Lord of the Flies and the Ethics of Genderbending Film Adaptations

A photo of a coconut on a deserted beach
"Wonga Beach, Qld, Australia" by Jan Smith is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

On August 30, Deadline reported on the announcement of an upcoming film adaptation of William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies. This would not be the first adaptation of the book—there were versions in 1963 and 1990—but the twenty-first century remake promises at least one peculiarity: this time, it will be girls instead of boys trapped on a desert island.

This new film would seem to be the latest in a string of recent and upcoming films to switch the gender of characters from their source material—usually books or previous franchise installments. 2016’s Ghostbusters and the upcoming Ocean’s 8 are also representative of this trend. Similar treatment of race and ethnicity has been in practice since the early history of film and is referred to informally as “racebending”; the term  “genderbending” is also used in a comparable way.  

Proponents of both practices generally follow one of two arguments. One is for the opportunities of the actors behind the characters. Because the majority of roles in past and present film have been for white men, female and minority actors find difficulty in earning a living working as actors. It is especially challenging for actors interested in playing leading roles—Sam Levin of The Guardian noted last April that Asian American actors are frequently asked to play secondary roles and roles that reinforce racial stereotypes.

This concern is compounded by whitewashing, the particular version of racebending in which characters whom are explicitly represented as nonwhite in source material are portrayed by white actor in film adaptations. 2010’s Avatar: The Last Airbender received backlash for its casting, and the television show Urban Myths was involved in a controversy over the decision to cast white actor Joseph Fiennes as the late Michael Jackson in an ultimately unaired episode.  While there is agreement on the need for opportunities for minority and female actors, there tends to be a divide in the best way to go about this. Some support simply maintaining the race and gender of source characters, but others advocate rewriting previously white and male roles as minority and female.

The other argument in favor of gender- and racebending rewrites concerns the need for diverse voices in popular culture. From the perspective of the audience, having strong characters with whom minorities and women can identify is valuable, especially for children and young adults. Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post promotes this viewpoint in a 2014 opinion piece, but also argues that viewers should be capable of identifying with protagonists regardless of their particular race or gender: “if a story is told well enough, it becomes universal.”

Similarly, Alyssa Rosenberg, also of the Washington Post, distinguishes genderbending that doesn’t change any other aspect of the story from genderbending in which aspects of the characters and story are affected. Rosenberg argues that, whereas the former promotes the idea that “men and women are fundamentally similar,” the latter relies on men and women being fundamentally different “but possessed of their own equally useful strengths and insights. While both viewpoints have the support of some feminists, Rosenberg seems to side with the latter, saying, “our real goal should be a broader range of stories.”

The consideration of the effect a gender-swapped cast would have on the plot has been the basis of much of the backlash against the newly announced Lord of the Flies adaptation. Some argue that if it were girls trapped on a deserted island, the violence and chaos that causes most of the problems in the novel would be avoided. Proponents of this argument cite an interview with Lord of the Flies author William Golding, who said, “if you land with a group of little boys, they are more like scaled-down society than a group of little girls would be.” Melissa Silverstein, quoted in The Guardian, points out that a female version of a previously male cast fails to promote feminist ideals, saying, “We shouldn’t follow in the footsteps of anything. We have our own footsteps, and our own path we draw and make in the world.” Others have countered that women are equally capable as men of violence and evil. It has also been pointed out that the statement made by switching the characters’ genders is marred by the fact that both directors of the movie are men.

All these arguments ignore the question of when or whether it is acceptable to alter the creative work of a previous author or artist at all. Whereas some might claim artistic liberties in film adaptations, others would prefer an adaptation remain true to the original work. The reasoning behind a change can also be significant—some argue that making a political statement with a casting choice results in a work “lacking in artistic merit.” Director David Siegel told Deadline that the hope is to appeal to a modern audience, saying, “we want to do a very faithful but contemporized adaptation of the book.” Apocalypse Now, a critically acclaimed film from 1979, was adapted from Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, but the setting was shifted from Africa in the nineteenth century to Vietnam in the late twentieth in part to give the film a modern appeal. This change also gave the film a political message regarding the Vietnam War, just as the original book had included commentary on European imperialism. To some degree, any suggestion that Siegel and McGehee’s new Lord of the Flies will lack artistic merit would need to reckon with the precedents of such politicized adaptations as Apocalypse Now.

Gender- and racebending are not new practices in American film, and they don’t seem to be on the brink of vanishing either. With the apparent rise in recent and upcoming gender- and racebent films, it will be increasingly difficult for audiences to avoid contemplating such creative and unconventional directorial decisions–and the thoughts and ideals behind them.