Updated for 2020!
On 19th June 1993, William Golding died at his home in Cornwall, looking out of the window, perhaps watching the rise of the midsummer sun. Golding is one of the world’s most decorated writers, winning the Booker Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature, and was knighted by the Queen in 1988. This article examines Golding’s enduring legacy on popular culture more than 25 years after his death and the diverse and discrete media in which he has been featured. Unsurprisingly, Lord of the Flies is the main focus here, although Golding’s other novels also feature, including Pincher Martin and The Inheritors. In addition, Golding’s sea trilogy has been adapted by the BBC as To the Ends of the Earth and tantalisingly, it is possible to find hints about a possible film adaptation of The Spire.
William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a literary phenomenon. The title is instantly recognisable as a synonym for societal breakdown, the book has been read by millions worldwide and it has been required reading in schools, colleges and universities for the last fifty years. It has been adapted into film twice, in 1963 and 1990. In addition to its impact on the literary world, the book pervades popular culture, spawning a variety of parodies, tributes and re-imaginings as well as providing inspiration to the most unlikely of cultural forms.
One of the most obvious examples of Golding’s influence on television and popular culture is in the genre of reality television. One of the first reality programmes was Survivor which first aired in America in 2000 and in the UK in 2001 and has spawned programmes in many countries. The objective for the participants in the show is to survive in remote locations, using only natural resources or items that can be won in various challenges. The key to Survivor is the division of the contestants who are split into a minimum of two tribes and are thus pitted against each other. The voting off process is ritualistic with the losing person having their torch fire extinguished. There are, of course, so many similarities with Lord of the Flies in Survivor and probably most important is the division of the group; forcing a ‘them and us’ effect. Another reality show, launched at a similar time to Survivor in the UK, is Big Brother. Obviously inspired by another famous novel, in the third incarnation of the UK series in 2002, the producers introduced a new format part way through the series. They set up a divide in the house, categorising one group of housemates ‘poor’ and one ‘rich’. Again, this served to elevate tensions within the group with one half of the house given luxuries and the other forced to survive on basic rations. Here we can see a direct inspiration from Lord of the Flies; rather than the housemates being focused on the common enemy – Big Brother, they saw the other side of the house as their antagonists. In Lord of the Flies, the boys are so distracted by their disunion that they fail to focus on their common goal of being rescued. More recently, The Island with Bear Grylls, is another show which draws on aspects of the novel.
The major difference between these reality tv programmes and the novel is that adults are the participants and not children. However, in 2007 CBS premiered a controversial new reality show, Kid Nation. The programme featured 40 children between the ages of 8 and 15 who have to try and build a society with minimum involvement from adults. Kid Nation provoked a lot of criticism before it had even aired, with the majority of commentators comparing it to Lord of the Flies. In marked contrast to Lord of the Flies however, the children are never truly alone and as with many reality shows, the producers were accused of ‘feeding children lines’ and setting up situations. A similar British show was broadcast in 2009 on Channel 4, entitled Boys and Girls Alone in which children lived without any adults (except, of course, the production crew and trained chaperones). The show elicited a large number of complaints and the parents of the children spoke of their shock as they saw their children descend very quickly into bullying and challenging behaviour. Acknowledging the inspiration for the programme, a Channel 4 spokesman said ‘It is a bit Lord Of The Flies, but there is no murdering.’
The Simpsons re-telling of Lord of the Flies was broadcast in 1998, in series 9, Episode 14. Entitled, ‘Das Bus’, the episode features the Simpson children, Bart and Lisa, and their classmates going on a school trip to take part in a ‘model UN’. Their school bus crashes after an unfortunate incident with a grapefruit and the children wash up on a desert island with no adults in tow. Immediately, society breaks down with the children arguing about who is to blame for the crash. Bart finds a conch shell which brings a brief period of peace. He declares: ‘I’m glad we’re stranded. It’ll be like the Swiss Family Robinson but with more cursing. We’ll live like Kings’. This speech recalls Ralph’s optimism at the beginning of the novel: ‘It’s like in a book … Treasure Island … Swallows and Amazons. This is our island. It’s a good island’. Bart then goes on to portray the island as a paradise, with plentiful fruit and drink and bizarrely, ‘monkey butlers’. This last example quells Nelson’s rage at the situation and he happily volunteers to build a treehouse with Bart while the other children go off to find food. Of course, it quickly becomes clear that Bart’s vision is false; they do not have the necessary skills to build anything and the only food they can find are poisonous berries. The identification of the cartoon characters with their Lord of the Flies counterparts is sharply delineated; Bart is Ralph, Nelson is Jack, Milhouse, Bart’s best friend, is an amalgamation of Piggy and Simon. Milhouse is the first to mention a monster and Nelson steals his glasses in order to start a fire; although he uses them as a flint rather than to reflect the sun. Milhouse also has asthma in this episode which doesn’t seem to have been mentioned in the series to date.
