Understanding Stanley Kubrick’s controversial film adaptation
Stanley Kubrick, a director renown for having an unwavering obsession with absolute control, has often been accused of lacking empathy. His movies are impeccably constructed, with an almost manic attention to detail, and because of this his visions can be cold and sterile in a way that is emotionally draining. In this regard, Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, a tale of graphic rape, ultra-violence and political reconditioning, is the perfect source material for a Kubrick adaptation, but the director’s propensity for sparking outrage and a preference for visual storytelling over the more conventional has left many of the authors who inspired him rather disgruntled.
Both The Shining and A Clockwork Orange were sources of criticism from their original authors. Kubrick famously rejected Stephen King’s proposed involvement with the former, describing his writing as ‘weak’, a comment that led King to decree that the filmmaker “thinks too much and feels too little.” He was also critical of Jack Nicholson’s performance, suggesting that the character’s transition from sane to insane never occurred, owing to the fact that Nicholson appeared to be deranged from the outset. “All he does is get crazier,” he would say. “In the book, he’s a guy who’s struggling with his sanity and finally loses it. To me, that’s a tragedy. In the movie, there’s no tragedy because there’s no real change.”
Burgess was similarly displeased, not necessarily with Kubrick personally (though certain differences only agitated him further), but with his novel’s own capacity for misinterpretation, a fear that was only heightened by the source material’s silver screen adaptation, which would inevitably reach a broader, potentially more impressionable audience. On his most famous work, Burgess would lament, “We all suffer from the popular desire to make the known notorious. The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate: written a quarter of a century ago, a jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me until I die. I should not have written the book because of this danger of misinterpretation.”
This was a response to public outrage against the movie. A Clockwork Orange was originally given an X rating until Kubrick cut 30 seconds of explicitly sexual footage in order to obtain an R rating. It was also condemned by the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, and was subsequently withdrawn from British cinemas at the behest of Kubrick after a spate of violent acts deemed copycat by a court of law, including the savage beating and murder of an elderly vagrant by a teenage boy. Burgess’s novel, though more extreme on several occasions (the teenage girls who Alex frolics with were 10-year-old girls and doped on booze in the literary version) had a more redemptive ending than Kubrick’s startling return to victorious debauch, and many feel that the latter promotes an indulgence in our darkest urges in a way that is unhealthy.
Frank Alexander: She was very badly raped, you see! We were assaulted by a gang of vicious, young, hoodlums in this house! In this very room you are sitting in now! I was left a helpless cripple, but for her the agony was too great! The doctor said it was pneumonia; because it happened some months later! During a flu epidemic! The doctors told me it was pneumonia, but I knew what it was! A VICTIM OF THE MODERN AGE!
The ending in question, an epilogue which expands on the deconditioned state Kubrick finishes on, instead portrays a reconditioned character, offering an emotional and moral resolution. Kubrick’s ending, which is much more fitting as a sociopolitical allegory, and is certainly in harmony with his own political beliefs, suggests that human character is innate and irreversible, that nature cannot be tamed by the force of manmade laws. This wasn’t a purposeful omission by Kubrick, who was so taken with Burgess’ novel that he abandoned a Napoleon Bonaparte-related project to adapt it for the screen. “I was excited by everything about it: the plot, the ideas, the characters, and, of course, the language,” he would say. “The story functions, of course, on several levels: political, sociological, philosophical, and, what’s most important, on a dreamlike psychological-symbolic level.” What Kubrick was unaware of was that the version he had read, a pre-1986 US copy, omitted the epilogue entirely, something that only came to his attention as he was finishing the screenplay, though despite their friendship and almost mirroring passions and beliefs, Kubrick admitted to never giving serious thought to using the epilogue, which from a cinematic perspective was surely the correct decision.
Such a reaction is natural for a film that explores man’s more primitive urges. I am in no way advocating violence, sexually motivated or otherwise, but good and evil are manmade notions, and neither terms would exist if they were not intrinsic to the human condition. An understanding of these terms and their consequences are key to a civilised society. For most people sex, violence, or other forms of ‘evil’ are the product of nurture and environment rather than nature, though as Kubrick’s protagonist suggests, there are exceptions to the rule, people whose raw essence cannot be tamed.
A Clockwork Orange is concerned with extremes, in terms of both behaviour and our acceptance of it. Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is an opportunistic teenager who thrives on acts of “ultraviolence” and a “bit of the old in out”. As a gang leader he is cold and calculated, a figure of fearsome reverence in the eyes of his band of dimwitted ‘droogs’. The only glimmer of compassion shown by Alex occurs early in the movie when he reprimands fellow droog Dim for interrupting a lady’s impromptu rendition of the the fourth choral movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Ode to Joy, but his love for the symphony is based on its capacity to fuel his delight for the delectably cruel — here expressed through a series of startling subliminal images — and his defence of it manifests in the threat of violence.
