Sunday, 14 November 2010

On re-reading Lord of the Flies

I, like so many of you reading this, had to read Lord of the Flies at school.  I loved the majority of my English lessons and had a truly superb English teacher, who is largely responsible for the fact that I’m now studying for a doctorate in Eng Lit.  However, I was always a little suspicious of set texts and disliked the way we would waste entire lessons reading out the text with each of us taking a part (unless I had a really big role, in which case I loved it).  Hearing some of the greatest works in English literature read in faltering (sometimes incoherent) tones by bored teenagers who were more concerned with other matters was depressing and uninspiring.  The good students read the book themselves at home so it was an entirely pointless exercise.
            Lord of the Flies was different to many of the other set texts on the English curriculum.  For one thing, it was far more modern – forty years old when I was studying English – and it seemed so much more relevant to us as young people than many other texts.  It contained at least one swear word – ‘bollocks’ – which was a source of amusement and the murders of Simon and Piggy were shocking and violent.  I remember that even the students who didn’t excel at English and barely had any involvement in the class seemed genuinely fascinated by this story of societal breakdown and children’s descent into violence.  This is, of course, the enduring power of this book: its ability to reach out and grab the reader and disrupt our pre-conceived notions of childhood innocence.
             I read and studied Lord of the Flies at the age of fourteen and regularly cited it as one of my favourite books.  Throughout my 20s, I taught the book in various guises – tutor and youth worker – and saw that it still struck resonantly with young people but I didn’t actually re-read it.  I concentrated on particular passages either for answering essay questions or to provide an example of disintegrating behaviour.  So, at the age of thirty, I undertook to read Lord of the Flies again.  I wondered whether studying and teaching the book over the years had diminished its achievement. The main narrative is so familiar to those who haven’t even read the book before; Lord of the Flies has influenced so many aspects of popular culture, for example, the television series Lost and Survivor, episodes of The Simpsons and South Park and the title is now a synonym for survival situations and savage behaviour.  Would a second reading elicit literary surprises? Would I simply read in anticipation of key famous events such as the finding of the conch, the encounter with the beast, the murder of Piggy?
            Having completed my reading, I can answer with a definitive ‘yes’ to my first question.  Lord of the Flies is still an immense literary achievement and the narrative so perfectly paced from start to finish.  Golding creates a number of characters, similar in age and background, but manages to give each boy their own distinct personality (perhaps with the exception of Sam and Eric, but really they are classed as one anyway).  The character that is perhaps most interesting is Roger, who is truly menacing even before the group splits into two. He watches the ‘littluns’ play in the sea and begins throwing stones at one of them, although he aims to miss.  Golding writes, ‘There was a space around Henry, perhaps six yards in diameter in which [Roger] dare not throw.  Here, invisible and strong, was the taboo of the old life.  Round the squatting child was the protection of parents and school and the policemen and the law.  Roger’s arm was conditioned by a civilisation that knew nothing of him and was in ruins’ (67).  Roger shows here that, although he is still constrained by society’s rules, he wishes to cause harm to others, including those he can dominate by size.  Roger eventually pushes the stone that will kill Piggy.  When the boys are rescued, I wondered what sort of person Roger would become, as he is the only boy amongst the survivors to deliberately commit murder.   Although most of the boys are involved in the slaughter of Simon, they mistake him for the ‘beast’ in the dark and excitement of the bonfire.  Would Roger be able to forget his atrocious act?  Had he strayed so far beyond acceptable and lawful behaviour that it would be impossible to exist in ‘decent’ society? Was he inherently evil?  These are questions that the reader cannot answer but show the incredible vividness and believability of Golding’s characters.
            To answer my second question, I suppose I did read the novel in anticipation of the key events.  This is surely inevitable when re-reading any novel, particularly such a well-known one.  However, because I did know what was coming next in the novel, I was able to appreciate the clues placed by Golding to future events and the subtleties of the changing nature of some of the boys.   For instance, the pretend attack on Robert in Chapter seven when he acts like a pig and the other boys circle around him prefigure the attack on Simon.  When Robert, rubbing his sore ‘rump’ reminds the boys they need to find a real pig to kill, Jack jokingly suggests they ‘use a littlun’ (127).  In the same incident, Roger is ‘fighting to get close’ to Robert the ‘pig’ (126).