Lisa, who already shares many characteristics with Piggy, with her insistence on rules and order, also represents him in the cartoon. When Bart retrieves the food cooler from the sunken bus, Lisa insists they ration the food. She says, ‘if we’re going to survive, we need rules and order’. Once Milhouse is accused of eating all the food, Nelson threatens to cut him open in order to get their food back. Lisa cries, ‘Wait, we’re not savages, we live in a society of law and order’. Nelson replies, ‘sucks to the law’ recalling Jack’s ‘bollocks to the rules’. Despite Bart initially agreeing with Nelson’s attack on Milhouse, he presides over his ‘trial’ and leaps to Lisa’s defence when Nelson threatens her. This leads to the division within the group, with Nelson leading the other children, who paint their faces, against Bart, Lisa and Milhouse. The Simpsons writers adapt Golding’s chant of ‘Kill the pig, cut his throat, spill his blood’ into ‘Kill the dorks, bash their butts, kick their shins’ for the chase across the island. The murderous mob is only stopped when their ‘monster’ – a boar with a crisp packet stuck on its tusk wanders into view. Despite Lisa’s protestations, the boar is roasted and eaten while she survives on slime from rocks.
Das Bus is a parody of Lord of the Flies – and by parody, I mean it in the sense that Linda Hutcheon argues, ‘parody … is imitation, not always at the expense of the parodied text.’ It is clear that the writers of the episode have a deep admiration for Golding’s novel and ensure that the episode is more than just a group of children trying to survive on an island. The children are practicing for their ‘model UN’ with each child taking on a role as a politician from each of the UN countries. When the discussion descends into argument, Principal Skinner comments, ‘Do you kids want to be like the real UN or do you just want to squabble and waste time?’ Despite the satirical dig at the United Nations, the writers here make a valid point. Principal Skinner admonishes the children for talking over each other, for arguing and for failing to listen to their peers. As is so often seen, this is exactly the same behaviour of adult politicians in all walks of life. This resonates with Lord of the Flies, in the irony of the Naval Officer arriving to rescue them from the war on the island, only for his eyes to rest on the cruiser in the distance; a cruiser that is transporting him to war.
‘Club SpongeBob’ from series 3 (2002) casts SpongeBob as Ralph, Patrick as Piggy and Squidward as Jack. The episode opens with SpongeBob and Patrick in their club in a tree house, seemingly taunting Squidward because he can’t get in. It soon becomes clear that Squidward physically can’t squeeze into the clubhouse; his attempts to do so sends them catapulting into unfamiliar territory on the bottom of the sea. SpongeBob says that ‘we’ll be fine as long as we stick together’, echoing Ralph’s many speeches on the island. SpongeBob and Patrick have a magic conch shell which acts like a Magic 8 ball. They follow the directions given by the conch, which advises them to do nothing about seeking food or rescue. Squidward is apoplectic about this and starts his own camp, albeit just next to them, and delights in cooking the bugs he has ‘hunted’. However, the conch is proved right when an aeroplane drops its cargo over SpongeBob’s camp, providing an elaborate feast. They are eventually rescued by a ‘naval officer’.
South Park’s tribute to Lord of the Flies occurs in the episode ‘The Wacky Molestation Adventure’. Golding’s novel is not the only influence here; it’s clear to see the writers’ debt to Stephen King’s short story Children of the Corn and the subsequent film adaptation. In ‘The Wacky Molestation Adventure’, Kyle wants to go and see a band with the other boys but his parents forbid him. Cartman suggests that he could accuse his parents of ‘molestering’ him to get rid of them and soon all the children of South Park have accused their parents of the same thing. All the parents are imprisoned. Fast forward a mere ten days later and a couple have car trouble just outside South Park, or ‘Smiley Town’ as it has been renamed. They find the town seemingly abandoned but come across Butters in the garage. He directs them to ‘Treasure Cove’, which is the only place that has a phone but is unable to accompany them as he cannot cross the white line that divides the town. On arriving at Treasure Cove, the couple find a group of ‘littluns’, dressed as savages. Kyle and Stan ask the couple to retrieve Smiley Town’s book in exchange for use of the phone. Cartman is the Mayor of Smiley Town and explains that a member of one of the two groups will be sacrificed to the ‘provider’. Possession of the other tribe’s book will determine which group will face a sacrifice.
The groups separated because of a disagreement about how to worship the ‘provider’; the ‘provider’ here is a direct allusion to Golding’s ‘beast’. The children in South Park are just as misinformed about the ‘provider’ as the boys in Lord of the Flies. In South Park, the ‘provider’ is a statue of American Football player John Elway, and the beast in Lord of the Flies is the corpse of a pilot.
