Charles Dickens, planning his journal, Household Words, once thought of writing, "a history of savages, showing the singular respects in which all savages are like each other, and those in which civilised men, under circumstances of difficulty, soonest become like savages".
Dickens never completed his project, but it was famously done a century later by William Golding in his fictional journey to "the darkness of man's heart", Lord of the Flies. Golding's 1954 novel is a fable. He has the entire human species in his sights. But his chosen representatives of all humanity are young boys.
Not surprisingly, the urge to dramatise Golding's compelling story has proved irresistible in the half-century since it was published. There have been two films: Peter Brook's in 1963 and Harry Hook's in 1990. Many schools have adapted it for the stage. One version, written by the novelist Nigel Williams for his own sons' school, has become the standard text for stage performance. The Royal Shakespeare Company used it for its professional production at The Other Place in Stratford in 1995.
Performing Lord of the Flies is a rich dramatic temptation and an ongoing ethical problem. Yes, this is a story of awesome and instructive dramatic power, but is it right or safe to ask young boys to play out such a pessimistic and disturbing vision of boyhood?
By chance the question was highlighted by two events in the mid-Nineties. The 1995 RSC production was followed in 1996 by Time Flies, a film of the reunion organised by Peter Brook, 35 years on, for the boys who spent three months of their childhood on a Caribbean island in 1961, filming his version of Lord of the Flies. Golding's story was the same in these two versions. Almost everything else was different.
Brook was curious to know what the years had done to his cast, and what effect the isolated months of filming had had on their lives. He had good reason to be concerned. Almost everything about the undertaking raises eyebrows now. As Brook acknowledged, it is inconceivable today that parents would so easily let him take away their sons for months on end, but then, "nobody asked any questions".
The children he chose were not trained actors. "They were real boys, not professionals, and were so close to the characters they had to play that directing was not trying to impose a characterisation, it was making the boys feel at ease and believe in what they were doing."
Brook was curious to see if he had harmed the boys. Ironically, his own beliefs about the inborn and unchanging "types" of human personality expose him to the charge of taking irresponsible risks. "In the casting," he said, "each one was chosen because he was already a type, born with a type that corresponded to his role in the story". He was inviting the boys to follow their own behavioural logic to extremes. "Did you worry about what you did to us?" asked Tom Chaplin, who played Jack in the film. "I didn't at the time," Brook said.
Among the boys who returned with Brook to Puerto Rico as men in their late forties, none seemed seriously damaged by their childhood venture into Golding's dark world, but almost everyone had been lastingly affected by it.
Simon Surtees, one of a pair of twin brothers who played Samneric, put his finger unerringly on the ethical dilemma. "The problem is that most of us are not trained artists, so I now believe Peter runs the risk of abandoning us to our fate, just as he did in 1961, when he plucked us from our schools and our homes, put us on the island, then cast us back to live our lives as if nothing would ever change."
Brook's film may seem a warning against recruiting boys to play out Golding's fable. So may Hook's American one, in which the actor who played Ralph told an interviewer of moments during the filming when the boys "ran wild, covering themselves with paint, and persecuted the weaker ones".
But theatre is a safer, more conventional place than remote film sets, and modern children mature earlier and are more streetwise than Brook's young cast. They are well aware of children's capacity for violence and crime, and can readily see Lord of the Flies as a logical extension of bullying once all rules and constraints have been removed. The myth of childhood innocence is one adults may cling to, but children know better.
In this changed world, the RSC production was a triumph, and a total vindication of Lord of the Flies as a drama. Director Elijah Moshinsky's cast had plenty of theatrical experience between them, but they were mostly local boys being thoroughly "professional". Their performance was mesmerising, but when the bows were taken and the house lights up, safety returned. One reviewer spotted the crucial difference between this and the film versions. "In this production," he said, "the boy actors offer a political image that's consolingly contrary to that afforded by the characters they play. Instead of moral collapse before the forces of unreason and irresponsible powermania, they represent the merits of imagination tempered by order, discipline and co-operation: a synthesis of what is best in the opposing principles in the piece."
The Stratford production brought out the best in its boy actors. It was Ralph's "good island", and a model for school performances. But in May this year, the Channel 4 Cutting Edge documentary "Boys Alone" brought a more chilling enactment of Golding's scenario and a vindication of his fable. Ten boys aged 11 and 12 were let loose for five days in a house in Bushey, Hertfordshire, with only a non-interventionist camera crew for adult company. What followed was Lord of the Flies in miniature. They trashed the house, split into gangs, shed clothes, hunted hedgehogs with sticks, marked down a scapegoat. And even, saddest of all, produced a Ralph. To quote one of the boys: "All we wanted was a fun week, and what does it end up in? Blooming Hell's Angels."
Peter Hollindale is keynote speaker at tomorrow's conference, Children's Literature and Childhood in Performance, at the National Centre for Research in Children's Literature, University of Surrey, Roehampton