William Golding reading from his novel, which you can listen to while watching the corresponding scenes from the film; an excerpt from Feil’s 1973 documentary The Empty Space, which showcases Brook’s theater methods; a deleted scene with optional commentary and Golding reading; an extensive collection of behind-the-scenes material, including home movies, screen tests, outtakes, and stills; and the original theatrical trailer (the laser disc also included the trailer for Harry Hook’s 1990 film version, but that is omitted here, as it was on the DVD). New to the Blu-Ray is a 2008 interview with Brook; an excerpt from a 1980 episode of The South Bank Show featuring Golding; a new video interview with Feil about the film’s complicated production; and “Living Lord of the Flies,” a video piece composed of never-before-seen footage shot by the boy actors during production with new voice-over by actor Tom Gaman (who played Simon) reading from an essay he wrote in 1998 about his experience making the film. The insert booklet contains the same excerpt from Brook’s autobiography The Shifting Point that was included with the laser disc and DVD, as well as a new essay by film critic Geoffrey Macnab.

    Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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