The source material is interesting, the acting is surprisingly good, and if you have a LaserDisc player, the director commentary is one of Criterion’s better efforts. A shipload of schoolboys find themselves washed up on a remote island. None of the adults survived the wreck. The seemingly contrived setup poses one of the greatest questions about human nature we have yet to ask: without the structure of society and without adult supervision, what levels will a human sink or rise to?
The author (William Golding) and the director are observant and insightful, which means they find our nature neither saintly nor diabolical; we are too complex to be that easily categorized. For example, one of the first things the boys do is elect leaders and set rules of conduct while they are meeting. On the other hand, they sometimes use this structured process to agree on the existence of monsters.
Over the course of the movie, the society of boys gets grimmer and grimmer until we fear we can’t watch the ultimate outcome. The authors gave us an ending that allows us some closure while maintaining the integrity of the character of the boys, but the slippery slope that the boys started down is a diorama of one of the most terrifying modern nightmares: the collapse of society.