A Question of Fate
Sometime after the completion of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick had finalised his screenplay adaptation of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, when he became aware that the copy of the book from which he worked was actually an abridged American edition, one chapter shorter than the original British. Of discovering the chapter’s existence, Kubrick remarked that he never seriously considered adding it to his screenplay and even went so far as to imply it was superfluous, but, by omitting it from his picture, it’s possible that he gutted the story of Anthony Burgess’ original intent. Specifically, the idea that a delinquent thug named Alex whose crimes are charted across both versions is capable of choosing good. As it happens, the violent dystopia of A Clockwork Orange was partly inspired by an attack upon Burgess’ wife, who was assaulted by a group of American soldiers and suffered a miscarriage as a result, so it’s significant that in the final pages of his novel he would offer those men the possibility of redemption and understandable that he’d resent such an effort being written off. Even so, though much of the story found its beginnings in his very personal views on morality, there was also a certain amount of paranoia that would find expression in both the pages of the book and Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of the material…
My name is Simon Fay and you’re watching Content Lit, a channel dedicated to the best books of the 20th century. In these episodes, I’ll be looking at a selection of novels that Stanley Kubrick translated to screen, a director whose filmography was made up of thirteen motion pictures, eleven of which were based on books. Each of these novels was distinct in what inspired the director to take them on. Each of their writers had a different reaction to seeing their work transcribed in such a way. As such, I’ve created an episode for the projects that are of particular note in how the films and novels compare, among which you’ll find 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke, and The Shining by Stephen King, and that I’ll link to at the end of this video. But for now I just want to concentrate on one of the more controversial selections, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, a story that perhaps best highlights how the relevance of the literary form was usurped by cinema, but that in either case explored troubling questions that didn’t necessarily have any reassuring answers. Before we get to that though, I should probably explain how an orange could have clockwork and what that would mean for you…
A Story of Words
Whether you’ve read A Clockwork Orange or not, chances are you’re familiar with the language from it. Nadsat, as Anthony Burgess dubbed it, is a form of speech utilised by his subculture of delinquent teens that borrows some words from Russian and is also influenced by British cockney rhyming slang. In this way, the lead character, Alex, refers to his close friends as droogs and to money as pretty polly. The overall effect is surreal, but it’s had the long term benefit of helping the book to become timeless. The novel is set in a near-future society you see, but it was published in 1962. If Burgess had utilised the actual vernacular of that time, it would have aged his story badly. Instead, rather than take the literal words from 1960’s youth culture, he borrowed the spirit of them. That is, he created a language to show how a generation of fifteen-year-olds could cement a bond within their ranks, exclude authority figures, and that, in the context of their fictional word, demonstrate their growth out of adolescence as a generation of even younger teens come up behind them with their own mangled form of the English language. Moreover, A Clockwork Orange is written in first-person perspective, so Nadsat isn’t just something you’re exposed to in snippets of dialogue – the entire book is so dense with it in fact that it can feel a little impenetrable until you begin to parse its meaning and actually feel more immersed in the story as a result. Though to say that this is all the Nadsat language adds to the novel is an understatement.
“What’s it going to be then?”
It’s a question Alex hears at the beginning of A Clockwork Orange and is asked a dozen times more in the course of events. At the outset, it refers to what he would like to drink, but as he looks across the bar, it’s apparent that the question is a lot more loaded than that. For starters, the drinks they have to choose from are all different forms of milk, laced with drugs that will either fuel their violence, or send them on artificial religious trips that would leave them tranquillized where they sit. Alex loathes the latter option, disgusted by the broken individuals who’ve given themselves over to the sorry state. What he finds beauty in is the active destruction of the world. As such, when he and his fellow droogs knock back their poison of choice, it’s with the goal of assaulting numerous people. On the street, they attack an elderly scholar and rip apart his books. At a local shop, they don the masks of historical and popular figures, such as Henry VII and Elvis, demonstrating a further perversion of culture, before they brutally attack the shop workers and consider violating an elderly woman as she lays disabled on the floor. Throughout it all, Alex celebrates the sight of blood in orgasmic delight, which you could certainly think is the reaction of a clinical psychopath, but might not be too far off the thinking of an actual delinquent teen. This is because as adolescent males develop, many show a temporary decline in cognitive empathy between the ages of thirteen and sixteen. Now, obviously most kids don’t go around committing acts of such frightening violence, but it does bring to mind Alex’s detachment from the consequences of his actions. To this end, Nadsat is also utilised to demonstrate his mental state in that, when he refers to events that would make anybody else break down in tears, he just refers to the sadness of them as boohoohooing, even in moments that he takes more seriously such as when later in the story he’s forced to view images of the holocaust. Moreover, whenever he refers to seeing blood, he actually uses the word viddy, which you can take as an abstraction of the word video and that points to the flat, media like interaction he has with the world. Really, the people in it are just characters for him and his friends to torture through a screen of their adolscent haze and if they’re ever lectured on how what they’re doing is wrong, they merely laugh it off as irrelevant to the fact that they’re having fun. Cigarettes, for example, are referred to as cancers, which shows how they’re aware of tobacco’s effects but smoke it anyway heedless of the notion that they should care about their future at all. In general, you could refer to this attitude as petulant, but it’s a trait that they accept with pride, adopting yet more baby-like lingo into their dictionary of slang so that jam becomes jamiwam and apologies become appy polly loggies. This, along with the milk they drink, is a clever way of drawing attention to the toddlerish aspects of their behaviour over the more macho oriented qualities you’d usually associate with their crimes, and which Burgess further emphasizes in his version with their oversized shoulder pads that Alex himself describes as a mockery of having real shoulders. It all just contributes to a subversion of the responsible, manly persona society expects them to adopt and reminds me a little of how the Sex Pistol’s used to act in interviews though I suppose that would be more of a case of life imitating art than of art imitating life.
