Published on March 20th, 2014 | by Clint Davis

Lord of the Flies [1990]

Lord of the Flies [1990] Clint Davis

Summary: A stunningly average big budget adaptation of William Golding's classic allegory. The non-actor cast does impressive work but the script is surprisingly thin.



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R  |  90 min.

Director: Harry Hook  |  Screenplay: Jay Presson Allen (as Sara Schiff) (from William Golding’s novel)

Starring: Balthazar Getty, Chris Furrh, Danuel Pipoly

Distribution: Columbia Pictures/MGM  |  Box Office: $13,985,225 (#85 of 1990

Simon finds the Lord of the Flies in this classic scene from the book.

“We did everything the way the grown-ups would have. Why didn’t it work?”

A shred of innocence and naivety–possibly the last–is shown in this memorable quote from director Harry Hooks’s adaptation of Lord of the Flies. By the time Piggy asks Ralph this question, the kids on the island are all out of answers.

I’m really not trying to be a book snob, but if there was ever a case of read the book don’t see the movie, this was it. It’s not that Hooks made a terrible picture out of William Golding’s masterpiece, it’s just so damned average. But I’m not here to review that novel, instead I’ll do my best to take a look at this film in its own light.

This tree burns after the boy’s discover fire; just one of many visual metaphors in the film.

This 1990 big budget take ($9 million compared to $250,000 for the 1963 version) is big on action and fire but not so much on dialogue. The screenplay was pioneering writer Jay Presson Allen’s final but she was allegedly so disappointed with the final cut that she had her name removed, leaving a disembodied “Sara Schiff” in the credits. I was shocked at how thin this movie’s script felt, though. There is virtually zero exposition offered to viewers so if you aren’t familiar with the book, you will be lucky to know more than three characters’ names by the ending.

The plot focuses on a group of American military school cadets who are stranded on an island after a plane crash. The film essentially focuses on four characters, while the rest of the boys are simple pawns for the action. Ralph (Balthazar Getty), the highest-ranking cadet on the island is a born leader whom the other kids put in charge after an informal vote. Over time, Jack (Chris Furrh), the oldest child, decides to break off from Ralph’s rules and roles-based system, creating a second camp for “guys that want to have a little fun.” As morale breaks down, the other boys desert order for Jack’s more cutthroat regime, sending the island into chaos.

The transition of the island, and boys, in just a short time.

The other central characters include Piggy (Danuel Pipoly), who acts as the heart of the island’s populace and Simon (James Badge Dale), who falls in love with the island’s environment, acting as a protector of even its smallest creatures. But at the end of the day, this movie is about two boys and their differing philosophies on how life on the island should be lived.

Fans of Lost will notice immediate similarities between the project’s two leads. In Lord of the Flies, Ralph is like the television show’s Jack, immediately showing himself as a leader from the gang’s first moments on the rock; on the other side, the film’s Jack is closer to John Locke, hungry for everything the island has to offer and a ready believer in its mythology. It seems Jack doesn’t want to be rescued from the island, something that is a major plot point for Locke in the television show. However, what made Lost one of the great TV shows of the last 20 years–and what made the novel one of the all-time greats–is the rich philosophical subtext underlying the action, but in this film everything is pretty straightforward.

Several of the book’s classic symbols are present: The conch still stands for democracy and the elusive boar is a savage measure of control but the film adds a new, totally unnecessary element into the mix. An adult, known only as Captain Benson (Michael Greene), is also stranded but he’s rendered useless by physical affects from the crash. Benson eventually comes to be known as a cave-dwelling monster by Jack, leading him to plant seeds of fear in the minds of the other, more impressionable children as the plot moves forward.

Danuel Pipoly gives an outstanding performance as Piggy, here with the conch.

Hook used amateurs for all the children’s roles in the film. Holding auditions across the country, he settled on his cast, plunked them down in the Caribbean and shot Lord of the Flies in sequence…so if you feel like the performances are getting better as the film rolls on, you’re not crazy. I have to give these kids credit, especially Pipoly, who is downright powerful as the story’s most tragic figure. Nearly all of the boys break down and cry at some point but when Piggy’s positive demeanor finally crumbles, then crumbles again, Pipoly provides the picture’s realest moments.

There isn’t much internal conflict among the four lead characters, which oversimplifies them in my mind. Ralph, Piggy and Simon pretty much settle into their ultimate roles in the first moments of Lord of the Flies, with Jack easing into his more slowly but once he’s turned, there’s nary a moment of reflection. The turning point seems to come when he and Ralph discuss what to do with Benson, showing the audience that Jack is only concerned with his own skin.

Jack’s physical appearance becomes more savage as his philosophy changes.

Eventually, the boys’ clothing becomes an obvious symbol, as Jack dons a loin cloth and soaks up the island’s offerings (“No parents, no teachers, no academy…”) while Ralph and Piggy are still wearing shreds of their uniforms, trying to cling to the familiar. Simon, meanwhile provides two telling dream sequences: First of Benson as a comforting hand and then, once his hope dwindles, of a rescue helicopter dropping bombs on them.

The titular Lord of the Flies is another powerful symbol from the book that is reduced to a few short shots in this film. Gone is the novel’s great scene where the dead boar’s head seems to communicate with Simon and instead we get a few seconds of a puzzled look of fear from the boy. It just felt like this was a 90 minute (on the nose!) blockbuster action movie version of one of the deepest stories ever written. We get some blood, flames, fights and a few poignant lines of dialogue but mostly it’s just a bunch of kids with their chests puffed out, waiting for the “grown-ups” to come back and sort everything.

Hook, meanwhile, wouldn’t direct another feature film until 1998 and hasn’t done one since.

Check out Lord of the Flies on Amazon.

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About the Author

Clint Davis is a Cincinnati, Ohio-based journalist who dropped out of film school to write news! Email him at TheClintDavis@gmail.com.

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