Lord of the Flies (1963) Review

“I knew that no adaptation could ever please me, but I honestly didn’t think it would be this bad.”

The other day I decided to do something that I already think was a bad idea: watch both versions of Lord of the Flies. For those who don’t know (which should be everyone, because how the fuck would you know?) Lord of the Flies is my favourite book. I’m not going to go into what I love about it because that’s a review on it’s own, but you just have to know that I do love it. The reason my decision to watch both of the film adaptations of this story is a bad one is because I am the hardest person to please. Not in a general sense, but because I like Lord of the Flies so much, any changes made to it, and there are going to be changes made to it, will stick out to me and immediately I will dislike them. Anyway, despite my better judgement I decided to watch these film adaptations anyway. This journey starts with the 1963 version of Lord of the Flies directed by Peter Brook.

Just in case it wasn’t clear, this review will be spoiling all of Lord of the Flies (both the movie and the book). If you haven’t read the book, I suggest you do so but then again my opinion is biased seeing as it is my favourite book.

I figured that these reviews would be best if I decided to structure them, so the first part of the review will be my comparison to the book, and the second part of the review will be about the movie itself. Lord of the Flies is a very special book to me because I think it is perfect. I can’t reflect upon Lord of the Flies and say that one part is weaker than any other, and that is where the problems start. Lord of the Flies is a short read, but it still takes more than a few hours. This is problematic because movies generally hover around the two hour mark, and to accomplish that with Lord of the Flies would mean to exclude a whole lot of shit. Do you see the problem? The 1963 version of Lord of the Flies for the most part did a good job of keeping as much of the story in as they could. There were some glaring omissions (like the kid with the birthmark going missing, or Simon’s hidey-hole) but overall the story stayed true to it’s original form. To accomplish this the film had to do something that kind of fucks with the story, and that is it removed all sense of the passage of time. Lord of the Flies (the book) never tells you how long the boys are on the island. The only clue you have is that Ralph is constantly thinking about how long is hair is getting, and because the book takes place during WWII you can assume that it started off relatively short. The movie on the other hand doesn’t convey the passage of time in even the boys’ appearances. If you just watch the movie you could safely assume that everything happened within the span of a week, because there is nothing to say otherwise. Maybe that escalates the stakes, shifting the boundary between man and beast even closer to us than we think, but in my opinion it gives the story less impact. The best example of a deserted island film in my opinion is Cast Away. In Cast Away Tom Hanks lands on the island, gets situated (for the most part), and then there is a cut that shows him with long hair and very little body fat. This conveys to the audience that he has been there for a very long time. All I wish is that Lord of the Flies did something similar, or at the very least have someone keep track of the days they were there. Piggy seems like the kind of guy who would pick up a rock and mark the number of nights that pass on a tree, so have him do it. Convey to the audience that these boys have been without authority figures for so long that they have gone off the deep end. Let the audience in on how dire this situation was; can you imagine being a kid stranded on an island for months? You would (rightly) assume that you’re going to die there, and that is the mindset that these kids had. I don’t know, maybe all of the kids in the movie were pessimists and just automatically assumed that they would die anyway.

Going back to what was left out of the movie, despite the broader points being covered a lot of smaller points were glossed over. These moments may be insignificant to the story overall, but they are instrumental in the audiences attachment to the characters. We never got a chance to see the slow decline of motivation from the boys. We never got to see Simon slink off on his own in order to get some peace and quiet. We barely even got Jack brought to tears over the fact that everyone on the island was betraying him. These moments, while very small, help the audience connect with these characters. In these and other small moments we see that these are just kids. For a moment they remove their survival caps and are once again helpless children. These moments are Lord of the Flies to me, and to see them forgotten really sucks. If I want to shift into what I liked about the adaptation the list is very short, but the one point I have is very strong. During the movie we obviously get to see a lot of moments brought to life and for the most part the movie dropped the ball in my opinion but one scene in particular perfectly captured the feeling of the book, and that was the dance scene. You know the one; everyone is dancing around cheering about their fresh kill and then suddenly something bursts out of the forest. Thinking it was the beastie the group relentlessly attacks this humanoid shape only to discover, way to late might I add, that it was Simon. This scene in the movie is something I can only compare to the party scene in Apocalypse Now. The pure chaos and animosity shown in this scene is absolutely fucking brilliant, and I think it perfectly captures the emotions of that scene from the book. We are thrown right into the middle of this inarticulate shouting that is cheering for the death of a living thing, and we feel it too. Both the editing and the way this scene was shot really does a good job of putting you front and center for the action, but it also captures how disorienting it was. The kids didn’t know that the beast was Simon, but they were so caught up in everything that was going on that when Jack shouted for them to kill the beast,  mob mentality took over. This scene is easily the best scene in the movie, but unfortunately it’s not enough to save it.