Nonetheless, while Alex might insist on retaining some childish qualities, he is on the verge of adulthood as the question at the beginning of the chapter implies, in that the assaults he commits are what he chooses to do and will result in serious repercussions. In this way, you could also take the infantile talk as Burgess making fun of teenagers for hiding behind such idiotic slang. In interviews he actually stated he was disgusted with the cultural illiteracy of young people in general. As such, the book includes countless references to famous operas and other classical pieces, but many of them are fictitious, which I didn’t realise at first and so took to mean Burgess was lampooning any ignorant readers like myself who might have accepted the fact of their existence without further investigation. Worse still, as Alex constantly refers to us as his brothers while he narrates the tale, Burgess makes us complicit with the boy as we too choose to continue reading, a point which is underscored when Alex promises us yet worse things to come.
Now, it’s a quirk of humankind that most people like to witness acts of destruction. In the introduction of the book, Anthony Burgess himself admits to having taken pleasure in writing some of the more despicable scenes of the novel, though it has to be said, in other interviews he claimed that the process made him feel sick. Regardless, the fact that people enjoy violence is something he knew to be true. Horror and action movies allow audiences to revel in it as enthusiastically as the droogs do, without fear of causing actual harm. Combative sports get crowds of people to jump out of their chairs with excitement. And car-crash entertainment, as the popular phrase goes, indicates how even in day to day life, we’re compelled to stop and watch a disaster unfold. Say what you will about the psychology behind all this, but I think that as I read A Clockwork Orange, when Alex said there would be more violence, I for one felt tantalised at first, taking it as a challenge to see the story to its end, then appropriately defeated before I got halfway through.
In point of fact, as the book continues it doesn’t take long for Alex to make good on his word. He and his fellow droogs fight a rival gang who are in the process of assaulting a ten-year-old girl. He gives one of them a nasty Cheshire smile. They beat a homeless man who laments that civilization could advance to the point where there are literally men in orbit of the Earth while chaos is allowed to reign below. And, most interestingly, they break into a writer’s house, who, in a meta twist, is working on a text called A Clockwork Orange, and who shares the name of Alexander, which makes him both a father figure who literally created our protagonist and a doppelganger for what Alex could be if he left his life of crime behind. Funnily enough, in real life, Burgess was routinely asked what the title of the novel means, but for anybody who was genuinely curious, the answer was always right there, explained by the stand-in Burgess himself:
(A Clockwork Orange refers to) The attempt to impose upon man, a creature of growth and capable of sweetness….laws and conditions appropriate to a mechanical creation.
It’s an early foreshadowing of the major theme of the book, that, in essence, posits if Alex was to be robbed of his ability to choose, he would also be robbed of his ability to grow beyond evil, thereby making him nothing better than a machine. It’s an intriguing thought for Alex to consider, who often seems drawn to intellectual ideas, but he’s still a lot more interested in his own immoral view of life, which he sums up for one of his droogs as believing that whatever world in the galaxy a creature might live on, it will always be broken up into two camps of people, with one group getting knifed and the other doing the knifing. Consequently, in a scene that mirrors what happened in reality, the author’s wife is assaulted by the gang of droogs. It’s a vile turn, even for a book that has already provoked the reader a handful of times. However, it’s yet another example of what Burgess had in mind when he created the Nadsat language. All too aware that for some people such terrible assaults could be read as pornograpgy, the attack on the author’s wife is couched in the bizarre vernacular of the youths, like, for example, when her groodies are described as exhibiting pink glazzies. As a result, rather than get a beat by beat account of how these two innocents are violated, it’s through a fog that we understand exactly what’s happening until Alex sums up in plain English just how bad a state their victims are left in, which at such an early stage of the story, forces us to ask exactly why Burgess would want to expose us to such disturbing subject matter.
