'Lord of the Flies': Has Hollywood's Gender-Bending Trend Jumped the Shark?

Lord of the Flies Still - Photofest - H 2017
Courtesy of Photofest
An all-female film adaptation by two men, Scott McGehee and David Siegel, was met with early backlash.

Despite having few details known about the project, immediate criticism met the news that Warner Bros. is developing an all-female adaptation of Lord of the Flies, William Golding's 1954 novel. 

The concern lay in the fact that the project would be written and directed by two men, Scott McGehee and David Siegel, who have said the movie would be a faithful adaptation of the novel, about a group of boys stranded on an island after a plane crash.

Lord of the Flies is a book about toxic masculinity and what happens when that is left unchecked, even at a young age. It could prove difficult, if not impossible, to be both faithful to the source material and also to the psychology of the young women the film would be about — particularly without the input of female creative talent at the top levels of the project.

“You aren’t even tapping the talent pool that will help you achieve market success,” contends Dr. Stacy Smith, who works on USC’s Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative. The university's most recent study found that just 34 out of the 900 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2016 were directed by women.

Of the films currently in production at Warner Bros., none are being directed by women, though the studio delivered one of the biggest box-office successes of 2017 with Wonder Woman, which has earned more than $800 million and had Patty Jenkins at the helm of the female-driven film starring Gal Gadot as the Amazon princess Diana. Observers of Wonder Woman's success note that the film likely rang true because of the female voices in the mix in the creative process.

“One of the reasons the recent Wonder Woman film worked so well was because Diana was not just a male character dressed up in women's clothing,” says Dr. Martha Lauzen, the executive director at SDSU’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, which is responsible for the annual Celluloid Ceiling report.

Only 31.4 percent of speaking roles in the top 100 grossing movies in 2016 were women, according to Smith's study. With such little onscreen representation, a question that's being raised about the all-female Lord of the Flies is whether or not the industry and audiences should welcome any female-fronted studio movie, no matter who is behind the camera. 

"That really complicates things because you don’t want to say in this industry that men can’t make stories about women," says Kirsten Schaffer, the executive director of Women In Film.

Lord of the Flies is just the latest in a trend of Hollywood gender-bending — and many of the projects have women in top roles. There is a Splash remake (from screenwriter Marja-Lewis Ryan), where Jillian Bell will play the Tom Hanks role and Channing Tatum will have the tail as a merman; and a Dirty Rotten Scoundrels redo, titled Nasty Women (also written by a woman, screenwriter Jac Schaeffer). There’s a role-swapping Overboard in production with Anna Faris, and a Rocketeer movie in development with the protagonist being re-imagined as a young African-American girl. And, of course, there is that all-female Ocean’s Eleven spinoff, Ocean’s Eight, that has produced set images with Rihanna, Cate Blanchett and Sarah Paulson in a variety of fall outerwear.

In a post-Wonder Woman Hollywood, having female stories may no longer be enough. It is a matter of who is telling those stories. 

“It’s a question of what is driving the appetite to put women in front of the camera. Is it just a business opportunity?” asks Dr. Katherine Pieper, a colleague of Smith’s. “Do the people greenlighting these stories want an authentic female representation of these characters? If they do, then I think we would see women telling these stories.”

Schaffer’s hope is that women screenwriters will see this as an opportunity to pitch their own gender-bending remakes of classic literature of their own. (Annie Clark, as known as the musician St. Vincent, is attached to direct a movie adaptation of The Portrait of Dorian Grey for Lionsgate, where the protagonist will be a woman.)

While both Lauzen and Smith's research has shown that films with female directors have higher numbers of women producers, cinematographers, editors and other women in below-the-line roles, all say that the prospective Lord of the Flies production should look to hire women in key gate-keeping roles. "Or take on a female mentee or an apprentice," offers Schaffer. "A woman who has directed feature but not at this budget level, as a way to help women rise.”