Wednesday, September 8, 2010

"You're a beast, and a swine, and a bloody, bloody thief!"

Lord of the Flies (1963)

Peter Brook's 1963 adaptation of William Golding's classic novel Lord of the Flies is a very good film. It is a dark and cynical work, powerful and thought-provoking. It is able to contain much of the rich symbolism of a literary work while being incredibly cinematic, and it strikes an excellent balance between the two. The message of the story rings dark and true. Lord of the Flies is a poignant meditation on human nature and the dangers of self-government and the abolishment of rules and regulations. It says that people need leaders, rules, and laws, or else we will all sink into barbarism and become nothing more than beasts. At one point a character brings up, right before his death, a powerful thought: is it better to be a voice of reason, to think things through with intelligence... or to just be mindless hunters and killers? Most of the boys choose the latter, leading to destruction, death, and despair.

That is what I think the story of Lord of the Flies is getting at. That, if left to our own devices and selfish intents, we would turn into barbaric savages and ultimately destroy ourselves - right after we totally destroy our humanity. We need law and order, for humans are too weak, selfish, and violent in nature to survive without it.

The movie follows a group of English schoolboys who crash land on an island and have to learn to live and survive together. A boy named Ralph takes charge, and he is for awhile the voice of reason in the group. However, the boys seem easily swayed. They don't seem fully loyal. The only innocent seeming boy in the group is a boy cruelly nicknamed Piggy for his fatness; Piggy wears glasses, is intelligent, and has asthma, and is pushed around and abused by the other boys. Ralph tries to protect him, but he cannot. Not always.

A boy named Jack, leader of the choir, comes in with his choir boys, and they all become hunters. They at first seem to be the most "civilized" and pretentious of the bunch, but are soon revealed to be the most savage and brutal of all. They kill, at first, for food, but then seem to do it for fun. Jack causes a mutiny against Ralph, the voice of reason, and under Jack's leadership, the boys become savages. The movie shifts almost into horrific territory as they cover themselves in paint, dance around fires like heathens, and kill the only people that seem innocent on the whole godforsaken island.

The novel is well-known as a striking allegory full of rich symbolism. Much of this is translated to the screen. The conch shell, representing order and fairness. The Beast, representing the savagery in every man, was perfectly explained in the movie.

However, one symbol that went sadly unexplained was the actual "Lord of the Flies" itself - the bloody head of a pig impaled upon a stake, flies buzzing around its severed face. From research I have done, I know that this symbol was expanded upon in the novel, but here, it is not. I have read about an essential scene in the novel - foreshadowing the death of Simon at the hands of the boys - dealing with this "Lord of the Flies." It is sadly left out of the movie.

I loved what the film was trying to say, thematically, and I loved the fact that the movie was an intelligent allegory full of rich symbolism. In short, I loved Lord of the Flies because it was thought-provoking and agreed, to some extent, with my current worldview. I have never read the novel, but plan on reading it soon. However, I feel that the movie did a very good job of getting the point across. I also loved the imagery of the movie and the movie's feel and tone.

There are many great scenes in the picture; one in particular that I liked immensely came near the end of the film. The boys, led by Jack, dance like heathens around a fire, screaming like savages. There is an energy and a life to this scene even more so than the rest of the picture, and the imagery is incredible. Fire illuminates the crashing waves of the ocean, which then sink back into shadows. Fire flickers in and out as it is swung across the night sky by the dancing boys. Flames encircle them as a sort of baptism by fire, for after this they are total savages, and begin to murder in cold blood.

The shots are all composed in interesting ways; Peter Brook's approach to shooting the movie, with multiple cameras recording simultaneous action, along with the low-budget of the movie and the filming taking place on an actual island, almost give Lord of the Flies a documentary feel. Many of the shots have a lot of head room on them, mostly taken up by trees, foilage, rocks, waves, and forests. Perhaps what Brook was trying to say was that nature dwarfs us all - whether it be our external or internal natures.

If I could change one thing about the entire movie, it would be the ending. I personally feel that the rescuing of the boys by the adults diminishes the impact of what the story is trying to say. The boys are rescued and we are to assume that they are taken off of the island and toss aside their barbaric ways, learning and growing in the process. The power of the story's theme is then diminished, at least for me. Lord of the Flies is about how, without the constraints of society, man will turn into a beast, an animal, and will become barbaric. It is about how we are really just violent, vicious animals, and only a few voices of reason - and ties of unity - are the things that keep us from becoming nothing but hunters and killers. It is a story about the ugly side of man. It is an extremely cynical work. The hopeful ending does not fit with the tone. The message of the movie is then not as powerfully felt. A more cynical and dark ending would have been far more appropriate. I believe that the ending is handled better in the book than in the movie here, but I would not know; I have not yet read William Golding's Lord of the Flies, and must judge this movie based on the film itself, alone.

Peter Brook's Lord of the Flies is a captivating movie with a running time that speeds by and never stops for a breath. It is a powerful allegory and a dark and cynical story, told incredibly well in a cinematic way. It is a technically marvelous film. It looks good and, until the very end, it feels right - in a dark and cynical way. I thoroughly enjoyed the performances, the story, the symbolism, and the themes, and the imagery in the movie is quite indelible and marvelous.

I was wondering why, throughout the film, Jack and his choir boys kept singing, of all songs, "Kyrie," a hymn from a requiem mass. And then I realized, perhaps, that they were singing it as another metaphor. The "Kyrie" in a requiem is the second movement, the one before the "Dies Irae" - the day of wrath, of judgment. The choir boys under the twisted leadership of Jack are just one step away from fire, chaos, and damnation - the wrath of the final judgment. Musically, they echo this. They are one step away from the precipice.

Aren't we all?

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