Before The Hunger Games, there was William Golding's 1954 Lord of the Flies.
Well, okay, before there was The Hunger Games, there was reality TV and the 1996 Japanese novel (and later movie) Battle Royale. But you have to admit, the premise is similar: a bunch of kids end up on an island/ arena and turn into vicious savages in about, oh, five minutes.
Just like The Hunger Games, Lord of the Flies was a great success—although we're not convinced that Suzanne Collins is going to follow in William Golding's steps by winning a Nobel Prize for Literature for "illuminat[ing] the human condition of the world today." (Love ya, Suze.)
Lord of the Flies is an allegory (essentially a story with a moral), about…well, something—jump ahead to our Lord of the Flies summary if you can't wait. People can't seem to decide exactly what. It's either about the inherent evil of man, or psychological struggle, or religion, or human nature, or the author's feelings on war (Golding was in the Navy during WWII), or possibly all of the above.
Just as Lord of the Flies wasn't the last kids-stuck-on-an-island story, it wasn't the first. Golding was responding to another novel, The Coral Island, written by R.M. Ballantyne in 1857. In The Coral Island, some white, European boys end up on an island and use Christianity to "conquer" the "heathen ways" of the Polynesian natives.
Naturally, this was a huge success in Victorian England—but Golding wasn't so impressed. His Lord of the Flies, which uses many of the same character names that Ballantyne did, shows almost the opposite scenario: instead of the boys conquering the heathen wild, the heathen wild conquers the boys.
Yep, it's about as creepy as it sounds.
"Surely we've evolved past the days of gladiatorial combat and public executions," you say.
Um. When's the last time you were in a movie theater? Played a video game? Watched TV? From Saw VII to Resident Evil 6, we love our violence. Sure, we come up with "civilized" ways to vent our bloodlust, like WWF and football and thumb wrestling on the six-hour school trip to D.C. But, says William Golding, put a bunch of kids on an island, with no governing authorities, no societal structure, and no consequences, and all that civilization breaks down.
You think that's just fiction? In 1971 Philip Zimbardo, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, decided to run an experiment. The plan was to take some volunteer undergraduates and stick them in a simulated prison in the basement of the psychology building for two weeks. Some were guards, and some were prisoners. The guards were armed with wooden batons, uniforms, and mirrored-sunglasses. The prisoners were forced to wear different clothing and referred to only by numbers.
If you've ever been to middle school, you can probably guess what happened. The "guards" started to think of themselves as real guards—and the prisoners as real prisoners. Things got way out of hand way too fast, with "prisoners" suffering abuse, degradation, and humiliation from the newly sadistic "guards." There were hunger strikes and restrictions to solitary confinement. It got so bad that Zimbardo ended the experiment early.
After only six days.
So before you write off Lord of the Flies as unrealistic and pat yourself on the back for thinking that if you were stranded on a desert island you'd be forming cooperatives and making netting out of vines, think about the Stanford Prison Experiment. It seems that college students being stuck in a basement isn't a situation so unlike young boys stranded on an island—they both show us that human nature can be ugly stuff.
Law and Order
The URL for William Golding's website looks rather official, wouldn't you say?
Half an Hour of Unrelieved Gloom
We said he had a dark side, right? Here's Golding talking about being labeled a "pessimist" in his Nobel Prize speech.
Which Side Are You On?
Check out this website for the freaky Stanford Prison Experiments. Would you have acted differently?
Game, Set, Match
Need a study break? Play the Lord of the Flies game at the Nobel Prize website.
Hear No Evil
The 1990 film took some liberties with the book, too—like adding 4-letter words.
The Book That Inspired It All
… Robert Ballantyne's Coral Island.
When Golding died in 1993, The New York Times obituary talked about the origins of his most popular book.
This video from the 1990 movie will help you remember how young the boys are supposed to be.
The Spoken Word
Here's Golding himself reading Lord of the Flies, care of Random House.
Here's the original cover of the UK edition—nudity and all.
Even more nudity—partial, at least: a bunch of boys in loin cloths from the 1963 movie.
The Lord of the Flies Himself
In the decaying flesh. Yum!