Peter Brook, now 88 and generally thought of as one of the most innovative theater directors of the past century, has been directing for the stage for 70 of those years. His contributions to film are usually minimized, and, in fact, he has all but abandoned the medium for the past quarter-century. He did make a dozen or so films, but these were often adaptations of stage work. His work with Paul Scofield on King Lear was superb, and I had the good fortune to see both his Tony Award–winning stage production and his film version of Peter Weiss’s truly mesmerizing and revolutionary Marat/Sade. That being said, Lord of the Flies strikes me as being especially cinematic. Brooks seemed to thrive on being liberated and in a real environment with juvenile non-actors and improvised dialogue; the resulting work seems almost semi-documentary. Brooks is faithful to the spirit of William Golding’s novel, but one also senses the imaginative presence of producer Lewis M. Allen, who went on to produce films like Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 and Carroll Ballard’s Never Cry Wolf, not to mention a 1990 remake of Lord of the Flies.
This was the first novel by William Golding (1911–1993), and it tends to obscure the dozen that followed. There is an obvious lineage from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with “The Beast” a clear descendant of Caliban. (Julie Taymor’s recent film of the play is shot on a craggy island resembling Brook’s.) Brook, like Golding, is somewhat obsessed with history and mythology. In 1964, one year after Lord of the Flies, he presided over the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Theatre of Cruelty Season,” resonating with ideas of Antonin Artaud and featuring Marat/Sade (starring Patrick Magee and Glenda Jackson), his take on the famous Marquis’ re-creation of the anarchic French Revolution during his incarceration in the lunatic asylum of Charenton. (The Brook production, which incorporates some very memorable music, also owes much to another of his predecessors, Bertolt Brecht.)
Lord of the Flies, of course, is about anarchy and how that thin veneer we wear of what we refer to as “civilization” is threatened by the attractive clarion call of bestiality and its accompanying hatred. In some sense Golding and Brooks seem to invoke H. G. Wells’s novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, and specifically Erle C. Kenton’s 1933 film version, Island of Lost Souls. In that movie, Charles Laughton’s mad experiments physically transform his victims into half-beasts, causing Bela Lugosi to invoke the plea, “Are we not men?” In Lord of the Flies, no surgery is necessary. The lack of immediate adult supervision and the surfacing of primeval fear seem to be enough to bring out the prepubescent or adolescent fascism in nearly all the boys.
Frankly, rereading the book and re-seeing the film in recent weeks, I couldn’t help thinking of the simultaneous and parallel events transpiring in the House of Representatives, where there seems to be no adult authority. In the movie, there was a gradual tendency among the boys toward nudity. Fortunately for all of us, we have been spared this in Congress…so far. The next step, however, might be following the boys’ lead on war paint. As Golding says, Ralph’s declining band of “civilized” boys “understood only too well the liberation into savagery that the concealing paint brought.” In the book, when Ralph tells his fascistic rival, Jack, “You aren’t playing the game,” the “tribe of savages giggled, and Ralph’s mind faltered.” The game, ultimately, is majority rule and fair play, and Golding’s book and Brook’s film (and the House of Representatives) remind us how dangerous and tenuous that game is.