Lord of the Flies: the Novel and this Post
Lord of the Flies, by Sir William Golding, is one of my favorite novels. Published in 1954, it tells the story about a group of British schoolboys who are evacuated during an unnamed war. Their plane crashes on a deserted tropical island. As the boys await survival, they agree to work together and maintain civility as best as possible. However, fear and terror soon set in, and without any adult supervision or guidance, the boys eventually succumb to chaos and brutality.
Like many high school students, I read this book in English class. I didn’t enjoy it at first. I was a slow reader back then, and I grew frustrated with Golding’s style of seemingly page after page of description slowly building up to a short burst of action at the end of the chapter, only to repeat this cycle in the following chapters.
In 1990, I saw the Harry Hook’s version of the movie and really enjoyed that adaptation, which prompted me to re-read the book. I appreciated the subsequent readings more each time, this book soon became a favorite. When I worked as a teacher, I taught this novel and paired it with the 1990 movie. I felt I had come full-circle with this classic story, and it was time to move on from it.
Fast-forward to 2017 and my final summer class of my graduate studies. I am taking Digital Nostalgia, a study of how contemporary digital media influences society to be nostalgic for past media sources (video games, movies, shows, toys, etc.). Week 4’s assignment is the “epistemology (the investigation) of the remake.” Our goal is to pick a favorite show, movie, or game that has been remade, and compare it to the original to understand why it was remade, what changed, and who was its target audience. What immediately popped into my head when I saw this assignment on the syllabus? The Lord of the Flies movies.
I will analyze the two movies by comparing and contrasting the portrayals of the two main characters: Ralph and Jack as plays out in the story to the other boys hinges on the combustive relationship between these two boys.
An Overview of the Movies
Peter Brook’s movie was released in 1963. It was a black & white film that closely followed the novel in terms of plot, character development, and dialog. In fact, Brook did not even use a screenplay, instead relying exclusively on the dialog from Golding’s novel (Macek, “Have Mercy: ‘Lord of the Flies‘”). Brook’s cast was made up of unknown, unprofessional talent (Presley, “Film adaptations of Lord of the Flies“).
In 1990, Harry Hook’s version was released. While it tells the same basic story that Golding and Brook told, and also used unknown child actors (Presley, “Film adaptations of Lord of the Flies“), Hook’s movie made several deviations:
- The boys are American military academy cadets instead of British schoolboys.
- The captain initially survives, but flees the camp in a delirious state only to be mistaken for the beast and killed by Jack’s hunters.
- The boys are extremely vulgar, and constantly taunt and bully each other.
- There are cultural and political/social references tie film to 1990 era (“ALF” TV series and Russians/Cold War).
Ralph vs. Jack
Early in the story, Ralph and Jack appear to work together to console the younger boys when they speak at an early assembly. In both movies, Ralph is more compassionate and concerned with the boys’ well-being; Jack voices support, but only for the need of rules and a fire.
Ralph and Jack quickly disagree over the main priorities, which leads to the disintegration of the main group. In the 1963 movie, despite their differences, Ralph and Jack initially remain civil toward each other, yet Jack appears to be emotionally wounded by Ralph’s rejection.
Where the Jack in the 1963 movie always appears intelligent, even cerebral, the Jack in the 1990 movie is fiery, combative, and aggressive. The following clip illustrates this when Jack breaks away from the main group.
Decent into Chaos and Brutality
The rift between Ralph and Jack forces Ralph to attempt to preserve rules and order so they all can be rescued. However, for Jack and his hunters, they are free of such civilized trappings allowing them to live more primitively and savagely.
As seen in the previous clip, the hunters start to paint themselves. In the 1963 movie, the painting of the faces is portrayed as more like child’s play with no serious meaning behind it:
In the 1990 movie, the face painting is more somber and ritualistic:
Even though Jack left the main group over Ralph’s insistence on rules and order, Jack demands that the hunters follow his rules. When they are not, he administers violent punishment.
In the 1963 clip, the punishment is seen more as a game to Jack as he is laughing and really not paying attention (or he is morally corrupt and cold and unable to feel any empathy).
Watch Jack’s reaction as he presides over the whipping in the 1990 movie:
What was the meaning behind Jack’s grimace? Was he actually feeling a short-lived moment of regret, or was he simply engrossed in the primal justice? It seems like the 1990 Jack may still have a bit of a conscience, but he is too far along on his power trip to admit he was wrong.