If I had to describe the 1963 version of Lord of the Flies in one word it would be “amateur”. To put it simply: it felt like this movie was made by the kids who were starring in it. Like some kind of school project wherein the students involved only half-care, Lord of the Flies is absolutely full of mistakes that are almost inexcusable. To start this off let’s talk about the film’s editing. Lord of the Flies has constant editing issues, and the funny thing is they seem to always over-correct them. The film is either too slow, holding on shots for about twenty times longer than they should, or too fast, cutting out key parts of a scene to speed it up (I guess). There is never a moment in Lord of the Flies where they find the happy medium of editing. Everything is always one of those two extremes that I mentioned, and it is infuriating. I have no idea what the intention was with Lord of the Flies, but if it was to make a good movie they completely missed the mark. Scenes of children sitting in frame, not saying anything for a good thirty seconds before half-heartedly reading their lines essentially sums up what Lord of the Flies consists of. Do I blame the filmmaker? Kind of. What are the two hardest things to work with in show business? Kids and animals. What does Lord of the Flies consists solely of? Kids. Who in their fucking right mind thought that Lord of the Flies would transfer to the screen, knowing that in order for it work you would have to find upwards of thirty competent child actors. And listen, I’m not shitting on child actors. I know they’re trying their best, but let’s face it: they’re not usually good. The only time that a child actor is passable (for the most part) is when they are in a supporting role. This way the camera is never really focused on them, and they just have to be cute or whatever. I think you know where I’m going with this next point but before I start I want to say that there are a few (read: two) really amazing child actors in Lord of the Flies. The two boys who portrayed Ralph and Jack, arguably the two most important characters of the story, fucking nailed it. The pure emotion that Ralph and Jack were able to show because of these brilliant performances was amazing, but unfortunately you had literally every other actor bringing them down. Constantly missing their mark, fucking up the timing of a scene, reciting lines as though they were reading them off of a piece of paper; all of these traits and more you can see if you watch Lord of the Flies. I can appreciate that all of the scenes of crying were cut from the film because if there is one thing worse than a child actor, it’s a child actor pretending to cry. Every single boy on this island looked as though they didn’t want to be there, and not in the way that they were supposed to. Piggy might be the most egregious simply because in my opinion he is one of the most important characters in the book. This motherfucker had absolutely no heart in his performance, and because of that the character of Piggy was gone. We never got to see the hurt in his eyes when Ralph spouted out his mean-spirited nickname to the group. We never got to see the simultaneous hate and fear he had toward Jack. All of these moments that made Piggy “Piggy”, were lost to a terrible performance. I will admit that it must have been hard to give a good performance when you had to deliver most of your lines through terribly implemented ADR, but to say the performances in Lord of the Flies left something to be desired would be a terrible understatement.

Lord of the Flies is a book that is very close to my heart. I knew that no adaptation could ever please me, but I honestly didn’t think it would be this bad. Like come on, the 1963 version of Lord of the Flies was released by The Criterion Collection; obviously that means that it’s an amazing film and I’m just a pleb who doesn’t understand cinema, right? Sarcasm aside I think that the 1963 version of Lord of the Flies does a terrible disservice to not only the book, but to the people watching it. Not only is the story butchered to fit it into a ninety minute runtime, but the film is full of technical blunders and performances that will absolutely kill your joy of the film.

I give Lord of the Flies (1963) a C

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