Books have been providing filmmakers with ideas ever since fiction films were first invented. There is after all a series of silent Shakespeare and our most famous movie monsters come out of 19th Century Literature. In 1954, William Golding would publish his magnum opus Lord of the Flies and, like any good book published in the age of movies, it was optioned for adaptation. In 1963 a film was released directed by Peter Brook to critical and commercial success. Now in 2017 The Criterion Collection brings it to Blu-ray, so should this disc be shot down and left stranded like the boys in the tale or is it worth rescuing this classic story.
Lord of the Flies follows the original novel very faithfully. A group of British school boys are being evacuated from some unknown conflict by plane when it is shot down over the sea. The boys all survive, or at least we think so, and thus they start to discuss what is to happen. An election is held for a leader, a boy named Ralph beats another boy Jake, the head of the choir. Ralph and his advisor Piggy decide to make the choir into hunters and that a signal fire should be lit. Everything seems to be in order, but, when one of the younger boys mentions a strange beast hiding deep in the forest, the boys find that the scariest thing on the island will come from within.
Golding’s story is a classic tale examining the innate savagery that resides within us all. The movie does a good job of conveying that message both visually and through character dialogue. The progression of how the kids look, the make-up and the state of their clothes outlines their descent into savagery.
The cinematography does a lot as well. There is an almost guerrilla/ documentary style of filmmaking that gives the events of the film a cold reality. It looks stark in the black and white high definition presentation that The Criterion Collection restored from a 4K digital transfer. This coupled with a great score and a central theme that takes on a more sinister tone as the film progresses, Lord of the Flies still looks and sounds great. Though I will say that the sound was a little crackly. This isn’t the fault of Criterion and they do a perfectly serviceable job in dealing with the issues thanks to an uncompressed monaural soundtrack.
However, that is not to say that the 1963 version of Lord of the Flies is not without its problems. One of the main problem lies on the shoulders of the cast. Now ragging on child actors is nothing new but it must be brought up when a film’s entire cast is comprised of young boys. This is not to say that they are all bad and the main three boys, James Aubrey (who went on to be a professional actor) as Ralph, Tom Chapin as Jack and Hugh Edwards as Piggy, all have moments of brilliance. It’s just that the film is tainted by a layer of slightly stilted and awkward performance that comes from most child actors. I know it is unfair to criticise children for their lack of experience in front of a camera, but when you are relying on all children to carry the film they need to be at least less noticeably wooden.
Now the blame for this cannot be laid squarely at the child actors’ feet, after all the director must also be held responsible for poor performances, and Peter Brooke may well be to blame also. He is mainly a theatre director, and the film certainly leans toward the more theatrical in terms of style, cadence and performance, which heightens that slightly off child acting, taking you out of the film. Overall, however, Lord of the Flies still holds up as a great adaptation of one of the best works of modern English literature. The acting lets it down slightly, but it is sort of to be expected when there are that many children on set.
Outside of the film itself, Criterion has laid on a veritable feast of bonus features. There are two commentary tracks; one from main crew members, director Peter Brook, producer Lewis Allen and cinematographer Tom Hollyman. This is a pretty standard track in which filmmakers share stories and the techniques behind the film. But it is the other track that is perhaps more interesting. It is a reading of the novel by William Golding, played over the relevant scenes, which demonstrates the accuracy of the film and how a book can be adapted into a film. There are also hours of interviews, deleted scenes, featurettes and documentaries about Lord of the Flies that makes the purchase worth it thanks to the reams of extra content.
Finally, the disc itself is constructed with Criterion’s standard menu layout. Very easy to navigate and with clear headings and subtitles for those who need it. There are no glitches in the audio and video, which is to be expected from a company as prestigious as Criterion.
Criterion’s Blu-ray release of Lord of the Flies is a fine adaptation of classic fiction that is well made and entertaining, even if the acting is a little stilted by today’s standards. It more than justifies itself as a film that should be part of any interested cinefile’s collection. This is helped by the lashings of extra content that is presented in Criterion’s own user friendly and technically sound way.
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