To begin with, you might wonder if the point of the narrative is to root out the motivations of these evildoers. The book showcases a world where the state is a soulless entity that exists to exercise whatever petty control it can over its citizens. Given that much of the British youngsters’ slang has been taken from Russian, you can also interpret the language’s use as a sign that the Soviet Union of this world has spread its tyrannical influence to the UK. Alex’s mother, for example, is legally required to work at a statemart while Alex himself is hounded by a post-corrective officer who only wants him to go to school so that the boy won’t become a black mark on his record. At the same time, there is clearly a free market at work. The media blitzes Alex with advertisements for high-tech products he has no interest in alongside news stories about war, sports personalities, strikes and other forms of ultra-violence. To put it bluntly, from society’s perspective, it seems that Alex is just an errant body that they want to reclaim whether it be through government coercion or capitalist temptation. As a result, you might say that such a materialistic civilisation is doomed to be riddled with thugs of Alex’s type, but then, as Alex himself asks, nobody wonders what makes a good person good, so why should they wonder why he is bad? Badness, after all, is a part of his self so by denying him the option to express it they are actually denying the right for anybody to have a self at all. On top of that, regarding any of the more compassionate ideas regarding his behaviour, he only laughs at adults who insist that his amoral ways can be put down to the conditions in which he was raised. Furthermore, while history is full of rebels who made it their business to fight the machine in a similar fashion to the droogs, that has nothing to do with his delinquency; he says that he engages in antisocial behaviour simply because that’s what he likes to do.
On that note, Burgess once again begins to challenge the reader with yet worse atrocities than what we’ve been exposed to so far.
At a record store, Alex picks up a pair of ten-year-old girl’s, gets them drunk, and assaults them in his bedroom. Afterwards, he breaks into an elderly woman’s house and attempts to do the same, but ends up beating her to death instead. It goes without saying that any right-thinking person would be repulsed by either of these crimes, nevertheless, with depressing awareness that there are indeed people who wouldn’t be, Burgess once again couches the material in a gauze of the Nadsat language. In this way, the extent of Alex’s violation of the children in his bedroom isn’t fully digestible until they come to tears and curse him as they leave. And while the attack on the old woman is played to comic effect, it really seems to be as a reminder that we’re volunteering to continue spending time with Alex, given that much of it is interspersed with nudges and winks from him as he refers to us as his brothers and to himself as our Humble Narrator. On one level, I expect some readers might have been angry at Burgess and blamed him for what they were taking an interest in. Other people might have had a more introspective sense of self-disgust. But at its worst, I think what really makes it difficult to get through is when you realise that we’re not just complacent with reading Alex’s actions in the book, we’re complacent in ignoring how it’s happening in the real world right now. Essentially, “What’s it going to be then?” isn’t just a question addressed to Alex. It’s directed at his parents who turn a blind eye to his criminal endeavours. It’s directed at a group of old women who could rat him out to the police but don’t for fear of putting themselves in danger. And it’s directed at us the readers as we’re challenged on what should be done with such a hopeless malcontent.
Still, while it would appear that all of these moral compromises are the result of a society that has fallen from grace, Alex does at least begin to face some consequences. Having upset his gang of droogs, he’s shocked to discover they’ve arranged for him to be arrested. It’s a turn of events that Alex and his father actually had a dream about, which is interesting for how in a story that will ultimately ask if Alex can choose good, it also appears to be a question if there’s any choice in the universe at all, and, aside from the final chapter, the dream and others like it are easily the more conspicuous omissions from Kubrick’s version of the tale.
