Stanley Kubrick’s controversial film adaptation remains a deeply unsettling experience
Stanley Kubrick, a director renown for having an unwavering obsession with absolute control, has often been accused of lacking empathy, not only in fictional terms, but in the creative realms of reality, the demand of living up to such standards taking its toll on various cast members throughout the years. Kubrick’s movies are impeccably constructed with an almost manic attention to detail, his unyielding perfectionism earning him both enemies and allies during an astonishing career in which he delivered world class films in almost every genre. Favouring mise-en-scène, subliminal imagery and mood-altering colours over characterisation and traditional storytelling, his visions can be cold and sterile in a way that is emotionally draining, communicating with audiences on a much more visceral level. 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, but the director’s less than conventional methods and propensity for sparking outrage have left some of the authors who inspired him feeling 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.” Six years later, King would turn his hand to directing, producing the wildly overblown Maximum Overdrive, a creative misfire that would prove to be his first and last foray as a filmmaker. Perhaps he underestimated the extent of Kubrick’s achievement just a little.
Burgess was similarly displeased, not necessarily with Kubrick (though certain differences 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. Discussing 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 Kubrick’s sobering yet wildly theatrical adaptation, a film of audio, visual and thematic extremities that apologises for absolutely nothing. I can only imagine how audiences reacted to the movie back in 1971. 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 even more extreme on several occasions (the teenage girls who Alex frolics with were 10 years old and doped on booze in the literary version) had a more redemptive ending than Kubrick’s startling return to victorious debauch, many feeling that the latter promoted an indulgence in our darkest urges in a way that was unhealthy.
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!Frank Alexander
The ending in question, an epilogue which expands on the deconditioned state that Kubrick finishes on, instead portrays a reconditioned Alex, offering an emotional and moral resolution for a character who is previously bereft of either. 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. Furthermore, it questions the morality of such an endeavour. How does man determine and enforce its own beliefs absolutely without jeopardising basic freedoms? Isn’t it just as immoral to extricate man from personal choice, regardless of the consequences?
Ironically, the omission of Burgess’ epilogue wasn’t a concerted effort on the part of Kubrick, who was so taken with his novel that he abandoned a Napoleon Bonaparte-related project to adapt it for the screen at the suggestion of his wife. “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 public reaction was natural towards 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, neither of which would exist if not intrinsic to the human condition. For centuries ruling classes, monarchies, governments and organised religions have looked to suppress such urges, usually while submitting to or even indulging in them. Punishment up to and including public execution, however hypocritical, was humanity’s initial deterrent, and still is to a lesser degree, but today science has begun to take precedence. An understanding of the terms good and evil and their consequences are key to a civilised society free from the raw, barbaric responses of yesteryear. Many feel that rape, violence, and other forms of evil are the product of nurture and environment rather than nature, a product of psychology, not the supernatural, though as Kubrick’s protagonist suggests, there are exceptions to the rule, people who are largely unaffected whose raw essence cannot be subdued.
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”. Alex is cold, cunning and calculated, a figure of fearsome reverence with a psychotic charisma that makes him the natural leader 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 — his defence of it manifesting in the threat of violence.
A Clockwork Orange revels in images of sex and violence, but Kubrick alleviates affairs through presentation, adding an almost whimsical coating of gallows humour to a society stripped of basic civility. This is punctuated by our gang’s costumes, based on McDowell’s suggestion of using cricket uniforms, garments that Kubrick altered by having his cast wear their jockstraps on the outside, a phallic symbol of the gang’s outward defiance. 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 to 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 riverside, the violence has a comical, almost vaudevillian air, one that eases the first act’s almost ceaseless sense of 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 chosen 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 therapy. 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 images and startling use of colour ferociously affirm. His fellow 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 is free from limitations. Like any successful sociopath, he’s also intelligent and charming, projecting an almost lovable roguishness until those moments when extreme acts of wanton depravity reveal something else entirely. 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”.
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.Alex
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’s 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, all of which meld to create a dialect that is both guttural and refined, educated and illiterate. Kubrick utilises Nadsat to its fullest capacities. It is essential to the movie’s power and uneasy magnetism.
It’s 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 its 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’s a pungent whiff of self-loathing to the entire system, all of it tied to 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 — grotesque caricatures that highlight the underlying perversity of the human race and its capacity for denial, self-delusion and sanctimonious posturing.
It’s the peculiar powers of piety that our protagonist latches onto in his quest for correctional absolution. 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, the source of our oppressed protagonist’s salvation, both superficially and in the darkest depths of his soul. Ironically, behind all the proclamations of eternal damnation, the most empathetic figure in the entire movie is the prison’s priest, a severe creature 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 class 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 both 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, is symbolic of mankind’s cruellest philosophical misgivings and procedures. Those scenes are a testament to Kubrick’s attention to detail, his understanding of and ability to tap into our most primal fears. It’s not surprising that McDowell’s cornea was severely scratched during filming, leaving him temporarily blind. As Shelley Duvall would attest after being put through the physical and emotional wringer during her time working on The Shining, when you signed up to work with Kubrick, inhumane conditions were often par for the course.
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. The soundtrack gives us an eclectic, juxtaposing mix of classical music and futuristic synth compositions from transgender composer Wendy Carlos, a Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center collaborator who was so intrinsic to the evolution of synth music that she even worked on the development of Robert Moog’s Moog synthesiser, the first commercially available keyboard instrument. Carlos, who would release a second version of the album featuring cues and musical elements unused in the film, forges a nightmarish audio void of startling potency that sinks to the very pit of your stomach. Scenes featuring the Ludovico technique, scored to classical music’s most delectable delicacies, are 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’re 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’re no longer of use they are simply killers, something Kubrick would later explore in 1985’s military indictment Full Metal Jacket, another film criticised for its lack of feeling. It is this kind of hypocrisy that permeates the final act of A Clockwork Orange. While the army programmes killers on the orders of governments, those same governments set out to deprogramme Alex, a teenager who is admonished for having a similar disposition. In another situation he’d be embraced as a hero and sent out to die. Our capacity for capriciousness, it seems, is just as intrinsic as our capacity for moral judgement.
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.Minister
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. “The Minister, played by Anthony Sharp, is clearly a figure of the Right,” the filmmaker would state. “The writer, Patrick Magee, is a lunatic of the Left… They differ only in their dogma. Their means and ends are hardly distinguishable.” So 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. His parents outright disown him in favour of a lodger and veritable stranger who pounces upon him with violent glee. The vagrants he once harmed set upon him like a pack of vicious hyenas. 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’s 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 politics, hypocrisy and deceit.
Ultimately, Kubrick’s extreme vision is not as far-fetched as its theatrical flourishes may 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, society increasing its capacity for 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.
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.
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.