The escalating strife between Ralph and Jack ultimately leads to the “accidental” death of one character (Simon) and the intentional murder of another (Piggy). WARNING: The following clips are graphic!
Both movies vividly depict the chaos and brutality that has engulfed the boys. Both movies also clearly show the shock on the boys’ faces, including Jack and his hunters, over what happened. However, this does not end the rift or the violence.
As graphic as both scenes in both movies are, the 1963 film turns its eye away from the bloody aftermath of both scenes. Yes, you see Simon’s and Piggy’s bodies washed away to sea, but you do not see the gruesome gore captured in the 1990 movie. My guess is Hook felt it essential to force the audience to experience the gore just as the boys did in order to better feel the shock they felt.
I also think the 1990 movie does a better job of continuing the rift between Ralph and Jack when Ralph tells Jack he won’t get away with murder and Jack’s rebuff and challenge. This is pivotal because the next scene is the hunt for Ralph and ending when the boys are finally rescued.
In both movies, Jack and his hunters are determined to rid the island of the last remaining semblance of civilization, rules, and order, which is Ralph. Again, both movies do an excellent job of showing the shock on the boys’ faces when they see the adult at the end. The boys must finally come to terms with what they have allowed to happen.
So, who was the intended audience for the 1990 remake of Lord of the Flies? Was it those who were familiar with either the original novel or the 1963 movie? Both? Neither? For Hollywood, the answer is all of the above:
The epistemology of the remake is related to the dual motivations for this filmic trend, those being to both appeal to viewers who knew and loved the original texts and will pay to see the newest “re-imagining,” as well as to inculcate an interest in these older texts for new audiences who are possibly too young to know the original.
(Lizardi, Mediated Nostalgia, p.124)
If catering to those who were familiar with the novel and the 1963 movie was Hollywood’s motive for the 1990 movie, it backfired with critics and audiences alike (Keema, “Lord of the Flies Movies: 1963 vs. 1990“). Some believe it was because of the deviations that Hook made from the source novel in order to “…have more resonance with modern audiences, particularly viewers in the United States,” (Presley, “Film adaptations of Lord of the Flies”). According to Lizardi, “…remakes are saturated with homages to the original…the remakes are designed to speak to those already familiar with the original,” (p.126). Despite the numerous homages to the 1963 movie and the novel, the changes Hook made to modernize the movie cost him as those already familiar with the story did not buy into the changes and were left longing for the older movie and original novel.
But what about those who may have experienced Lord of the Flies for the first time by viewing the 1990 movie? According to Lizardi, “…the remake is designed with enough unintelligible referents and homages to inculcate the uninitiated viewer with a retroactive desire to see the original,” (p.127). This is where Hook’s attempts to modernize the story may have paid off by attracting a younger audience who was more interested in a compelling story ripe with visual splendor, suspense and shock than whether this version was true to the original. For the price of admission, which was on average $4.22 in 1990 (NATO, “Annual Average US Ticket Price“), they simply wanted to be entertained.
Which version do I prefer? I like the 1990 version better. I think the 1963 movie is good, but it is a bit stilted in its delivery at times, and I feel the dialog isn’t natural. I think most of Hook’s updates work. I didn’t have any issue with the boys being American military cadets instead of British schoolboys. Having taught middle school, the constant taunting, aggression, and foul-mouthed nature do resemble boys of this age group (though perhaps not quite to this extreme). I found that more plausible and easier to see how the boys descended into utter chaos. Jack was simply an adolescent bully, and a more believable one in the 1990 movie. Overall, the 1963 and 1990 movies have their strengths and weaknesses, and both effectively re-tell Golding’s classic tale.
Keema. “Lord of the Flies Movies: 1963 vs. 1990.” keema creates. October 3, 2016.
Lizardi, Ryan. Mediated Nostalgia: Individual Memory and Contemporary Mass Media. Lexington Books. 2015.
Macek III, J.C. “Have Mercy: ‘Lord of the Flies.'” Pop Matters. September 6, 2013.
National Association of Theater Owners (NATO). “Annual Average US Ticket Price.”
Presley, Nicola. “Film adaptations of Lord of the Flies.” William Golding. January 23, 2011.