Sunday, July 21, 2013

Kill the Pig

My standard and no doubt obnoxious line about William Golding's 1954 novel Lord of the Flies is that next to Richard Hughes's similarly themed A High Wind in Jamaica from 1929, it's kind of a pile of garbage. Apart from Golding's prose being lugubrious and Hughes's decidedly not being that, what it comes down to is using something that is observable as fuel for an allegory and fueling something that is observable with genuine understanding. Lord of the Flies does the former. I read both novels as an adult, and there's really no contest, although when it comes to film versions of both novels all a cinematic adaptation of Lord of the Flies needs to do to top Alexander Mackendrick's gutless take on A High Wind in Jamaica from 1965 is keep its head down and not make any trouble. Of course, the Hughes novel is a nearly forgotten obscurity, and therefore more vulnerable to the kind of vivisection that's meant to discover the secret of popularity, but vulnerable or not the film we're left with is a travesty. Lord of the Flies, on the other hand, is an established classic of the Western world, and consequently much harder to monkey with. After a bit of a false start immediately following its publication, it had reached this status by 1963 when Peter Brook first turned it into a film.

That film has just been released on Blu-ray by Criterion, and I had the chance to watch it last night. Through this film, my dislike of Golding's novel has transcended into something close to ambivalence. I mean, the basic premise, that of plane carrying a group of English (this is important) schoolboys crashing on a deserted island and leaving the children, who are the only survivors, to descend into savagery, is pretty much a can't miss idea. But while A High Wind in Jamaica is about the natural, human, casual, and ignorant cruelty of children, Lord of the Flies is about "We British think we're so great, well think again, bub." This is decidedly less interesting, to me anyway. And being this, a story with a point, or message, shortcuts must be made to get there, so that what's compelling about the idea is given short shrift. Furthermore, Peter Brook and his crew seem to have approached the material with the thought that somebody was bound to make this movie, so it might as well be them. Much of the film lacks imagination, in my view, and this is surprising given Brook's reputation -- my only other experience of Brook's work is his film adaptation of the Peter Weiss play Marat/Sade, which is not the kind of film you make because you crave mainstream acceptance. Not that Lord of the Flies does feel like that kind of film, but it's also not going to allow you to miss its point. To begin with, composer Raymond Leppard's score has essentially two modes: lazily martial, in a "our trumpets are satirical" sort of way, and lazily tribal, in a "our drums are foreboding" sense. I can't remember, Golding's novel feeling hazy to me even as I read it, if Golding hammered on this particular nail so ruthlessly, but the withering simplicity of all this makes me wonder if it to some degree explains the somewhat curious fact that this rather horrifying story has been a required-reading perennial in schools for the past half century.

In any case, the premise being can't-miss and all, Brook's unwillingness to break away from That Which Needs to Be Said makes much of the movie feel like a formality. In the first third of the film, a group of schoolboys led by Jack (Tom Chapin), whose nasty charisma will lead most of the kids into savagery earlier than they might otherwise have, go off to kill a pig for food. The subsequent eating scene is simply ridiculous, with Brook piping in loud chomping and sucking sounds that never convince that they could possibly be coming from these images -- even if they did, it's too early going for me to accept that killing for food, and for survival, adequately tips off the horrors to come. At the same time, there is something about the loose style Brook employs that allows for glimpses of natural and naturally weird child behavior, and the loony ways a child off to the edges of the action will start twisting his body and making odd faces, just for something to do. Similarly, if their is a casting triumph here, it's Hugh Edwards as the notoriously ill-fated Piggy. As seemingly untrained as everybody else in the cast, Edwards is nevertheless able to naturally be himself, and his brief monologue about the facts behind the name of Camberly, his hometown, is both hilarious and so well-written that it feels like Brook just planted the camera down and told Edwards to tell his Camberly story. Which maybe he did.

Obviously, this film, and Golding's novel, wouldn't be so frustrating if I thought it was a complete wash. One strong memory I have from the novel is of a sequence involving one boy walking through the forest and coming upon the severed head of a pig stuck on a post and covered with flies -- I thought it was the most effective bit, and Brook vividly translates it here. A greater success is nighttime beach bonfire, with the Jack-led children running wild and throwing fire and losing their heads in frenzy that will culminate in the story's first death. In the film, it's pretty blood-curdling, and it seems clear to me that Brook, as a film director rather than a herder of children, is most at home when simulating chaos. For a brief stretch, his Lord of the Flies feels as Satanic as its title implies. But the allegory-above-all philosophy is too overwhelming, and is perhaps best illustrated by the choice (originally, I've been reminded, from Golding) to make some of the children -- the bad ones -- eventually wear tribal war paint. The belief seems to be that native tribes that do paint their faces or bodies do so only because, well, they're natives, and it seems like the thing to do. As if there was no cultural significance to the colors or patterns they choose. So that when a group of white English kids find themselves free of adult supervision, plus there's trees everywhere, in a matter of days they're painting their bodies, because of savagery. It's a meaningless nothing of a symbol that thinks it means everything in the world.


Jonathan Stover said...

"what it comes down to is using something that is observable as fuel for an allegory and fueling something that is observable with genuine understanding. Lord of the Flies does the latter."

Unless my brain is fried, I think you mean 'former', not 'latter'.

bill r. said...


John said...

I didn't know you felt that way about the book, Bill. It surprises me a little, because for me it's one of the first books I remember where I really felt like the characters I was reading about came alive, in a way. As little people with minds of their own, rather than just a bunch of names being shuffled around by the author. Kind of like watching a bunch of bugs trapped in a jar, each a different mix of confusion, fear, and just plain meanness, the group dynamics seeming to arise naturally from this spread of personalities. All the more impressive to me now, considering the story's strong allegorical overtones (though how much of that reputation, I now wonder, was intended by Golding, and how much of it has just been imposed on the book by decades of grade-school-level analysis).

The movie I don't have much recollection of, though I must have seen it a couple of times (none of the other versions, though, I'm pretty sure). In any case, I don't recall feeling any more enthusiastic about it than yourself.

But your remarks about the war paint and so on seem a little unfair. These are a bunch of kids we're talking about here, after all. Even with only your description to go on, I figure it's just the kind of thing kids (especially kids at an age when they probably still play "cowboys'n'indians" or whatever) would be likely to do, in that situation, without giving much thought to the matter.

bill r. said...

But only the "bad" kids put on the paint, only the ones who are shown to tip fully over into "savage." It's clearly intended to mean something.

John said...

I'm not so sure. But even if I accepted the idea, there are other possible interpretations. Perhaps infinitely many, depending on how set you are on reading some intent into the material.

The "savages" were mostly the older, stronger kids in the overall group. If anything, the face painting would suggest to me they were finding the whole situation a bit of a lark, that they were playing at fierce hunters and probably enjoyed putting a scare into the other group.

And that other group was mainly just a bunch of little boys, the youngest, the weakest and the most timid of the bunch. Social outcasts, in effect, most of whom, unwilling or unable to fend for themselves, ended up joining with Jack's bunch by the end of the book, I believe.

To me, if there's a lesson to be found there (not that I tend to care even when there is), it's about the corrupting influence of power, the strong preying on the weak, by force or by rigging the system to serve their own purposes, a situation that no civilization on earth has been immune to, or probably ever will.

bill r. said...

Okay, but keep in mind the focus of this post is on the film, where the intention is impossible to miss. Maybe my memory of the novel is hazy (though I'm told by someone who reread it not long ago that it's pretty much the same as Brook's film), but even if it is I have no doubt that I'm reading Brook correctly, because I don't think you can read him incorrectly.

Charla said...