The movie revels in images of sex and violence, but Kubrick alleviates affairs through presentation, adding an almost whimsical coating of gallows humour. This is punctuated by our gang’s costumes, based on McDowell’s suggestion of using a cricket uniforms, which Kubrick altered by having his cast wear their jockstraps on the outside. The movie’s opening melee (save for a prior attack on a vagrant) is an overtly choreographed rumpus that plays out like a savage ballet on the stage of a dilapidated theatre, one juxtaposed with Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie Overture; a breezy, spirited composition juxtaposed with images of graphic rape and violence. As with Alex’s reaction to his gang’s attempted upheaval, shot in dramatic slow-motion by the river, the violence has a comical, almost vaudevillian air, one that eases the first act’s almost ceaseless depravity.
McDowell, who Kubrick hired after seeing his equally striking performance in Lindsay Anderson’s anarchic, boarding school satire If, is nothing short of precocious as the film’s lawless and ultimately victimised ‘clockwork orange’, a metaphorical term which refers to the character’s conditioned form — a person who is organic on the outside and robotic within. The film focuses on violence and state manipulation through a radical form of psychological therapy which aims to ‘improve’ mental health by forcibly altering, irrevocably, the thoughts, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours of patients, raising moral questions about free will and the concept’s capacity as a tool for totalitarian control.
In A Clockwork Orange, McDowell’s morally sick protagonist is a perfect candidate for such therapies. Though a case could be made for the influences of history and environment on your typical ‘droog’ in Kubrick’s dystopian world, Alex seems driven by something much more primal, motivated almost entirely by carnal desire, something the film’s lavish subliminal images ferociously affirm. The other droogs, as dim as they are, sense this, which is why he has so far risen to the top unchallenged. There’s no sorrow or pity or empathy in Alex, just a decadent appetite for destruction that has no limitations. He’s brazen and unabashed like a boy skipping gleefully towards his next atrocity. Like any successful sociopath, he is also intelligent and charming, projecting an almost lovable roguishness until those moments when extreme acts of wanton depravity reveal something else entirely.
Alex: There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar trying to make up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening. The Korova milkbar sold milk-plus, milk plus vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom, which is what we were drinking. This would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of the old ultra-violence.
As Kubrick himself would explain in a discussion with film critics Philip Strick and Penelope Houston, “[Alex] makes no attempt to deceive himself or the audience as to his total corruption or wickedness. He is the very personification of evil. On the other hand, he has winning qualities: his total candour, his wit, his intelligence and his energy; these are attractive qualities and ones, I might add, which he shares with Richard III”.
The movie’s dialogue is central to Alex’s peculiar charm over an audience, his flip and darkly amusing sense of revelry allowing the film a levity-inducing flourish that is sorely needed given the lurid and deeply disturbing content that lies sheetless beneath. Nadsat, the name given to the story’s particular dialect, is a form of slang inspired by Burgess’ trip to Leningrad in the early 1960s, a city that reminded the Mancunian author of the industrial Manchester of his youth, but Nadsat is a patchwork of different languages and dialects, an almost musical cacophony that includes Romany, Cockney rhyming slang, Shakespearean English, armed forces slang, and the Malay language familiar to Burgess are all melded to create a dialect that is both guttural and refined, educated and illiterate. Kubrick utilises Nadsat to its fullest capacities, and it is essential to the movie’s power and uneasy magnetism.
It is only after Alex is sentenced to 14 years in prison for the murder of a woman that Kubrick expands on mankind’s relationship with violence control. Here we are shown the extent of their influence, one that is not limited to gangs of roaming youths. The prison Alex inhabits is ruled with an anal sense of superiority. From oppressive prison guards to the perverse, fear-fuelled sermons of the resident priest, there is a pungent whiff of self-loathing, all of it delivered with the threat of violence and retribution, be that Earthly or otherwise. The visiting minister, studying the establishment’s rabble of inmates, exhibits a distinct lack of empathy as he searches for the perfect guinea pig to take part in a radical new treatment — a last ditch outlet for government control that dismisses man’s capacity for reform. Some of those characters are almost Pythonesque — gross caricatures that highlight the underlying perversity of the human race at large.
Alex immediately adorns the guise of model prisoner — a ruse designed to precipitate his release. In reality, memorised passages from the bible provide an outlet for violent fantasies and sexual titillation. Images of a BC Alex torturing Jesus as he lurches towards crucifixion are unashamedly exploitative, and the source of our oppressed protagonist’s salvation. Ironically, behind all the proclamations of eternal damnation, the most empathetic figure in the entire movie is the prison’s priest, who sees the government’s new treatment not as a cure, but as a form of mind control that prohibits man’s capacity for change — an astute commentary on a ruling order that looks to dominate rather than understand.