A Film of Pictures
The opening shot of the first Clockwork Orange adaptation sees a slow zoom out from the main character’s face. It was directed by Andy Warhol, six years before Stanley Kubrick created his own version of the story in which he chose to begin the film the same way. Given Kubrick’s dedication to research, it’s possible he knew about the existence of Warhol’s much more obscure version of the story, but I think it’s all the more likely a coincidence, which for me brings to mind the director David Fincher’s comment that there are maybe two ways to shoot any given scene, and the other one is wrong. In spite of that, the shot is notable in Kubrick’s filmography for being what most people would agree was the first time he truly honed the Kubrick Stare, a facial expression characterised by the downward slant of an actor’s forehead coupled with the crack of an unhinged smile, and that you could actually say was first spotted in Alfred Hitchcock’s psycho. You could take this to mean Kubrick is taking the baton from Psycho, in that while that film ends with knowledge of just how unhinged its villain is, A Clockwork Orange begins with that knowledge, though generally speaking, Kubrick didn’t really engage with other directors’ work like this. In other words then, even when Kubrick constrained himself to using the same ideas as somebody else, he found a way to make them his own. Indeed, there’s another shot in Kubrick’s version of A Clockwork Orange in which Alex comes across a music collection that includes a piece from 2001: A Space Odyssey. In my other video, I mention how with the selection of classical music Kubrick chose for that film, he actually ended up making some of the pieces his own, in that, once you’ve seen the thing, it’s impossible not to associate something like the strains of Also sprach Zarathustra with it. Here that fact is perhaps accidentally alluded to in how the vinyl cover refers to the track as the theme music of 2001 rather than as the work of the composer, Richard Strauss. So, in a similar manner to how he managed to own most aspects of his film work, Kubrick often had a strong enough vision that whatever novel he adapted his version would tend to usurp that of the original author’s. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. For instance, however successful his adaptation of Lolita was with critics of the day, it’s undoubtedly a much shallower version of Nabokov’s more nuanced tale. And, as I discuss in my other video, Stephen King’s The Shining also has plenty of reasons to be considered a more realistic take on the nature of abuse than Kubrick’s spin of the material. With A Clockwork Orange though, the adaptation is usually thought of as one of the instances where the director managed to make a slight improvement on the source material, if only for abandoning that chapter which many people agreed was unnecessary to include. That said, I think the comparison between the two versions is more complicated to the extent that it’s worth examining how some of the smaller details diverge as the movie plot progresses.
As Alex is arrested, his journey towards becoming a more reliable cog in the civilisation machine takes another lurch forward when he’s locked away and assigned a prisoner number. Justice appears to have been served. All the same, no matter how badly his character has acted in the film, we don’t really have as much reason to be disgusted with him as we do in the book. To be precise, the ten-year-old girls in the novel became a pair of teenagers for the screen and the scene in which Alex assaults them was changed to be a more titillating consensual threesome. Likewise, the elderly woman who he murders in the book was aged down to a more attractive middle-aged woman, which, while certainly no less of a crime, at least makes the sexual aspect of it slightly less shocking. What’s more, because Kubrick actually had to film all of Alex’s actions, he was unable to hide the viciousness of them behind the gauze of Nadsat wording, so instead, he aged up the character with the casting of Malcolm McDowell and seemed to make all the madness a little more palatable for an audience to sit through by choreographing everything in an over-the-top theatrical manner. Sure enough, though this choice resulted in a nightmarish quality of its own, you could still say that in order to make the so-called unfilmable novel filmable, he had to change its most unstomachable scenes to be entertaining which had the unfortunate effect of creating what Burgess tried to avoid; pornography. Despite this, the movie does at least seem to use this fact to challenge the audience in much the same way the book does. You know you’re not supposed to enjoy the horrible things Alex does. You may really be sickened by them. But you’re compelled to watch it all unfold anyway – a fact that Kubrick was assuredly aware of, having reportedly laughed at McDowell’s improvised rendition of Singing in the Rain as he acted out the attack on the author’s wife. Once again, violence, as much we might be revolted by it, is something that any of us could be drawn to.
Still and all, it’s a safe bet that when Alex is sent to prison, the average audience member would only feel like he’s received his just desserts. In the book, this is explored in a series of scenes in which he’s abused by the police and prison staff. When they’re confronted about this, they defend themselves by saying violence makes violence, thereby deflecting the accusation back at Alex and wholly missing the irony that the harshness of the system helped to create him. Further to that, both the film and book speak to the reciprocal relationship between criminals and authority when the prison chaplain asks the new inmates if they intend to fall into a pattern of in and out, which, being Nadsat lingo for sex, highlights how the correctional facility itself births yet worse offenders. In the book alone though, this is more directly underscored when Alex is also assaulted in his cell and betrayed by his fellow inmates, but for the sake of a more streamlined experience, the film stips much of this away to focus on the more officially sanctioned procedures the system has to strip away an inmate’s humanity, though I wouldn’t suggest that the Alex of Kubrick’s Clockwork mechanisms doesn’t suffer too.