            The concluding part of the novel – Jack and the savages chasing Ralph after smoking him out of the undergrowth – loses none of its intensity when the outcome is known.  To say I ‘devoured’ this part of the book is horribly clich├ęd and overused but I read these final nine pages at a blistering pace.  And I know the end!  There is something quite extraordinary in the pacing of this last chapter with long descriptive paragraphs detailing Ralph’s predicament, disrupted by short, stand-alone sentences for Ralph’s thoughts: ‘Think’.  ‘Hide then’ (216-7).  The final ‘reveal’ of Jack as ‘a little boy who wore the remains of an extraordinary black cap on his red hair, and who carried the remains of a pair of spectacles at his waist (222)’ jolts the reader back into reality; the horrors on the island have been committed by children.  Only the arrival of an adult can provide this perspective. 
            I’ve read some reviews on the internet – prompted by the poor film adaptation in 1990 – that say Golding’s novel no longer has the power to shock because of various tragedies that have occurred.  Incidents such as school massacres and gang killings have shown that children and young people are capable of murdering each other.  However, regardless of events that occur in our ‘real world’, Golding’s novel has not lost any of its tragic beauty and remains a haunting allegory.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Lord of the Flies on Film

When William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was published in 1954, it met with almost universal critical acclaim.  By the 1960s, the novel was also a phenomenal commercial success, particularly in America, where the book had captured the imaginations of undergraduates and become a set text on many literature programs.  From its initial publication, a number of studios, both British and American, were interested in the film rights although the violence depicted in the novel meant that any film adaptation would only receive an ‘X’ certificate which studios were unhappy with.  Eventually, the theatre director Peter Brook secured a small amount of funding to make the film, which was released in 1963.
            Brook’s film is entirely shot in black and white and filmed on an island off the coast of Puerto Rico.  Budgetary constraints meant that he couldn’t bring boys from England so he cast the film ‘from English boys who happened to be closer to hand’ (John Carey, William Golding: The Man who wrote Lord of the Flies, 274).  The majority of the boys were not ‘actors’ as such, and the script was largely improvised.  In addition to the inexperience of the child actors, many of the crew members had never been involved in film production before.
            All these elements contribute to the power of the film and its documentary-like feel. The background to the crash on the island is dealt with in a series of stills featuring quintessential shots of English schoolboys followed by images of evacuation, planes and warheads.  Much as Golding’s original text did not delve into the detail of this war, the film also offers little explanation for the war.  Brook clearly identifies that the action on the island is at the heart of this story rather than the background. 
The film is generally faithful to Golding’s original text; many of the lines spoken come directly from the book.  Brook ensures that the audience can distinguish between the boys by having the main characters introduce themselves at the beginning of the film.   The scene where Jack and his singing choir walk across the beach in harmony is prophetic of events to come and when Roger introduces himself, those viewers ‘in the know’ can sense something different about him.  The bullying of Piggy begins in this all-important scene, as does the struggle for leadership and power between Ralph and Jack.  Simon faints at the meeting and Jack tells the others that this is a frequent occurrence, thus setting Simon apart from the others.  The quality of the performances from the child actors varies considerably throughout the film but the actor playing Jack (Tom Chapin) is superb, bringing just the right amount of arrogance and imperiousness to the role.   
One notable aspect of the book missing from the film is Simon’s conversation with the pig’s head.   Of course, this would be difficult to film without looking ludicrous, particularly without the benefit of special effects or CGI.   However, Simon stares intently at the pig’s head and the camera lingers on the pig’s mouth, perhaps giving the impression of conversation.  After his encounter with the pig’s head, Simon discovers the truth behind the beast and rushes back to the beach to tell the others.  This scene, when Simon returns to the boys who are all dancing around the fire chanting ‘kill the beast’ and is beaten to death, is emotionally intense and beautifully shot.  It is dominated by the screams of boys, the heavy impact of sticks and the crashing of either thunder or waves (perhaps both).  As we see Simon’s dead body in the sea, the camera pans to lights reflected in the ocean backed with haunting choral music.
