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The Scrivener: Lord of the Flies – 7

…Film adaptations can sometimes disappoint, when they change a story, move the setting, leave out characters, and change the plot. The makers of this film do not seem to have understood the novel or realised that it is an allegory…

Brian Barratt thinks that Howard Hook's 1990 film of “Lord Of The Flies’’ failed to understand the meaning of William Golding’s novel upon which it was supposed to be based.

This is the seventh in a series of eight articles about one of the most significant novels of modern times. To read the previous six, and many more articles by Brian, please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/the_scrivener/

And do visit his Web site The Brian Rummager www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

The Lost Beast

Peter Brook's 1963 black and white film of "Lord of the Flies" is sometimes referred to as the British version, to differentiate it from Howard Hook's 1990 colour version. It is, however, an American film. With one exception, the 30 boys with clear British English accents were selected from about 3,000 hopefuls who lived in the USA and the Caribbean. The exception was Hugh Edwards, who applied for the role of Piggy from his home in England and was immediately accepted. Just one of the boys, James Aubrey who played Ralph, went on to a career in acting and films.

A write-up on the website of the British Film Institute points out that Peter Brook:

...opted for an entirely non-professional cast, with impressively convincing results. Though performances are far from flawless, the more technically polished efforts of drama school pupils might have undermined Golding's key theme: that civilisation is merely a paper-thin façade which, when removed, leads to chaos.

The film very closely follows William Golding's words. A major diversion occurs when Hugh Edwards (Piggy) tells a group of littluns (little ones) about his home town in England. This sequence, not in the novel, happened spontaneously and was recorded on film.

I first saw the Peter Brook film in London in 1964, the year after its release. It had an X classification, mainly because of the violence it depicts but perhaps also because there is some nudity. I watched the Howard Hook 1990 version on television in Melbourne in 1995, in spite of what a local critic had written about it. The critic was correct. Film adaptations can sometimes disappoint, when they change a story, move the setting, leave out characters, and change the plot. The makers of this film do not seem to have understood the novel or realised that it is an allegory.

For a start, the group of putatively innocent choirboys became a troupe of American military cadets. The whole meaning of the allegory was destroyed at that point. Furthermore, to hear the head boy referring to another boy as "shit head" not only removes the boys from their very British background — it shatters any idea of a good education and also of prior sanctity.

A major underlying motif in the novel which does not appear in this film is the mysterious and threatening unknown "beast" in a tree. It becomes a "monster" in a cave. The eerie visual image of the "beast" hanging in the tree, which remains in the viewer's mind after seeing the Peter Brook film, does not appear in this version. Again, important symbolism is lost, along with the primordial fear instilled in the boys' minds by visions of the "beast". The young cadets' monster could be a bear of even a Martian, which is a far cry from the terrifying subliminal images hinted at in the novel. Perhaps the film makers had not read that sentence about "the darkness of man's heart".

Another major change is the appearance of the badly wounded adult "captain" whom the boys try to care for until he runs away, in a delirium, and into the cave where he becomes the unidentified "monster". There can be no rational excuse for this apparent attempt to "explain" what the beast actually is.

Peter Brook's film depicted so much simulated violence, we might wonder how it affected the boys themselves. Tom Gaman, who at the age of 11 played the role of the ultra-sensitive Simon, expressed his thoughts about this in 1998.

...I am proud of my role as Simon, and always have been.
...What a wonderful opportunity it was as a child to live and to help create a classic and timeless film that asks fundamental questions of human nature.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2009

Items listed at the end of Part 1 of this series, plus:
Brook, Peter, All I Wanted, notes accompanying Criterion Collection DVD of "Lord of the Flies".


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