Imagine, if you can, a ratings-grabbing television movie based on Nobel Prize-winner William Golding’s 1954 novel, Lord of the Flies, the classic parable of schoolboy plane-crash survivors up to no good on an uninhabited island.
How about casting Fred Savage from The Wonder Years as Ralph, the natural leader who tries to play by the rules? (Yeah, that way we can always add some voice-over narration with a little rueful adult perspective.) And then how about Sara Gilbert from Roseanne as Jack, uh, make that Jackie, Ralph’s rival who leads the kids into savagery? (Good, good. She’s got a mouth that’s mean enough. Wonder why Golding didn’t throw some girls into the mix himself.) And Savage’s sidekick Josh Saviano can play Piggy, the whiny intellectual. (Inspired. Sure, the kid’s not fat enough, but he does wear glasses.) And, say, how about Alf in a cameo as the wild beast the kids behead? (Careful, now, don’t want to lose sympathy for the little brats. Hey, whadabout, in the end, it all turns out to be a terrible dream!)
This is just the sort of nightmare Lewis Allen envisioned when, in 1983, he first learned that several television producers were talking about remaking the raw, black-and-white film version of Lord of the Flies, which he had originally produced in Puerto Rico in 1963 with iconoclastic British director Peter Brook at the helm. ”They wanted to make the kids older, they wanted to bring girls in, and they wanted an upbeat ending, something optimistic,” Allen, 67, recalls with some amazement. ”It’s an extraordinary book, one of the great metaphors of the 20th century. What they wanted to do wouldn’t have been Lord of the Flies, and by contract I would have had to remove the original film from circulation for seven years, even though it doesn’t play a lot.”
Unfortunately, Allen had no say in the matter at that time. In making the original film, he had had to purchase the movie rights from producer Sam Spiegel (Lawrence of Arabia), who retained the remake rights. And so, in a sort of preemptive bid, Allen called Spiegel and for a modest $5,000 option bought the remake rights himself. ”But I really didn’t intend to remake it,” he insists.
ICM superagent Sam Cohn persuaded him otherwise, however. A new version was soon in the works with Allen’s wife, Jay Presson Allen (Cabaret), writing the screenplay, and Michael Ritchie, who has experience both with wayward boys (The Bad News Bears) and Caribbean horror (The Island), set to direct. The project capsized, though, when the Ladd Co., where it had been set up, disbanded, and Allen reverted to a defensive posture as he continued to fend off heathen television bids.
Creative Artists agent Rosalie Swedlin resurrected the film as one of the first projects for actor-turned-director Rob Reiner’s new production company, Castle Rock Entertainment. With Harry Hook, whose only previous film was the African drama The Kitchen Toto, directing, the new, $9 million Lord of the Flies, with a cast of boyish unknowns, began filming in Jamaica in August 1988. That was just in time for the crew to be sideswiped by Hurricane Gilbert, necessitating that a storm sequence be introduced into the script to account for the upended palm trees.
The original story was updated somewhat — the beached boys are now students from an American military school, rather than British boarding — school lads, and there’s passing mention of such cultural detritus as, yes, Alf. Still, Jay Presson Allen’s screenplay hews quite closely to Golding’s novel. ”When we first made the deal, the Ladd Co. wanted to make the kids American for box-office reasons, and from a technical point of view it would have been hard to get a lot of English kids together because they don’t have the kind of summer holidays we do. But we had no real objection,” Lewis Allen says. ”When Golding was writing, the British and the public school represented the Empire, but now the power line has shifted to the States, though that’s a very subliminal point.”
As for avoiding taking the story coed, he argues, ”Girls would have brought in other elements that are not part of the metaphor. That’s one reason we chose a military school — very few of them have gone coed.”
After all the years he’d spent protecting the property, Lewis Allen’s own presence as executive producer didn’t prevent inevitable alterations in the screenplay, which led Jay Presson Allen to remove her name from the finished film. Director Hook had worked closely with Reiner in readying the shooting draft, and later Reiner again stepped in to oversee final editing — removing some of the violence and tightening up the story line. ”Jay had a lot of humor in there, which was probably not Harry’s strong point,” her husband explains diplomatically. ”It was not all that significant, but since she wasn’t in on the final rewrites she decided to back away.”
Ironically, the person who seems to have been least concerned about the prospect of a new and improved Lord of the Flies was Golding himself. After receiving a reassuring letter from Allen, who also voluntarily assigned him a profit percentage in the remake, something he didn’t receive from the original, the author wrote back saying, ”Obviously, you care more about the book than I do.”