It sounded like a recipe for vulgarity, if not outright disaster: Take William Golding’s 1954 novel about a group of British schoolboys who descend into savagery when stranded on an uninhabited island and do a contemporary American update. The first surprise is that it works at all. The second surprise is that it works better than Peter Brook’s 1963 English version did.
Brook’s film, shot in black and white, had a rocky, ascetic plainness. Here, the English director Harry Hook (The Kitchen Toto) goes in the opposite direction: His island is an orgy of lush, towering greenery rendered in a swift yet luxurious hyperrealist camera style. For a while, the movie is stilted and unconvincing (in reaching the island, none of the prepubescent kids even cries). But then the drama begins to settle in.
From the outset, these rock-‘em, sock-‘em American kids are far cockier — more casually amoral — than Golding’s genteel British schoolboys were. They’re closer to their ids to begin with (even if they do resemble the junior division of the Dead Poets Society). The solid, ingenuous Ralph (Balthazar Getty) now seems a bit of a stiff. He’s right to want to keep the signal fire going, yet it’s easy to see why the wild, irresponsible Jack (Chris Furrh, in a charged performance) commands respect. He’s a strutting young narcissist, a party animal. Who needs adults when you have pigs to kill?
If Golding’s novel about the Beast Within Us All remains a schoolroom perennial, that’s probably because it’s the first book most of us encounter that makes symbolism seem fun. Beneath all the pigheaded allegory, it’s a damn good story, a yarn. Yet when you read it in the eighth grade, it also made you feel like an adult.
The symbolism is still too literary to translate well to the screen. Much of it seems hokey and anachronistic too — especially the business with the conch and the entire character of Piggy (Danuel Pipoly), who comes off here as a big, blobby crybaby and hardly the representative voice of reason. Still, as staged by Hook, the story retains much of its fairy-tale power. As a novel, Lord of the Flies never was much more than a Brat Pack Heart of Darkness. It’s doubtful a screen version could be any better than this one. B+