IT WAS 35 YEARS AGO TODAY; Lord of the Flies hits the big screen

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The Independent Culture
On 31 July 1964, a low-budget, black-and-white film adaptation of Lord of the Flies was released in London. William Golding's debut novel, an allegorical tale about a group of schoolboys who descend into savagery on a desert island, had met with a series of rejections before its publication in 1954. (One reader at Faber had marked the first draft "Rubbish and dull. Pointless" before it was rescued and championed by a colleague.) The final version was respectfully received in Britain, but it found enormous success in the US, mainly thanks to cult-making student fans. The novel went on to be translated into 28 languages. It won a permanent place on exam syllabuses, and launched a long and Nobel-lauded career for Golding.

Peter Brook's film, however, was another story. The Times made the "unkind but also unavoidable judgement" that it was "the sort of adaptation which sets one wondering whether the original was all that good". But like the original, it too had made a tortuous trip from personal conception to public consumption. Brook had made his name as an innovative young theatre director during the late 1940s, and became the RSC's first co- director in 1962. Lord of the Flies, his third film, had initially involved mainstream producer Sam Spiegel. When Spiegel pulled out, the plans were scaled down and funds raised from numerous small investors.

An island off Puerto Rico was chosen as the location, and 30 non-actors between the ages of nine and 13 were recruited and paid in pocket money. The film was shot over three months in 1961, with Brook encouraging his "real" boys to experience the anarchic freedom of their fictional counterparts, and then to improvise within the original plot. He finished with 60 hours of footage.

Edited down to 90 minutes, the film then ran into further problems. Despite being presented at Cannes in 1963 - where, according to the Telegraph, a French critic had implied that "their boys wouldn't behave like this, putting the whole thing down to a failure of the prefect system" - it didn't find British distributors for another year. On release, it was given an X certificate: "this terrifying tale of schoolboy evacuees would either frighten the under-16s to death - or give them ideas!" said the Sunday Mirror.

British reviewers were well aware of the film's history. The Guardian's Richard Roud wrestled with his critical conscience in print: "A director of talent who has made an ambitious film ought to be given special consideration even if the film, by ordinary standards is not successful." The FT conceded that it was "impossible to be less than sympathetic", but admitted that it wasn't a "really good film". The Times said Golding's novel was "almost unfilmable", while the Telegraph thought Brook had "reproduced nearly all of its qualities".

Many other critics also felt that Brook had risen to a difficult challenge. He had "wrenched a barbaric power out of the weird locations and kept a model fidelity to [the] novel" (Standard) and "checked" the "natural warmth of the film" throughout: "Hugging the kids in this film would be like embracing a heavily mined porcupine" (Observer). The film was "a shocker with serious intent" (Sunday Telegraph), "a startling piece of junior Grand Guignol" (Mail), and "often repellent but harshly fascinating" (Mirror). The Sunday Express urged "every student of humanity" to see it.

Inevitably, critics were divided in their responses to the "natural" actors: "unconvincing" (Guardian); "variable" (Standard); "they simply behave normally - and the result is vital and horrific" (Mirror). "However suitable the boys chosen look, only one of them, James Aubrey as Ralph, shows any sign of acting at all," said the Times.

In 1996, the BBC and Brook brought the "boys" back to the island to see how their intense experience had affected their lives. Brook claimed that each was chosen because "he was clearly a type that corresponded to his role in the story. Now one sees that life works on each person's type within the limits of a type - but the type doesn't change". Conveniently, Aubrey had become an actor while Piggy (Hugh Edwards) managed pet-food factories.

Another film about social breakdown in paradise is currently in production. Following its reviews, reprints of Alex Garland's The Beach could have had a delete-as-applicable blurb on the covers: "a backpackers'/hippies'/druggies' Lord of the Flies", or "Lord of the Flies meets Lonely Planet/ Apocalypse Now/ The Magus". But the comparison stops with the film. "Real" travellers plucked from Thai beach-huts were never going to be a casting option on the big-budget Beach.