Preview: The Dreams of William Golding

New BBC documentary reveals unseen accounts of Lord of the Flies author.

At 42, William Golding was known to his students merely as "Scruff", the schoolmaster who scribbled stories in exercise books during lessons. His first novel, Lord of the Flies, had been rejected by publishers and dismissed as "rubbish and dull". Feelings of growing insecurity drew him into a battle with alcoholism, whilst at night he was tormented by vividly disturbing dreams. Humble and perhaps unlikely beginnings for a man who would later go on to win the 1983 Nobel Prize for Literature, and is now revered by critics and readers alike as one of the most influential British writers of the late 20th century.

This Saturday's edition of BBC 2's Arena will delve into Golding's turbulent life, examining his writing process as he sought to expose the darkest depths of the human condition. Featuring exclusive interviews with Golding's family, as well as the schoolboys he used to teach (the same youths who inspired Lord of the Flies), the documentary promises to offer a frank depiction of the novelist through times of both artistic success and personal despair. The filmmakers gained first-time access to Golding's journals and letters, piecing them together with a rich archive of video footage to reveal the man behind the works. Here, Golding's daughter Judy reads from her father's dream diary:

It's difficult to measure the influence of Golding - not only has his work been an important touchstone for bestselling novelists Stephen King and Ian McEwan, but the now infamous conceits of his most widely read works continue to permeate popular culture, from the strange tribal tensions in HBO's Lost to U2's track Shadows and Tall Trees. Many will remember Lord of the Flies from their schooldays, an experience shared with readers across the Atlantic - the novel recently overtook The Catcher in the Rye as the book most read by young people in the United States.

Golding's biographer, John Carey, also contributes to Saturday's programme. Writing last year for the New Statesman, Carey expresses the staying power of The Inheritors, the protagonist of which is a Neanderthal man: "Half a century later and however many times you have read it, it is still alarming, eye-opening, desolating, mind-invading and unique".

In this vein, the filmmakers suggest that Golding's unflinching take on the savage within is still just as relevant today as it was when he penned Lord of the Flies, a novel born from his reaction to the atrocities of the Holocaust. One only needs to recall the images of last summer's angry young rioters and re-imagine Golding's desert island boys, driven into alarmingly violent acts by a senseless rage. His novels are a lasting reminder that the lines between civility and savagery, it seems, are much closer than we like to believe. In the clip below, boys from Golding's old school discuss his seminal novel:

"Arena: The Dreams of William Golding" airs on Saturday 17 March at 9:30pm on BBC 2.

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump