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Fear and Self-Loathing: A Clockwork Orange and Questions of Morality

a clockwork orange poster

Understanding Stanley Kubrick’s Controversial film adaptation

Stanley Kubrick is a director who has often been accused of lacking empathy. His movies are impeccably constructed with an almost manic attention to detail, and perhaps 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 kind 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, 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, feeling 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.”

a clockwork orange kubrick shoots the droogs

Burgess was similarly displeased with Kubrick’s vision of his most famous novel, stating, “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.”

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!

This was a response to public outrage for 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 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 doped on booze in the literary version) had a more redemptive ending than Kubrick’s startling return to carnal desire, and many feel that the latter promotes an indulgence in our darkest urges in a way that is unhealthy.

a clockwork orange droogs

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 man-made constructs, and neither terms would exist if they were not intrinsic to the human condition. A correct understanding of these terms and their consequences are key to a civilised society — an understanding that is the product of nurture rather than nature. Man has the capacity for good and bad in equal measures, and those terms can be relative to circumstance. For example, stealing is justifiable if the person committing that crime is on the verge of starvation. Murder is labelled manslaughter when it is deemed an act of self-defence.

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 on in the movie when he reprimands fellow droog Dim was interrupting a ladies 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 images that are almost subliminal in nature — and his defence of it manifests in the threat of violence.

a clockwork orange alex

The movie revels in images of sex and violence, but Kubrick alleviates his polemical study of man’s capacity for evil through presentation. 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 at odds 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 an über theatrical, almost comical air, one that alleviates the film’s almost ceaseless depravity.

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.

Just as important is the movie’s dialogue, delivered with a flip and amusing sense of revelry that allows the film a levity-inducing flourish. Nadsat, the name given to the story’s particular dialect, is a form of slang whose initial inspiration came from the author’s trip to Leningrad in the early 1960s, a city that reminded Mancunian Burgess of the industrial Manchester of his youth, but Nadsat is a patchwork of different languages and dialects: 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.

a clockwork orange alex and his droogs

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. It is after this that we are shown the extent of its use, one that is not specific 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 distinct whiff of self-loathing, all of it delivered with the threat of violence, 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, but 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.

a clockwork orange aversion therapy

That ‘cure’ comes in a radical form of aversion therapy, presented by Kubrick with a wicked sense of comic horror. Alex becomes sympathetic based not on an underlying goodness, but from a naive 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. It’s interesting that images of war are prevalent throughout. States are not moral agents, they are systems of power, and young men are 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. It is this kind of hypocrisy that permeates the final act of A Clockwork Orange. Our capacity for capriciousness 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 movie’s characters are mired in that hypocrisy. 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, the government are grab-tailing weasels concerned only with personal acclaim. 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.

a clockwork orange kubrick

Alex’s redemption comes in the form of a return to base values. His unfortunate (fortunate?) meeting with a past victim, now a widower and wheelchair-bound, 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, one 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.

In the end, Kubrick’s extreme vision is not as far-fetched as it may seem. Cold and heartless, maybe. Queerly abstract and caricaturistic? Absolutely! But stripped of its grandiose embellishments it is not as detached from reality as the movie’s presentation suggests. 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.

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  1. When I viewed this excellent film with a friend back in the late 1990’s, he asked what thd term “gulliver” meant. I said “the head”, and he responded in a way that sounded like he didn’t believe me. I was guessing (albeit confidently), and I learned later I was right.


    1. Language is the movie’s driving force, no question, as it is the novel’s. Burgess created something quite special with Nadsat. It gives the story so much character. Also, I find that tales of the future often benefit from a mixture of speculation and antiquity. I think they age much better that way. It also gives such tales an added level of authenticity.


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