Prison is a mind-numbing experience for Alex with little in the way of reason to reform. The one authority figure who seems to be genuinely concerned about him is the prison chaplain who offers religious salvation as a means to becoming a good person, and though Alex seems outwardly interested, internally we see that his warped mind has corrupted the lessons of the bible to sate his own perverted desires. Alex in both versions is also an enormous fan of the composer Ludvig van Beethoven, so, along with music, we’re given to understand that these so-called forms of high culture cannot rescue anybody from their base inclinations and are actually more in danger of being repurposed by the people who enjoy them. This is a belief Kubrick seems to have shared with Burgess, having said of film that it’s the feel of the experience that’s important, not the ability to verbalise or analyse it. For all that though, he does at least allow the chaplain to directly communicate the moral question at the heart of the story to us, even if Alex of the movie is never really moved by its implication.
You could say that the question itself relates to an older one; are criminals born or are criminals made. However, with the field of psychiatry’s intense focus on these two ends of the spectrum over the course of the 20th century, Anthony Burgess’s identified a new take on the theme in that of the question if a person could be forced to be good, would they really be a good person? To a large extent, it’s an abstract problem because in reality they’re just aren’t any methods to truly constrain a human being to only act in a moral manner. But since this is a science fiction story, both Burgess and Kubrick were able to explore it through a fictional therapy known as the Ludovico Technique, which essentially conditions an individual to be repulsed by any kind of violent behaviour. For Alex, who volunteers for the procedure, this means that he is pumped full of a nausea-inducing drug and forced to watch a series of disturbing film clips in which many of the crimes he’d usually enjoy are played along images of war and destruction. The experience is unsettling, masterfully captured by Kubrick, who had McDowell’s eyes pulled open to such a painful degree the actor ended up having one of his corneas scratched. Nonetheless, the procedure is obviously a lot more uncomfortable for the fictional Alex, who actually has to go through the vomit-inducing ordeal, and worse still, has no choice except to listen to his favourite music during it all, with the result that he won’t only be disturbed by the thought of violence in the future, but also by one of his only passive pleasures in life; Beethoven and his 9th Symphony. That is to say, the Ludovico procedure works. As Alex demonstrates to a panel of scientists, prison authorities and politicians he’s completely incapable of attacking anybody or of defending himself from harm. For a crime-riddled society that prefers quick political solutions over introspective thought, it would appear they’ve landed on the perfect fix, and with Alex now the innocent in the story, the audience is impelled to go through the unusual experience of having to sympathise with the boy. In particular, as Alex is released from prison, though he undergoes a series of poetic justices at the hands of each of his victims from the beginning of the story, the world’s tiniest violin begins to play, as if to say, yes, we are being asked to feel sorry for him, but only in so far as it serves to reaffirm the satirical quality of the work. Of all this, you can really just give Kubrick his kudos. The tone of the piece is pitch-perfect. As ever, he sluiced down the weight of the novel by skimming over some ancillary themes, such as how sexual violence is often used by men as an oppressive tool against other men and added some material on Alex’s journey through the bureaucracy of the prison system instead, though in all fairness the film plot marches along confidently enough in its own way.
After most of Alex’s victims have punished him, he’s rescued by the author whose wife he attacked and is roped into a political scheme to highlight the overreach of a state that has literally poked around inside his head and altered the inner workings of it to better suit their needs. Good intentions notwithstanding, as enlightened to the problem as these politico revolutionaries claim to be, they hardly appreciate the extent to which they intend to use Alex for their own purposes, and anyway, prove themselves to have just as much of a vindictive side as any thug when the author realises it was in fact Alex who murdered his wife and attempts to drive him to suicide by forcing him to listen to Beethoven’s 9th. And so, the film builds to its crescendo in which the disgusting extent that the government looks out for its own interests is shown when they bribe Alex with the promise of a lucrative job if he agrees to toe the party line when it comes to discussing how they violated him with the press. In the end, Kubrick seems to leave the question of whether it was right to turn the boy into a clockwork orange up to us. In every respect, the technique is a perversion of a person’s basic human rights, but so was everything Alex had done. The prison system both in the film and the real world hardly serves to encourage a criminal to reform, and anyway, the people who run the complex don’t seem to be any better than the delinquents on the opposite side of the social scale. Besides all that, Alex has reverted to his previous miscreant state anyway and is chuffed at the idea of becoming one of the ultimate droogs, in pay and service to the leaders of Britain. Envisioning a future for himself, it’s as selfish as anything he’d imagined before; perhaps not as dangerous to the individuals around him, but certainly a sorry sign for the wellbeing of society as a whole.