Lost ostensibly began as a series about a group of passengers who are stranded on an unknown island after their plane crashes. The opening season focused on their struggle to survive and work together whilst introducing some of the more fantastical elements that emerged as the programme developed. Inevitably then, the first season, and to some extent the second, has a survival narrative similar to Lord of the Flies. Lord of the Flies is explicitly referred to in the show on two occasions. Perhaps the most striking comparison can be made on the theme of leadership. In Lord of the Flies, Ralph is nominated and voted as leader in opposition to Jack Merridew.
No such formal vote occurs in Lost but from early on in the series, the doctor Jack Shephard is considered to be the leader. Following a drinking water crisis, Jack returns to the beach where he makes his ‘Live together, Die Alone’ speech which characterises the series. With this speech, Jack effectively establishes himself as a willing leader, and he implores his fellow survivors to ‘find a way to contribute’ in order to benefit the group, because if they ‘can’t live together’, they are ‘going to die alone’. The ‘Live Together, Die Alone’ speech is a success, and the people begin to pull together.
This speech mirrors an episode in Lord of the Flies when Ralph becomes frustrated that most of the other boys, with the exception of Simon and Piggy, are not contributing to the group’s survival or to keeping the signal fire burning. To stress the importance of his point, Ralph gestures towards the mountain and says, ‘We’ve got to make smoke up there – or die’ (88). Ralph’s carefully planned speech has the opposite effect to Jack Shephard’s ‘Live Together, Die Alone’. It becomes an impetus for the fracture of the group, with many of the boys openly deriding Ralph’s insistence on obedience to his rules.
For a fuller discussion of the similarities between Lord of the Flies, Pincher Martin and Lost, please see my article.
Lord of the Flies has provided inspiration for music by a wide range of artists. Most notable, perhaps, is Iron Maiden’s song, ‘Lord of the Flies’, released in 1996 on their album ‘The X Factor’. The song features a typically heavy opening and a minute-long guitar solo but it is the lyrics that are of most interest. The ‘I’ of the song is most likely to be Jack with lines such as ‘Who cares what’s right or wrong/it’s reality/killing so we survive’. The chorus alludes to the division between the boys: ‘Saints and sinners/ Something within us/ To be lord of the flies’. Here, the dichotomy of good against evil in the novel is divided as ‘saints and sinners’, although just like the book, the writer acknowledges that there is the potential for evil within all of us: ‘we don’t need a code of morality’.
The punk band Offspring have released a song which directly references Lord of the Flies. ‘You’re gonna go far kid’, from 2008 has a line near the end: ‘clever alibis/Lord of the Flies’, which seems to relate to the murder of Simon and the excuses of the boys that they thought he was the beast. It is possible to read many aspects of the novel in the song; there are elements that refer to Simon, Ralph and Jack. Ralph’s loss of control during assemblies on the island are reflected in the song: ‘another clever word sets off an unsuspecting herd’. Ralph’s insistence on adherence to the rules makes Jack’s savagery far more attractive to the other boys on the island. Offspring’s ‘dance f*****, dance’ seems to denote the tribal dance that Jack insists upon, right before Simon’s murder and these lines are followed by ‘and no one even knew, it was really only you’. The chorus of the song alludes to Jack’s transformation into killer chief and his pursuit of Ralph across the island: ‘See the lightning in your eyes/see ‘em running for their lives’.
The final track on U2’s debut album, ‘Boy’, borrows its name from Chapter 7 of Lord of the Flies, ‘Shadows and Tall Trees’. In this chapter, Simon says to Ralph: ‘you’ll get back to where you came from’. There’s a sense of returning home in the U2 song: ‘I’ll walk home again/to the street melody’, but also perhaps, a sadness about the predictability of life. The voice of the song asks ‘do you feel in me/anything worth redeeming’. This has an interesting parallel with Ralph in chapter 7, which marks his acknowledgement of the growing division between the boys. He asks Jack ‘Why do you hate me?’ and finally begins to realise that Piggy may have been right.
U2 also take inspiration from another Golding novel, Pincher Martin in a more recent song. ‘White as Snow’, released on the album ‘No Line on the Horizon’ in 2009, is a song about a dying soldier and lasts the length of time the soldier takes to die. In an interview with the Guardian, Bono stated that he was inspired to write the song after reading Pincher Martin. In the book, Christopher ‘Pincher’ Martin is dying on a rock in the North Atlantic and the novel details his last moments. In the song, Bono sings ‘And the water, it was icy/As it washed over me’, deliberately evoking the image of the freezing sea water engulfing Martin’s body.
There are of course many other examples of Golding’s legacy on popular culture – Lord of the Flies appears in The Sopranos, X-Files, the Halo video game universe, Seinfeld, and Hook. Lord of the Flies has inspired The Walking Dead, Netflix’s The Society and Castle Rock, a series based in Stephen King’s fictional world. The Inheritors was a recent inspiration to electronic music artist James Holden and this particular novel about the co-existence of Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals is becoming more and more relevant to new scientific discovery. Golding’s incredible imagination and examination of the human psyche continues to endure.