Ebert William Golding's "Lord of the Flies," a famous modern novel, concerns a group of British schoolboys who are marooned on an island and gradually become savages. Despite all the standards of decency and honor that have been hammered into them in school, they eventually grow capable of murder. That's what the book is about: how capable we are of violence despite all our talk of civilization.
When channel 9 telecasts Peter Brook's film version of "Lord of the Flies" at 8 p.m. Monday night, about 25 seconds will be missing from a murder scene. In the film, the castaways attack and kill Simon in a savage ritual. At first they "mistake" him for an animal. But even after they realize it's he, they keep hammering him with sticks and clubs.
When WGN-TV executives viewed the film, they found the scene "offensive," so they decided to cut out 25 seconds. Viewers will see the beginning of the scene and will understand that Simon is being murdered. Then the screen will fade to black (or to a commercial, most likely) and "excessive repetition of the violence will be avoided," according to a channel 9 spokesman. WGN-TV showed the movie once before at 10:30 p.m. without cuts, he said, and the scissors this time are due to the earlier broadcast time.
Should the cut have been made? No, of course not. Channel 9's action shows little understanding of the purpose of the scene, a lack of respect for the film and a failure of nerve. For these shortcomings, channel 9 will doubtless be applauded as a public servant by those posses of TV viewers who automatically applaud all censorship.
But there are two questions here: (1) Is the scene really "offensive?'' and (2) Should it be cut because of the early telecast time and the possibility that young viewers might be harmed by it?
The answer to the first question, of course, is yes. The scene is offensive. It is supposed to be. We see a group of civilized, well-mannered British kids revert to savagery. We see the decent, liberal Ralph replaced as leader of the group by the fascist Jack. We see the kids turning on the intellectual Piggy.
Of course, the murder scene is offensive. What have we come to if murder scenes are NOT offensive? But the viewer is supposed to be shocked and to ask himself if these former choirboys are really capable of the savagery on the screen. They are, and that is the sobering message of Golding's novel and Brook's film.
The second question has to do with that well-known hero of many a censor: The Child Who May Be Harmed. In the name of this child, whoever and wherever he is, movies are sliced to pieces or taken off the air, the Smothers Brothers are sat upon and awards for public service in patriotic self-restraint are bestowed upon timid TV executives.
I have my own solution to the problem of The Child Who May Be Harmed: he should be Sent to His Bedroom. Children start the day with Captain Kangaroo and have a wide selection of acceptable programs to choose from. Occasionally they can be deprived, I think, in order to give their parents something mature and interesting to watch.
A greater consideration is TV stations' duty to its viewers. Does this duty consist of "protecting" the viewers by meddling with films like "Lord of the Flies?" I don't think so. "Lord of the Flies" is a distinguished film by Peter Brook, one of England's most respected directors of Shakespeare. Brook made his film the way he thought it should be made.
The station's duty, I think, should consist of showing the film as it was made and giving its viewers the benefit of Brook's message, however "offensive" - or however important - it may be.