It’s a gut-wrenching end. You definitely have plenty of reason to laugh, but it’s difficult to picture people walking out of the cinema without shaking their heads in disgust in much the same way they would have if they’d seen Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove at the time of its release. In that film, the United States and the Soviet Union fail so unanimously to overcome their Freudian rivalry that the entire world is ignited under the mushroom clouds of a hundred nuclear bombs, which was a very real danger at the time. The Ludovico Technique is a more fictional danger by comparison, but a government’s desire to exercise such unwarranted control over its citizens was and is an ever disturbing threat, and, more to the point, the idea that a country’s leaders could be as morally bankrupt as the droogs really is a truth that’s become so well known I think it’s actually astonishing how shocking the film still makes it feel. Stanley Kubrick, in other words, succeeds in providing a suitably powerful rendition of the story in so far as while it might have stripped some details away and softened the more horrifying aspects, it would also be incorrect to say it didn’t add some elements to further emphasise the novel’s main themes.
In this respect, as with many of the director’s films, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Eyes Wide Shut, A Clockwork Orange has been the source of much critical examination in terms of what visual metaphors may have been woven into the plot. With A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick kept so much of the text that people on set actually sometimes referred to the novel itself, rather than the script, so it’s fascinating how the film can provoke such drastically different readings to Anthony Burgess’ work. Incidentally, the script that Kubrick himself referenced throughout the production inverted the usual screenplay format whereby dialogue is given more importance than shot descriptions so that the action of any given scene was the primary focus, which you can take to mean his main interest really was in creating compelling imagery, rather than utilising verbal communication, to hint at the motion picture’s main themes.
As ever, these visual metaphors as identified by fans can range from the believable to the outright obscure. For example, there is the use of teeth in the movie. One of Alex’s parents keep a false set on their nightstand and when Alex is attacked by a group of elderly people, they each brandish their own in a display of anger, which you can take to mean that the artificial replacements are as much about signalling an animalistic threat of aggression and strength as much as they might help the elderly eat food. Similarly, I think the most interesting use of imagery revolves around Alex’s cufflinks, a set of eyeballs that he wears on each wrist. In a film that never directly speaks about them, they’re an unusual prop to draw so much attention to. One theory, as outlined in an extensive article on the writer Juli Kearns’ website, is that they act as an Oedipal symbol. Her reading of it is rather complicated, so I’ll just summarise my take on it as informed by her article, which, to be clear, is probably a lot more simple than what she had in mind:
In the Greek myth Oedipus, an infant prince was sent away because his father was warned that his son would slay him. As the prince grew older, he also became aware that he was fated to kill his father and so left what he believed to be his homeland behind and met a man who, unbeknownst to him, was his real father, and killed him in a quarrel. Afterwards, he married the queen, had a number of children with her, and discovered she was actually his mother, whereupon he blinded himself, went into exile, was swallowed by the Earth and became a guardian hero of the land. In Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, as Alex attacks the author, who lives in a place called Home, the man is once again a father figure, who Alex forces to watch as he has sex with the mother. By doing this, Alex is partaking in a crime which will eventually lead him to undergoing the Ludovico Technique, thereby metaphorically blinding himself in that he is never able to watch anything violent again, and is further emphasised in how he doesn’t go back to wearing his eyeball cufflinks once he’s released from prison. Then, as with Oedipus, he goes through a type of exile from his old life until he experiences a form of death and becomes a protector of society, not as a spirit, like in the myth, but as a delinquent reborn as a government employee. On top of all that, everything is preordained in the myth of Oedipus, which ties in well with the question of whether Alex has a choice in his actions even before he’s warped by the Ludovico Technique. If you’re convinced by this brief analysis then I recommend you to check out Juli’s complete examination of the movie, which, once again, is a lot more layered than mine, but you shouldn’t stop there. The author does still also represent a doppelganger for Alex, as demonstrated by the sound of his doorbell, which utilises the opening notes of the 5th Symphony by Alex’s favourite composer. There are also other interesting aspects of Alex’s costume styling for example. Among the iconic imagery of American cinema, it helps him to stand out as one of the most recognisable villains of all time. In general, the costuming of he and the droogs pushed the subversive quality of what Burgess created to an altogether more feminine level, with some droogs wearing lipstick and Alex himself sporting that strange spider lashed eye. It’s been said that this represents the two sides of his modern character; the barbaric, murderous subconscious, and the civilised outward personality that we are taught to portray, which would certainly line up with the themes of Kubrick’s other work. In particular, I’ve seen Alex’s eye described as looking like barbed wire, but to me, it brings to mind the image of a venus fly trap; once you’re caught in that dark pool between the lashes, you’re probably going to get eaten up.