That ‘cure’ comes in a radical form of aversion therapy known as the Ludovico technique, presented by Kubrick with a wicked sense of comic horror. The scenes in question, some of the most startling and iconic in all of cinema, are at once queerly humorous and excruciating to behold, the device used to forcibly maintain Alex’s attention a gut-punch to anyone with even the remotest aversion to enclosed spaces or bodily intrusions. The relentless, mechanical way in which his eyeballs are moistened touches a raw nerve. Those scenes are a testament to Kubrick’s attention to detail in understanding and presenting our very worst fears. It’s not surprising that McDowell’s cornea was severely scratched during filming, leaving him temporarily blind. When you signed up to work with Kubrick, physical and emotional torture was an almost prerequisite it seems.
Alex begins to project sympathy based not on an underlying goodness, but from a naïve trust in the government’s gullibility. Images of rape and violence are beamed directly into his unblinking eyes, a daily marathon of sickness accompanied by a very familiar and unfortunate score. The use of music throughout is just extraordinary. It is witty, ironic and at times downright visceral. Kubrick’s appreciation and loyalty towards Burgess’ novel flows through every aspect, exploding like a spurting artery on a snow white canvas.
It’s interesting that images of war are prevalent throughout Alex’s reconditioning. States are not moral agents, they are systems of power, and young men are often expected to kill indiscriminately, not in the name of democracy as so much rhetoric would have us believe, but in the name of control and financial gain. Those killers are lauded as heroes, but once they are no longer of use they are simply killers, something Kubrick would explore in 1985’s military indictment Full Metal Jacket. It is this kind of hypocrisy that permeates the final act of A Clockwork Orange. Our capacity for capriciousness, it seems, is just as intrinsic as our capacity for violence.
Minister: Padre, there are subtleties! We are not concerned with motives, with the higher ethics. We are concerned only with cutting down crime and with relieving the ghastly congestion in our prisons. He will be your true Christian, ready to turn the other cheek, ready to be crucified rather than crucify, sick to the heart at the thought of killing a fly. Reclamation! Joy before the angels of God! The point is that it works.
The characters in A Clockwork Orange are mired in hypocrisy, reflecting Kubrick’s suggestion that there is little difference between the right and left of the political spectrum, stating, “The Minister, played by Anthony Sharp, is clearly a figure of the Right. The writer, Patrick Magee, is a lunatic of the Left… They differ only in their dogma. Their means and ends are hardly distinguishable.”
Just who are we supposed to root for exactly? There is hardly a character worthy of our sympathy in the entire movie. A temporarily reconditioned Alex is, but those sympathies are based on emotions that are ultimately illusory. The law is cold and heartless, government officials are grab-tailing weasels concerned only with personal advancement. Even Alex’s deceased victim is presented as a cold, sharp-tongued bitch with a willing vicious streak. After Alex is cured, there is no place for him in society or at home. The vagrants he once harmed set upon him like a pack of vicious hyenas, and his former droogs, now insulated by the badge of the law in the ultimate emblem of hypocrisy, beat Alex within an inch of his life for simply being. In Kubrick’s imagined society, decency is weakness, dignity is a source of ridicule, and morality is for suckers, if it even exists at all. It reminds me of the famous Bertrand Russell quote, “Life is nothing but a competition to be the criminal rather than the victim.”
Alex’s ‘redemption’ comes in the form of an unfortunate (fortunate?) meeting with past victim Mr. Alexander, now a widower and wheelchair-bound. Alexander is a liberal writer beset on bringing down the criminal justice system and the government that controls it, but one note of Singing In the Rain from our protagonist, the very ditty that became the glib soundtrack for the destruction of his wife, is all that is needed to spark his own innate sense of sadism, a frothing transformation that gets him “put away” not for his treatment of Alex, the arrogantly willing poster boy for government image cleansing, but for his attempts to oppose that government and everything they stand for. Alex is victorious, but his victory is mired in hypocrisy and deceit.
Ultimately, Kubrick’s extreme vision is not as far-fetched as it’s theatrical flourishes often suggest, which is presumably why it touched such a raw nerve. Cold and heartless, maybe. Queerly abstract and caricaturistic? Absolutely! But stripped of its grandiose embellishments it hits pretty close to home. Based on enforced notions of civility and media-spun impressions of democracy (at least in the western world), humanity is said to have come on in leaps and bounds, and as a society we have come a long way in terms of equality and general compassion, but our nature has been tamed rather than altered, and those rulers who tame mankind do so with a ruthlessness and level of hypocrisy that far outweighs the fictional visions of Burgess and Kubrick. CCTV, GPS and other modern fancies that keep us very much under surveillance are not indicative of a truly enlightened species. They are indicative of humanity in its most primal form, however repressed or well concealed.