The final chase sequence at the end is exhilarating.  Jack’s group chase Ralph through burning foliage, getting progressively louder as they begin to catch up to him.  This cacophony of sound is abruptly quieted when Ralph runs into a man on the beach.  The arriving sailors survey the boys in bewilderment as Ralph cries into the camera.   The final scene does disappoint me in one respect - the naval officer does not speak when he finds the boys.  In Golding’s novel, the officer at first thinks that the boys have been playing until Ralph tells him that two boys have been killed.  The realisation of the savagery and war on the island leads to the officer’s ironic statement, ‘I should have thought that a pack of British boys…would have been able to put up a better show than that’ (LOTF, 222).   It is surprising that Brook chose to omit this particularly as Jack says early on in the film, ‘After all, we’re not savages.  We’re English’.
Despite this small disappointment, the film is a wonderful adaptation of Golding’s novel and one that Golding himself approved of.  Golding’s daughter Judy states that she felt ‘her father was very impressed by Brook’s film’ (Carey, 275).  To read more about Brook’s thoughts on the film follow this link
Unfortunately, the same praise cannot be applied to the second adaptation of Lord of the Flies.  Released in 1990 and directed by Harry Hook, the British public school boys have been replaced by American military cadets.  Many critics have complained about the change of nationality but I think the biggest problem lies in making the boys military cadets.  Cadets would have been taught basic survival skills and would be used to following orders and therefore would find surviving on the island far easier than Golding’s schoolboys.  The chain of command on the island already seems established before their initial meeting with the younger children calling Ralph ‘sir’. When Ralph declares himself to be chief, Jack concedes with almost no protest, making his later demand for power rather inexplicable. 
 The boys in Golding’s novel appear to be strangers when they crash on the island (with the exception of Jack’s choir) but in Hook’s film, they appear to know each other.   This makes it difficult for the viewer to differentiate between the majority of the boys – they aren’t introduced and due to a lack of distinguishing features, appear almost homogenous. Piggy endures a similar level of bullying in the film as he does in the book but Ralph explains to him that this is because he is the ‘new boy’.  Piggy is bullied in the novel because of the way he looks and his priggish behaviour, not because of any prior conflict or relationship.    
The major factor in the novel that propels the boys into savagery is the fact that there aren’t adults.  As Ralph says, ‘There aren’t any grown-ups.  We shall have to look after ourselves’ (36).  However in the film, the pilot is rescued from the sea and lies in a tent, seriously injured but alive.  These boys are not by themselves and the pilot’s presence is entirely unnecessary.  Some of the children discuss what to do about the man, implying an act of violence, so he escapes from the boys’ camp and hides in a cave.  When he is eventually spotted, he becomes the ‘beast’.  Before his escape, Simon is charged with looking after the pilot and in an attempt to show that Simon has some kind of special ability, he has foreboding dreams of death, bordering on the prophetic.  However, Hook entirely fails with the episode with the pig’s head; it is inappropriately described by Jack as a ‘present’ [which just sounds plain wrong] for the ‘monster’ and Simon’s encounter with the head is quickly dismissed.
The major flaw of the film, aside from the boys being military cadets is the character of Jack.  As discussed above, he seems happy to let Ralph be leader but when more details are revealed about him, it transpires was forced to be in the military cadets because of a previous misdemeanour.  Thus Jack is a ‘criminal’ before the crash on the island and therefore already has the capacity to commit savage acts.  This entirely misses the point of Golding’s novel; the book has such an impact because these are ordinary boys who are driven to behave in such a way because of a lack of authority and consequence for their actions.  Although Golding’s Jack is clearly arrogant and haughty, he is the head boy of his school, which suggests that he is well behaved and a figure of respect. 
All in all, neither of the film adaptations are perfect but Brook’s 1963 film comes closest to realising Golding’s vision.  It is a beautifully shot and enthralling dystopian nightmare.  Hook’s 1990 film is, to be frank, best avoided.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Review of John Carey, William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies

Review of John Carey, William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies (Faber and Faber, paperback, 2010).

