It was the age of "jiggle TV" when actresses Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and Jaclyn Smith wore bikinis or wet T-shirts or décolleté gowns as they solved crimes in a weekly detective show called Charlie's Angels. The show was mentioned in a Q&A session at Fitchburg State University with Robert Cormier, an author Time called "the teenage laureate." Many of the questions he answered were about his widely acclaimed—but often banned—novel The Chocolate War. The book is the story of an all-boys Catholic high school and how its annual fundraising project, selling boxes of chocolates, goes violently awry. Published in 1974, The Chocolate War remains a mainstay of middle- and high-school English classes despite its No. 3 position on the American Library Association's list of 100 banned or challenged books between 2000 and 2009. Its critics complain about profanity, sex, blasphemy, misogyny—the usual stuff.
That day at Fitchburg State, Cormier talked about his day job as a journalist and his nighttime avocation—writing fiction. Between 1963 and his death in 2000, he published 15 novels. Most were marketed to young adults. One question got him talking about the screen rights to The Chocolate War. He had sold the rights early on, he said, but subsequently learned that the movie version of his book would have an all-girl cast. With Charlie's jiggling angels in mind, he asked that the movie remain faithful to the book. His objections fell on deaf ears. Stymied, he bought back the screen rights. (A movie was made in 1988 but flopped at the box office.)
I recently read in The New York Times that Lord of the Flies is coming to the megaplex for a third time—and this iteration from Warner Brothers features an all-girl cast. William Golding's classic novel, written in 1954, is about a group of prep-school boys marooned on a tropical island and their descent into savagery. Like The Chocolate War, it depicts male aggression in a very bad light. I read Lord of the Flies in 1962, and it proved to be a turning point in my life.
In the fall of 1962, I was a senior at Highland High School. Gary B. Johnston was my English 12 teacher. Gary B, as we called him behind his back, looked like Pee-wee Herman. He wore dark suits, skinny ties and dark-rimmed, Clark Kent glasses. He reeked of cigarettes because he chain-smoked Marlboros in the faculty smoking room whenever he had free time. He loved poetry—especially Wordsworth and Keats—and had his reluctant students composing haikus not long after Labor Day. After that, we wrote essays, one after another, as a run-up to the 20-page research paper that would dominate the second semester. But by then, I had a steady girlfriend and a part-time job, and between the two, there was little time for books. When the day came to commit to a topic, I had none. I went to Johnston after school, and after some dissembling, I asked him for suggestions. Write about the portrayal of mankind's capacity for evil in Lord of the Flies and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, he said. A few months later, bleary-eyed after typing all-night, I handed him the paper. I had read the books, done the research, compiled footnotes and bibliography. The result was a middling, first-draft paper, but that flirtation with Golding and Conrad led to a love affair with literature and a fling as an English 12 teacher years later.
The announcement of an all-girl Lord of the Flies movie set off a firestorm in the twittersphere, The New York Times reported. The most interesting tweet came from writer Roxane Gay: "An all-women remake of Lord of the Flies makes no sense because the plot of that book wouldn't happen with all women." If Golding were still alive, he would have "liked" what she wrote. He was often asked the why-not-girls question. His response was consistent over the years. "If you scale down human beings, scale down society, a group of little boys are more like a scaled-down society than a group of little girls would be," he said in one interview. Lest that be construed as valorizing males, Golding added, "Women are far superior and always have been."
"Though many differences between boys and girls tend to be overstated, boys do tend to be more physically aggressive," Dr. Pamela Davis-Kean, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, told The New York Times. "Some of the novel's scenes of physical violence probably wouldn't align with how girls would settle their issues."
My experience correlates with Davis-Kean's. Women have been harmonizing society since before the time of Lysistrata's war-ending sex embargo. It is hard to imagine what the moviemakers hope to gain with such a consequential change in the Golding novel. Could it be the titillating possibilities afforded by a bunch of nubile girls stranded on a beach?
Stephen King's new book, Sleeping Beauties, explores the same themes as Golding, Cormier and Conrad. What happens to a society when women are absented? According to the promotions for King's book on Amazon, the women go to a "better place where harmony prevails and conflict is rare" while "the men, left to their increasingly primal urges, divide into warring factions."
Permit me to channel Cormier's concern for the integrity of his novel in the age of jiggle TV: An all-girl, Lord of the Flies movie bastardizes a literary classic for no good reason.
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