Lord of the Flies

William Golding's 'Lord of the Flies' is a celebrated book with an off-putting reputation. The novel isn't read, it's taught -- drummed into the heads of students since it was published in 1954. Writing about a group of British schoolboys who turn savage when cut off from civilization on an island, Golding fashioned a bitter allegory to expose the beast in man. Academia was agog. In 1963, director Peter Brook made a film version of the book that stressed every symbol with punishing didacticism.

I wasn't looking forward to this remake, updated to the present with American brats subbing for the Brits. The script, written by Jay Presson Allen under the pseudonym of Sara Schiff, is liberally sprinkled with bullshits, fucks and references to Rambo and Miss Piggy. It had me cringing at first. But British director Harry Hook (The Kitchen Toto) has wisely tried to liberate the movie from the printed page. In his hunt for meaning, Brook skimped on adventure and turned the boys into victims of fate. Hook gives the characters more freedom of choice. The result is exhilarating, as far as it goes.

Shooting in Jamaica, Hook has cast the film with twenty-four unknown American actors, ages eight to thirteen, and has drawn sharply expressive performances. Paul Balthazar Getty (grandson of the billionaire) is particularly striking as Ralph, the responsible leader who clashes with the hotheaded Jack (Chris Furrh). Saying, "See ya, girls," Jack taunts the boys who won't strip down to fig leaves and carry pointy sticks to terrorize animals. The voice of reason is a fat kid named Piggy, poignantly acted by Danuel Pipoly. "I've got the conch," says Piggy, clinging to the shell -- the emblem of order -- that lets its holder be heard. Piggy, needless to say, soon loses his grip.

Unfortunately, so does Hook, but not before offering provocative glimpses of the new faces that greed, racism and corruption have taken since Golding's era. Perhaps the book's intimidating reputation made Hook finally turn from the timely to the timeless. The film retains its beauty and power but loses its point. Long before Lord of the Flies ends, the characters have been flattened into abstractions. Hook may keep the action spinning, but the noise you hear isn't life. It's the sound of symbols crashing.