MOVIE REVIEW | The Lord of the Flies (1963)

In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “On a technical, film making level, The Lord of the Flies is inept, at best.”

Flies 1
“We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not savages. We’re English! And the English are best at everything!”

Way past the average age for discovering this classic novel, I didn’t read The Lord of the Flies until I was in my mid 30s.  But better late than never, because when I finally did read it, I loved it.  It also made me track down a movie version and watch it the same night I finished reading it.  That version was the modernized, American adaptation made in 1990.  I thought it was nothing short of amazing and one of the best examples of a book to screen adaptation I have ever seen.  I agreed with pretty much every single choice it made about what to change, what to keep and what to cut out.  But reading reviews, I found that a lot of people in 1990 thought it was kind of subpar compared to a much more faithful, English adaptation made in 1963.  So, I tracked down a copy of that version, and it turns out, those people were monumentally, egregiously and confoundingly wrong.

After an overlong montage of cheap, badly shot, even more terribly paced still images setup the story, we learn that it’s the Second World War, that the students of an English boys’ school have been evacuated, and that their plane has crash landed somewhere in the middle of the ocean.  The only survivors, 30 or so students aged no more than 12 or 13, find themselves on a desert island.  Scattered and disorganised, the first two boys to find each other are Ralph (James Aubrey) and Piggy (Hugh Edwards).  Finding a shell on the beach that Piggy calls a conch, Ralph blows into it, creating a beacon like horn to assemble the rest of the kids.  Including Jack (Tom Chapin), the leader of the choir and Head Boy, who believes leadership is rightfully his.  But a quick election from the assembled boys sees Ralph named chief, which Jack graciously accepts, and they begin building shelters and working a signal fire for their hopeful rescue.

Soon dissatisfied with taking orders, Jack is placated when Ralph agrees to let Jack and the choir be the in charge of the signal fire and hunting wild pigs.  The group’s tenuous grip on order quickly loosens, to the point where Jack and his cohorts are so busy hunting and exploring, that they let the fire go out at the same time that a plane, and potential rescue, are flying directly above.  Jack doesn’t take well to Ralph’s admonishment for the fire’s neglect, and his long brewing resentment boils over, leading to breaking off with his own tribe.

I am struggling to find a single good thing about this adaptation of The Lord of the Flies.  It’s faithful to the novel, so if you think that’s important, there’s that.  But I’d rather it works as a movie first and a strict adaptation second.  I feel like director Peter Brook was so concerned about sticking to every letter of the book, he never bothered worrying about anything else.  Things like cinematography, pacing, editing, or acting.

On a technical, film making level, The Lord of the Flies is inept, at best.  There’s no evidence of scenes ever being rehearsed, planned, staged or thought about in any way.  It’s like Brook just decided a certain scene would happen on any old random piece of beach, then he’d plop the camera down where he was standing, and point it his cast as they woodenly and phonetically recited the lines, with no regard for what the words actually meant.  Shots don’t cut together in any sort of coherent way, and the editing is more about lingering on cutaway shots to avoid syncing dialogue obviously recorded long after filming, than it is about creating energy or momentum.
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Also, the acting is atrocious across the board.  I know it can’t be easy to cast a movie when literally every single character is between the ages of about eight and 13, but this is just a next level shit show of deer in the headlights stiffness.  I have a feeling that the only direction Brook ever gave his young cast was that emotion is conveyed through volume.

The Lord of the Flies
Directed By – Peter Brook
Written By – William Golding

Other Opinions Are Available.  What did these people have to say about The Lord of the Flies?
The New York Times
Views From the Sofa
Drew Martin

9 thoughts on “MOVIE REVIEW | The Lord of the Flies (1963)

  1. You’ll find speaking quite loudly and then, less loudly is in the UK Handbook of Child Acting.

  2. Thanks for the link to the blog. I’m pleased someone else agrees with me on this because I hated this movie. It could be one of the worst I’ve ever seen. Need to find the more recent versions I think.

  3. Ouch! I love this movie, the action scenes are so intense. It almost feels documentary style as not a lot is very “stylized” or “cinematic.” I haven’t seen the more recent adaptation, however.

  4. You must be kidding me! The kids progressively change with the movie – longer hair, sun burn, lost weight. It was a long shoot and they grew into their roles. It’s also very atmospheric in a most disturbing way. It’s shot on film, perhaps 16mm and yes they don’t have the stock for endless takes but this is more hard hitting that the later US version if only for the reason that Ralph is portrayed as a popular and capable leader, therefore making the struggle for power between himself and Jack much more vivid. In later version Ralph just comes over as a bit of a wimp with no charisma. Also btw, its World War III not two…

    1. The acting is terrible, the camera work is terrible, the pacing is terrible, the overdubbing is terrible and the technical film making is beyond amateurish. No amount of atmosphere can make up for that stuff.

  5. Some years late, but I just wanted to say I’m so glad I found this. I watched both adaptations in one night and I thought I was going mad, seeing as how the 1963 version appears to be critically adored and the 1990 one generally reviled. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought the 1990 one was actually pretty great, and the 1963 one appallingly incompetent. My favourite part in the 1963 one was how one of the kids would deliver a simply atrocious line reading, and then the camera would linger on them for a solid five seconds of total silence, before moving on to the next. I think you could probably cut a ten full minutes out of 1963 simply by taking out the dead air that surrounded every single line.

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