Furthermore, Alex isn’t the only one who sports unusual clothing items. His fellow droogs wear other mutilated body parts, such as bloody nipples on one of them and what appear to be the severed private parts of a woman on another, which on one level highlights their sadistic natures, but also ties in with the overall motif of the people in A Clockwork Orange being broken down into components separate from their selves. Alex’s parents can be disassembled into that set of false teeth and ridiculous coloured wigs, for example, and artwork throughout the film focuses on aspects of the human form in grotesque and fetishistic ways such that individuals seem to only exist for the pleasure of others. Beyond that, regarding the eyes in particular, I am also curious as to why one of them is featured so prominently in the triangle of the film’s poster design, which as many-a-stoner have pointed out, looks a lot like the classic symbol for an all-seeing-eye and would point to the possibility of some kind of illuminati message within the plot. On this point, later in life Kubrick would show an interest in illuminati type conspiracy stories, with his film Eyes Wide Shut being an obvious example, so the possible inclusion of such imagery here does have some merit. But, just to be clear, I myself don’t believe there is any kind of New World Order controlling the governments of the world or that Kubrick was trying to direct attention to the actual existence of such a thing. The modern idea of the Illuminati began in the 1960s. It started life as a prank on the part of Robert Anton Wilson, who composed a series of letters that laid out the existence of the organisation, got them published in Playboy magazine, then subsequently sent in another series of letters that denied the Illuminati’s existence, all with the intent of creating anarchy in society as outlined by the tenants of a counterculture collective he was apart of known as the Discordians. When the letters got attention from Playboy magazine’s large reader base, the concept took on a life of its own and was egged on further still by a series of satirical books Wilson wrote in the 1970’s called The Illuminatus! Trilogy which attributed critical world events, such as the assassination of JFK, to the massive Illuminati conspiracy. It follows then that I also don’t think Kubrick believed in an actual illuminati, but I do believe he had a distrust of authority, as evidenced by a quote from his widow in which she said that he would advise anybody to avoid associating with people who are in power. So in this way, at a bare minimum, maybe Kubrick did utilize the illuminati imagery to imply that Alex’s fate was beyond his control, sometimes being a tool of the system and at others a victim of it. To be sure, it would be a comfortable fit with Anthony Burgess’ vague sense that there is an unknown force behind major social changes and it would show how Alex was tied to the corrupt politicians long before he underwent the Ludovico procedure. Not in any literal way, but as a lawless thug who happens to contribute to the oppressive sense of fear that the politicians of Britain benefit from, he is a part of the system that sustains the autocratic form of government. The cufflinks, in this respect, could be an image that shows how his eyes have always been open to the reality that, as he says, the world is made up of two camps of people, with one group doing the knifing and the other getting knifed.
A Question of Fate
Today, it remains a possibility that human beings do not have any free will. As contemporary scanning technology shows, it could be the case that decisions are made in our brains long before our conscious selves have resolved what to do. I’m a writer, not a neuroscientist, so I don’t pretend to have any expertise on the subject beyond a few news articles I’ve glanced at over the years, but in regards to A Clockwork Orange it’s an interesting one to consider because when you apply it to each version of the story, it seems to affect them in different ways. By that I mean, in the case of Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork, the idea is really just absorbed by the plot. Beyond the chaplain’s token effort at moralising, the possibility that Alex could act in an ethical manner, that the prison system could be used to encourage reform, that the Ludovico Technique might be a worse atrocity than anything Alex has done, or that the leaders of our society are any better than droogs, are all just elements in the acts of a crime and punishment saga to be lampooned. No moral solution is sincerely put forward, so by saying that free will doesn’t exist anyway, you’re really just providing more meat for the extremely biting satire. In the case of the novel though, I think it’s possible that if the theory was proven true then that bite would actually become quite toothless.
Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange ends with the same question with which it began: “What’s it going to be then?”
