A plane evacuating a group of schoolboys following an atomic war apparently is shot down, but not before a passenger capsule containing children is ejected. Initially happy to enjoy an adult-free, fruit-filled, sunny environment on a tropical island where they land, all the boys are determined to have fun. They soon see the need for governance and choose the “fair-haired” Ralph as their leader.
Ralph, like the others, at first sees the absence of adults as an opportunity to have fun, but he soon feels burdened with the weight of a leader’s responsibilities. He symbolically holds a conch shell, which assembles the boys and stands as a symbol of authority. Piggy, a weak-sighted, overweight, asthmatic, cowardly boy, is the group’s source of rational thought and knowledge. He supports the ritual of leadership by finding and identifying the conch as a symbol of leadership.
Ralph’s authority is challenged by Jack, the former leader of the choirboys. Jack, with his red hair and wild blue eyes, eventually extends his power as leader of the hunters to force all the boys into his group. Roger distinguishes himself from the beginning as a person who enjoys hurting others. He deliberately discharges the rock that kills Piggy.
Fear disturbs this boyhood paradise. First articulated by one of the smallest boys, who sees ropes turning into beasts in the night, fear spreads to the older boys, who interpret the corpse of a downed aircraft pilot as a phantom beast. They offer a sacrifice of a pig’s head to appease it. Simon, a quiet, meditative boy, recognizes that the “beast” the boys fear actually is located within the boys themselves. When he crawls out of the jungle to tell the chanting boys of his insight, they attack and kill him.
Rivalry between Ralph and Jack precipitates a breakdown of the decision to build shelters, maintain hygienic conditions, hunt for meat, and maintain a signal fire to effect their rescue. Before long, the faction of hunters has degenerated into paint-wearing, ritual-chanting warriors who first pursue pigs but finally hunt Ralph. In their pursuit, they throw all self-preserving caution to the wind, setting the island on fire and destroying the fruit-bearing trees.
Complete self-destruction is prevented by the arrival of a rescue ship. An officer from the ship is astonished by and disappointed with the apparent misconduct of the dirty young savages who face him.