Wednesday, March 7, 2012
Book vs. Movies: Lord of the Flies (1954/1963/1990)
I moved around a lot as a kid, and between all the schools I attended, somehow managed to never read William Golding's Lord of the Flies. I did see the 1990 movie in an English class once, and its influence can be felt throughout modern pop culture, so I finally set aside a few hours for it recently. I must confess my disappointment, because as with many classics, the storytelling is flat and the much imitated plot too secondhand familiar to truly involve me. Even with that understanding, I don't find the book to be terribly well constructed. It's fairly brief and to the point, employing one-dimensional characters to serve a dour view of humanity. The times the telling isn't matter-of-fact, the prose turns flowery to temporarily obfuscate a relatively obvious truth to offer some slight element of suspense. Verne's Two Years' Vacation passes through Conrad's Heart of Darkness on its inevitable and largely uncontroversial path to the Young Adult library. Is it any surprise adult authority figures like to hand this to children at the early stages of puberty, just as their thoughts turn to feuding, rebellion, and the sway of base hormonal urges? They surely hope to sway all those little Ralphs from Jack toward Piggy.
The scenario is simple. A group of English schoolboys survive a plane crash that strands them unattended on a deserted island. The jungle provides for basic necessities, but from the very beginning the tatters of their clothing represents a thin and unraveling connection to the civilized world. The most obvious intellect is rejected and scorned, and a fair-haired leader is selected mostly for looking the part. Ralph proves a poor, distracted whiner of a chief. Only after his rule breaks down does he seek council and embrace deep thought, too late as it turns out.
I was struck early on by how cinematic the book was, and I don't mean so much the strong visuals as its reading like a screenplay. The dialogue is accurately superficial for boys, but their interior monologue isn't much deeper. There's enough to give an actor motivation, but the performance would be expected to imbue the soul of life the text lacks. The story feels like stage direction, getting the performs from point to point, describing the visuals for set decoration. The story gets its message across through action, not explicit explanation. On paper, the tepid book reads like a great movie, and seems like it would translate seamlessly unabridged. It's ironic then that the two actual film adaptations cock it up so badly.
Peter Brook's 1963 version starts well on an artistic note. Recordings of school lectures and the like play over images from British academia, followed by ominous music and cold war imagery, concluding with a cheeky sparsely animated take on the plane crash. Aside from the boys being too neat, the jungle too tame, and the budget to skimpy, Brook captures enough of the novel to get by at first. However, it doesn't take long to recognize that his actors are completely inadequate, and his compensatory editing to amateurish. These kids are being spoon-fed strips of dialogue, or are reading from a page while off-screen, and the resultant performances are woeful. The parts are not well cast, particularly the uncharismatic Ralph and relatively fit Piggy. The production quality is so impoverished as to seem "Sweded" in modern vernacular. For instance, in the book, Ralph and Piggy discover a seashell that must be unearthed and pried loose from some muck by a lever. The hard won artifact becomes the "conch," a symbol of power among the tribe, but most especially for the initial duo that worked to gain it. In both film versions, the kids are just walking along a beach and the conch is just sitting there in the clear shallow water.
Harry Hook's 1990 version spends more money in its opening minutes than Brook probably had for his whole production, but it still seems slight. It also has the sad distinction of committing infidelity against the book from its opening shot. The book offers the striking visual of a burning scar across the face of the island that uproots trees and scatters children all about. Hook starts with an injured drowning pilot being rescued by Ralph as he and all the other boys climb into a newly inflated raft. Since everyone is already together, the conch gathering is rendered that much more meaningless, and Ralph's election as chief isn't the least bit arbitrary. He's already a hero, he immediately takes charge of the situation, he's the most handsome, and he was a colonel amongst a group of boys entirely from a single military academy. Did I mention this version is by and about Americans? Did I even have to?
In the book, Ralph isn't a particularly kind or intelligent boy, and his inadequacy as leader is made clear when a reasonable initiative gets tragically out of hand due to his lack of forethought. Brook omits the incident almost entirely, while Hook uses it as another opportunity to make Ralph a typical hero. How tone deaf could these productions be to omit a pivotal event that informs and ultimately foreshadows the rest of the damned story?
