When you first encounter William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” the political allegories go flying right over your junior-high head. They certainly did for me when I wrote a book report on Golding’s dystopian classic in ninth grade, preferring to focus, as many first-time readers do, on the excitement and novelty of a group of kids crash-landing on a deserted tropical paradise.
(Our teacher, like many before her, seemed to favor a slightly different interpretation, that the book confirmed her belief that we were a classroom of savages that should never be left alone. One extended trip to the mimeograph machine in the teacher’s lounge might result in finding a pig’s head on a stick when she returned if she wasn’t careful.)
I even used still photos from Brook’s 1960 film in my report. Later on, I re-read the book, saw the 1990 version and connected better with Golding’s theme of the savagery underneath the surface of civilized man, lurking and waiting for a reason to surface.
But I didn’t properly understand the context of “Lord of the Flies” until I saw the Criterion Collection’s new edition, out on Blu-ray this month. The aftermath of Britain’s in two world wars, where millions of young men were sent to suffer, and to do, things no man should ever do was still fresh.
The opening credits make that explicit, with still photos bombers juxtaposed against the laughing faces of schoolboys. I had forgotten that Golding’s story takes place against the backdrop of a third world war, and the planeload of schoolboys has been evacuated from a devastated Britain. The plane crash-lands on a desert island (Puerto Rico in the film), only the children survive.
The boys attempt to create a democratic and fair society, but are undermined by a splinter faction that pursues a more violent and dictatorial path. (Interestingly, the totalitarians are a group of choirboys, and seeing them march down the beach in full regalia is surreal and eerie.) Order breaks down, the strong subjugate the weak through intimidation and fear, and Golding’s bleak vision of the human condition is complete.
The new 4K restoration really brings out the rough grittiness of Brook’s film, which he shot documentary-style entirely on location using non-professional actors. The use of non-professionals is something of a mixed bag; some of the kids are simply not good actors, and deliver dialogue with the stiffness of performers in a school play. But, on another level, there’s something effectively unnerving about that stilted quality, as if these really are boys lost in the wild, and not characters in a movie.
The extras include a commentary track from Brook, cinematographer Tom Hollyman and editor Gerald Feil, as well as a deleted scene and behind-the-scenes footage. The Blu-ray also includes newer interviews with Brook and Feil, and a 1980 talk show segment featuring Golding talking about his inspiration for the film.
There’s a flatness, a matter-of-factness, to Brook’s version that loses the feverish quality of the source material, but that appears to be by design. The book invites the reader to look deep into the darkness of man’s soul, while the movie puts that darkness on full display, in bright sunlight, in a world of laughing, fighting boys.