When reading John Carey’ absorbing biography of William Golding, one is struck by the sheer amount of material that survives in the Golding archive.  As a researcher, it is easy to imagine Carey’s delight to have access to such an eclectic, important, and to date, uncatalogued collection.  Writing a literary biography can often be a fraught and complicated process; the biographer may face opposition from the subject’s estate, fail to gain permission to quote extensively from the original works, or even face opposition from the subject themselves.  One of the most famous examples of this is Ian Hamilton’s lengthy pursuit of the reclusive J.D. Salinger, which led to Salinger unsuccessfully attempting to block publication of the book.  My own research examines the work of the poet Sylvia Plath about whom countless biographies and memoirs have appeared, the majority of which (some, quite rightly so) have not been allowed to quote fully from Plath’s work and several which have faced legal challenge from the Plath estate.  Even the biography that is considered ‘approved’ by the Plath estate (although unofficially) is mired in controversy.  William Golding himself explored literary biography in his novel The Paper Men which features a young professor Rick Tucker desperate to write the biography of writer Wilfred Barclay.  Tucker is determined to get his hands on Barclay’s private papers and Barclay appears to be just as determined in eluding him, leading to a pursuit around Europe and a fatal ending.
 Fortunately, Carey has no such concerns while undertaking his research and the finished product is exemplary in its use of archival material and reminiscences.   He has access to Golding’s journals, letters, unpublished manuscripts and support from Golding’s friends and family.  The material is brilliantly handled and assimilated by Carey, and crucially, he allows Golding’s words to speak for themselves, refusing to even correct Golding’s poor spelling.  This is in direct response to Golding’s journal entry in 1982: ‘it’s a moody-making thought…that some bugger will either silently correct my spelling, or even worse, interrupt the text with brackets and sic in italics.   But my bad grammar and bad spelling was me’ (x).
Every aspect of Golding’s life is explored chronologically, from his early childhood split between Cornwall and Wiltshire, through to his career as a schoolmaster, marriage and family and finally, life as a writer.  Carey does not shy away from revealing details about Golding that portray him as a negative character; for example we learn that he made an attempt to rape a girlfriend in his teens, that his relationship with his son was often difficult, and that his dependence on alcohol caused numerous problems with his family and friends.  We also gain a portrait of an immensely clever man, whose desire to write could not be silenced, and a writer who challenged literary conventions, often in defiance of previous criticism of his work.   Golding was awarded the James Tait Black Prize, the Booker Prize, the Nobel Prize and a Knighthood; and he was the recipient of these accolades despite being described by Oxford Dons as ‘not quite a gent’ (57).  Indeed, the biography is also a fascinating read as an example of the class boundaries in England in the twentieth century.
The chapters that discuss the writing and development of his many books are of immense interest.  Of course, Golding remains most famous for his first novel Lord of the Flies, but this is to the detriment of his many other works which are always strikingly original and in many cases, defy categorisation because of their depth and brilliance.  Nonetheless, the story of how one of the most-read novels of the twentieth century was rejected by so many publishers and was only rescued at Faber by a young editor, Charles Monteith, is as unbelievable as it is fascinating.  Lord of the Flies was well received in England after its publication in 1954 but went out of print in the United States.  However, by the early 1960s, the book became a phenomenal success and required reading in many schools and colleges, of which it still is today.  Carey guides us through the euphoria of the acceptance of Lord of the Flies but also shows us the burden that the success of Lord of the Flies had imposed on Golding.   As Carey writes, ‘Golding [had] complicated and resentful feelings about his first book’s enormous success, which had dwarfed everything he wrote afterwards’ (363).
The chapter that I found most useful as a companion to one of Golding’s novels was the chapter on Pincher Martin, written around 1956.  The book is truly a work of genius and in fact, the reader does not recognise just how tremendous the book is until they reach the final page.  Even then, the reader needs to turn back to the beginning and start all over again to fully appreciate, as Frank Kermode puts it, the novel’s ‘dense interweavings of image and reference’ (201).  Reading about the development of Golding’s plot and his understanding of the main character is crucial for any reader of Pincher Martin.
John Carey’s William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies is a remarkable achievement.  It should be essential reading for anyone interested in Golding’s work and in twentieth century literature. For those readers who have only read Lord of the Flies this book is a great introduction to the others, but, of course, no substitute to the novels themselves.   One hopes that the publication of this biography will stimulate more interest in the work of this hugely original and successful writer.