Hook is especially galling, because he has a far superior cast, but screenwriter Sarah Schiff insists on putting the wrong words in their mouths. In a misguided attempt at modernization, she gives the book the Stand By Me treatment, sprinkling in curse words and stock personalities. The dialogue and plot deviations not only completely undermine the essence of Golding's novel, but fail to develop the characters beyond his archtypes while inserting a bunch of rehashed crap from other movies. In fact, she simply paints the characters as more sharply black and white, dumbing the material down. It seems like Schiff felt there wasn't enough dialogue, so she inserts a bunch of jibber-jabber while ignoring the source material. It's just moronic nattering to fill the air.
Another important sequence from the book involves a signal fire being allowed to go in favor of hunting. It's a turning point for Ralph, as it shows the depths of his frustration with the tribe and a schism in his relationship with Jack. Brook is fairly true to the book, but fails to take the time or cast the talent needed to sell the moment. Hook is far worse, as the screenplay turns the start of a relationship's problems into the breaking point. It serves Schiff's compulsion to make Ralph a stoic and Jack a hooligan, and casts aside chunks of the book's narrative so that she can insert dream sequences and a subplot involving the surviving pilot wholly invented for the 1990 film to literalize a matter best left to the imagination. Again, let's make everything stupid and obvious for the U.S.A., even the act structure.
Despite some of the problems with Peter Brook's editing related to his child actors, there's no doubt in his directorial eye. You can pause the 1963 film at any random point and be treated to a crisp, stark image. Simon is the best handled character in his film, probably because he has few lines and the tweaked character allows them to be delivered awkwardly. Simon is the star of another essential sequence from which the book derives its name. While Brook can't capture Simon's vision quest fully, what is on film is potent. Later, as Jack's tribe has its barbecue, Brook does an excellent job of capturing the disorientation and atavistic frenzy that would mark the night.
Meanwhile, Harry Hook's direction is pedestrian, and his take on the barbecue does nothing but telegraph any actual tension out of the sequence. Sarah Schiff's screenplay renders Simon a cypher, so there's no investment in his character as he simply goes through the motions of serving the audience hamfisted exposition. Both movies treat Ralph and Piggy with kid gloves, pulling them out of the action. Given the pussy move, its funny that both movies leave in lines best left excised, though the '90 edition makes Ralph such a sensitive soul that it kind of works. He and Piggy are such sweethearts in that version, it's almost as romantic as Jack's mocking in the novel would make you think.
While the 1963 film is generally superior, it falters toward the end. The pace is too slow, and the naturalistic style doesn't work for action sequences. As Ralph comes into focus, the charmless actor does inspire viewer support. The big finale is a rush to cover the lack of much actually going on in somebody's overgrown backyard. Where the film needs to end on a gut punch, it is instead a sad spectacle of reach outstripping grasp. Almost to saw the tip off the point, this was where the filmmakers decided to drop all of the closing dialogue from the book.
Meanwhile, the 1990 flick finally pays off on its devotion to tropes. By making the entire tribe a bunch of monkey motherfuckers, the sensitive Anglo-Saxon lad must overcome devastating tragedy to triumph against all odds, the lovechild of Alan Alda and John Rambo. Music swells, stunts are coordinated, flames flicker in slo-mo, all that shit. You still don't quite get the proper "fuck you" of the book, in part because of the horrible music over the closing credits, but it's still a damned sight better than the previous try.
All in all, I think audiences will get the gist of the story no matter which incarnation they are exposed to. The 1990 film hangs on to a naively idealistic humanist concept fairly alien to the book, and paints everything in simplistic tones. On the other hand, its more coarse language and contemporary style make it the easiest sell. The 1963 film is gorgeous to look at, and is more faithful to the book, but comes off as somewhat silly and cheap. Ultimately, the old adage of the book being better than the movie still holds, but only because of some less than stellar attempts. I honestly do think Lord of the Flies' natural medium is film, but it needs better filmmakers to get the job done.
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