The Brooke Shields deserted island fantasy first hit theaters 35 years ago this week
It’s the story of two young people freed from society’s restraints and allowed to find true love on an island paradise. Or it’s a more tawdry tale about two island-bound cousins who spend most of the film not wearing clothes. Regardless of your personal perspective on The Blue Lagoon, it became a pop culture phenomenon when it hit theaters on July 5, 1980.
In celebration of the film’s 35th anniversary, we’re looking back at some of the behind-the-scenes stories that fans may not know.
Brooke Shields was 14 when she played the movie’s heroine, Emmeline. Christopher Atkins, who played her cousin-turned-lover, was 18. And even though Shields and the film’s crew maintained that she used body doubles for nude scenes and that her hair had been glued to her chest to avoid exposing her breasts, it’s next to impossible to discuss The Blue Lagoon without the allegations of indecency arising.
Even an otherwise innocent 1980 PEOPLE feature on Shields and Atkins’ time together filming in Fiji ran under the headline “Too Much, Too Young?” It also features a quote from gossip columnist Rona Barrett comparing the film to child pornography.
Accordingly, it’s even more remarkable that the movie was embraced by 1980 moviegoers. You have to wonder if it would be released by a major studio today.
Just two years prior, Shields starred in Pretty Baby, in which she played a 12-year-old prostitute. Controversy surrounded nude scenes in that movie as well. And two years before that, Shields made her film debut in the thriller Alice, Sweet Alice, in which she played a 9-year-old girl who is murdered in a church during her older sister’s First Holy Communion ceremony. The movie was re-released in 1981 following the Blue Lagoon buzz.
So yeah, pre-Suddenly Susan, Shields really had the market cornered on edgy roles.
Filming was a double culture shock for Atkins, who had never acted professionally before being cast in the film. On top of that, the accommodations he and Shields had while filming were rustic. “There was no water on the island, and there was really no place to live,” he explains in the above video. Cast and crew lived in tents for nearly five months.
The movie, which currently holds an 11 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, had few champions among major critics, and Shields’ performance won in the Worst Actress category at the first-ever Golden Raspberry Awards. That said, the film was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, and audiences ate up that beautiful island imagery to the point that The Blue Lagoon raked in more than $58 million, making it the ninth-highest-grossing film of 1980, just ahead of The Blues Brothers.
The private island that served as the setting to The Blue Lagoon has since opened to the public, though not for free. Marketed as Turtle Island, the getaway offers 14 private beaches and books no more than 14 couples at a time. In the above video, filmed in 2015, Atkins and director Randal Kleiser returned to the iconic beach for the first time in nearly 35 years.
While watching The Blue Lagoon, an animal scientist spotted the Fiji crested iguana (Brachylophus vitiensis) in one of the shots of island wildlife. According to a 1981 issue of New Scientist, herpetologist John Gibbons got wind of the sighting and eventually traveled to the Fijian island where filming took place, where he ultimately identified a new colony of the species.
You might be tempted to think that the 1980 film is a sexed-up version of the 1949 movie by the same name, but the recent version sticks more closely to the original 1908 novel by Henry De Vere Stacpoole. The 1949 version, which starred Jean Simmons and Donald Houston as the stranded lovers, was a more sanitized take on the source material. It also wasn’t even the first cinematic take on the novel: There’s a silent film adaptation of the story from 1923.
And not even a direct-to-video sequel, either: a full-fledged cinematic effort released in 1991. In an improbable turn of events, the son of Emmeline and Richard ends up getting stranded on the exact same island along with another nubile young castaway. Brian Krause and Milla Jovovich play the central couple. It’s Jovovich’s second film, and let’s be thankful she continued to act after the reviews for this head-scratcher of a follow-up was made: It currently has a zero percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The 1980 movie and the original novel both end on a hopeful note. Stranded for days at sea, Emmeline and Richard are rescued, and a sailor examining their bodies proclaims, “They’re asleep,” implying the couple have survived. The sequel novel, 1923’s The Garden of God, begins with a correction: “No, they are dead.” Whoops! Return to the Blue Lagoon has little in common with the book sequel, save for the sad fate of Emmeline and Richard. They bite it in that one, too. Bummer.
Because why shouldn’t there be? This will probably be the only re-telling of the Blue Lagoon story to feature a prom scene. Watch at your own peril. One bright point? Christopher Atkins plays one of the teachers on this class trip gone so very wrong.