From Page to Projector: ‘A Clockwork Orange’

clockwork orangeDirector Stanley Kubrick’s legacy has been built around adapting novels into iconic films, many of which have far outstripped their book counterparts. “Dr. Strangelove,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” all have a strong place in cinematic history, and all are much more well known than the books or short stories they were based on. Kubrick’s and Stephen King’s versions of “The Shining” are both well known, as are the two versions of today’s story, “A Clockwork Orange.”

Kubrick’s 1971 film resonates more among the populous, but the book, written by Anthony Burgess and published in 1962, is highly acclaimed, as well. It made Modern Library’s list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. The author also had an issue with Kubrick’s telling of the story — well, he actually had issue with the American publication, which Kubrick used as his framework.

The story follows a youth named Alex, the leader of a gang that spends its evenings wreaking havoc upon the town and its people. Alex and his “droogs” — the youth of the tale speak in a made-up slang dialect called “nadsat” — break into people’s houses, steal, fight, vandalize, rape … just about any kind of foul deed, they do, and with no remorse. One night, Alex accidentally kills a woman and is caught by the police, sending him on a long prison term. While he’s there, he volunteers to be part of an experiment to cure criminal behavior. He is forced to watch movies of atrocities done over the course of human history, eventually causing him to become physically sick whenever subjected to violence or sex. He is released, but finds he cannot live in the outside world any longer and eventually tries to kill himself, though unsuccessfully. The government, as a way to protect itself from public scorn, fixes Alex’s condition so he is back to the same demented person he was before.

This is where the movie ends. The Minister of the Interior personally comes to offer Alex a job, income and housing as long as he gives the government his support, and Alex, with a mad grin constantly across his face, dreams his old twisted thoughts. The final line, taken from the book, is Alex’s narration to the audience, “I was cured all right.”

Burgess’ original work, however, includes one additional chapter after this moment, in which Alex, having returned to the same life as before, finds himself unsatisfied and, through his own free will, starting off toward a normal, peaceful life. It’s a sign that the culture of youth, even the destructive counterculture building up in the ’60s when Burgess wrote the story, eventually will pass. Leaving this ending out leaves the audience with a sour taste of the state of society and of the future, as not one character shows a redeemable quality. By showing Alex a shot at true redemption, not the one forced upon him, Burgess offers a faint gleam of hope at the end of an otherwise completely gloomy story.

That’s not to say it doesn’t work Kubrick’s way. The adaptation is superb as usual, with the important themes and ideas of the novel prevalent throughout the film. The soundtrack is expertly chosen, with a mix of electronic music to symbolize the setting of the not-too-distant future and the classical music that Alex holds so dear. The scenery and costumes Kubrick incorporates perfectly capture the strange world in which the story takes place. Malcolm McDowell does an incredible job as Alex, expressing each aspect of the character from the insane smiler at the beginning to the dejected vagrant near the end.

What sets the two apart, aside from the ending, is how much easier the film is to understand. Kubrick employs the confusing language but cuts back on some of it in Alex’s narrations, and seeing the whole world played out on screen gives some context clues as to what the people are talking about. The film also is very blatant in regards to its symbolism, as the sexual imagery runs rampant everywhere, from the art displayed on nearly every wall to the milk bar with mannequins as furniture and decorum to the suggestively shaped popsicles (oh by the way, if you’re not a fan of nudity, do not watch this movie). It’s very graphic, especially in regards to sex, and though it’s clearly being done to make a point and say something bigger, it sometimes makes it too clear what the audience is supposed to feel.

The book, on the other hand, takes a lot more attention and imagination to fully grasp. The reader must paint his or her own picture of what the world and culture is like, and with most of the words coming across as nonsense, it’s all but guaranteed that no two people can visualize the same events. It’s a challenging read both in the subtext and the basic text, which can be enjoyable for some and exhausting for others. The book also actually references and explains the confusing title, one piece of symbolism the movie sadly left out.

Once the story got rolling, I found myself liking the book more as it challenged my imagination. However, either version is a twisted treat for any fan of dystopian tales.

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One Response to From Page to Projector: ‘A Clockwork Orange’

  1. Gwyn McVay says:

    While Kubrick’s movie is definitely compelling (although you really need to warn for rape, not just “sex” — there is nothing sexy about the former, in which the human penis is used as a weapon as literally as it is in the scene just before Alex is betrayed by his gang), chopping off Chapter 21 — the hopeful ending — completely misses the symphonic structure Burgess set up. The book is very clearly written in three “movements” of seven chapters each. Kubrick’s structure is a bit like trying to play Vivaldi’s “Three Seasons” instead of the original four.

    The slang of the “nadsats,” or teens, is directly derived from Russian. “Droog” is a literal translation of “friend,” and slang words of the sixties are just as literally translated — a “chick” Alex spots is translated as the Russian “ptitsa,” and an unattractive old woman, an “old bag,” becomes “soomka,” which just means “bag.” There’s a dash of Cockney rhyming slang here and there (indeed, the title is Cockney slang for something mad or nonsensical), but otherwise it isn’t nonsense at all, as you call it — it’s merely an extremely literal version of Russian. “Nadsat” is a suffix added to numbers that has exactly the same function as “teen” in English.

    Missing that very basic fact about the book is to miss the whole Cold War atmosphere in which the book was originally written; Alex’s world, familiar enough in its trappings of hopeless parents and delinquent teens (Alex has been in and out of “corkskol,” or “corrective school,” and has a counselor checking up on him, whom the movie unnecessarily makes into a molester), has been culturally invaded by the then-Soviets. It also has a touch of Brave New World in its society, in that Alex and pals aren’t sneaking off into the alley to do hallucinogenic drugs; they stroll right into bars that sell the drugs legally to all walks of society, including a bonafide opera singer. (The scene in which she appears, in both book and movie, sets the stage for the ultimate eruption of the tensions that exist between Alex and his alleged best friends.)

    How can I put this? You might want to reread this one. When the desperate Alex knocks on an oddly familiar door, he hasn’t a clue at the time that the writer living there (with a bodyguard in the film, played by a very young David Prowse, later inseparable from his role as Darth Vader) is the same one he and crew terrorized earlier, in a scene Burgess had to get drunk to write because it was taken directly from his life. He’s fallen from the hands of the state directly into those of an anti-government activist, who also wants to use him as a pawn. That is why the Minister makes a public show of gaining Alex’s support once he’s recovered from his suicide attempt — he was directly driven to it by the revenge of his anti-government former victim. (There’s also a huge political point in the identity of the policemen who beat him and leave him for dead. Everything here is very, very deliberately set up by Burgess.)

    Really, though. The Russian thing. That makes a difference.

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