Throughout the novel, Alex has chosen the most immoral option on every occasion it’s been presented to him. But now, at the ripe old age of eighteen, he has begun to feel meaner, as he describes it, more interested in hoarding money than he is in antisocial violence. On a certain level, he’s started to realise he hasn’t constructed anything with his life, only destroyed, especially when compared to the likes of one of his favourite composers, Wolfgang Amadeus, who by his age had already written concertos, symphonies and operas. Moreover, he’s begun to feel a strange romantic urge toward creation. No longer is he drawn to the bombastic devastation he hears in Beethoven. Now he prefers to listen to love songs and even carries a picture of a child in his wallet, tickled by the idea of having his own. When he runs into a fellow droog who has already settled down, he envisions what a more peaceful life could be like, when, one day, he might sire a son, who he’ll lecture on the importance of goodness, and who in turn will ignore the advice and commit yet worse crimes than his father did. Violence is simply a trait of the young. It’s the natural course of life, so far as Alex can see, and even if he hasn’t completely left his old ways behind, he’s no more immune to the contented vision of growing away from all the drama than anybody else is. What this means is that having suffered through the consequences of his adolescent ways, Alex is truly capable of choosing good and now that he is free of government tampering he will be allowed to pursue it in a purely human way.
Over the years, there has been some confusion over the origins of this ending, with some people suggesting it was only written due to a request from Burgess’ British publisher. Of this belief, Burgess himself was adamant that this was not the case and pointed to the structure of the novel to prove how it was obviously planned from the beginning. The book is broken up into three sections with seven chapters in each, which, in Burgess’ explanation, adds up to the number twenty-one, the age a boy traditionally becomes a man. Of this structure, I do think it’s a bit of a gimmick, especially given that Alex is eighteen at the end of the story, not twenty-one, though I am inclined to take Burgess at his word if only because it would be strange to make the final section of such a symmetrical novel one chapter shorter than the rest. What’s more, I think the belief that it’s an unnecessary chapter comes more from the fact that it would have been a weak ending for Stanley Kubrick’s motion picture and nothing to do with whether it works in the context of the book where it actually seems less out of place thanks to some major motifs that were omitted from the movie altogether; namely, the use of foreshadowing, premonitions and dreams.
For instance, there is the vision Alex and his father share that he will be betrayed by his fellow droogs. In a way, you could take this to mean his future is on a mechanical path, even before he’s made a victim of the Ludovico Technique. But with the foreknowledge of the attack, you can also take it to mean Alex has been given the option to choose a more civilised direction in life. Alex also picks up some verbal traits from his post-correction officer, that on one level points to the essence of his crimes as akin to that of an authority figure, but also clues us in to the possibility that he has already begun to grow up. When Alex is in prison and he receives word that one of his fellow droogs has been killed, he remarks that he wasn’t very surprised to hear it and that really, it seemed like fate, as if they always knew that the kind of delinquency they were engaged in just wasn’t a sustainable way of living. In addition, when Alex is at his lowest and succumbs to drinking the milk laced with the hallucinogenic drug he so loathes, he experiences a vision where he sees God, but comes back down from it more depressed than ever, because, of course, it was just an artificial vision, not a real life-altering change such as the one he will go through by genuinely suffering. And, as ever, for those of you interested in phallic imagery, there is the unusual dream in which Alex plays with an orchestra and his woodwind instrument is actually a protrusion of his body, a large bassoon that grows out of his stomach and that makes him laugh and disrupt the orchestra’s performance when he blows into it. Of this utterly bizarre sequence, I can only take from it that the same drive Alex has to destroy with his instrument could instead be put toward producing something beautiful, which, when played in concert with the rest of humanity, would help to create a harmonious world in which each person is a part of something larger than themselves. So, whereas Kubrick’s version questions the concept of free will by examining an infinitely evil character who will never, ever choose good, Burgess’ does so with one who has always had the potential to be good, which, overall, has the counterintuitive effect of making the more vicious take on Alex a more redeemable one than the tamer Alex of the movie.
Most importantly, for society as a whole, whereas Kubrick satirises any possible answer to the problem of evil as much as he does the problem itself, Burgess actually offers up a solution, or at least a heartfelt beseechment for the reader to consider, in that of the unifying power of love. Whether it be love of a God or love for our fellow man, it’s a feeling that he opines the lack of throughout the text, both in Alex’s desperation to experience the feeling with the God drug, and in the disgust of the prison chaplain, who recognises the perversion of the Ludovico Technique and realises that society would be better off if only it would start treating its outcasts and downtrodden as actual humans. Further to that, there is the reality that Alex is essentially a fictionalised version of the men who assaulted Burgess’s pregnant wife, and by allowing Alex the chance to truly be good, he is in a way granting all evildoers of the world the possibility that they too could be capable of changing their ways. Now, all of this does somewhat temper the farcical aspect of Burgess’ version, but it at least gets one last dig in on itself when Alex considers the benefit of being good and laughs it off as just another load of shit, even as he moves toward the ideal. This does leave us with the problem of Burgess’ work being made redundant if it’s ever definitively proven that we as a species don’t have any free will. Even so, though at the time of Burgess writing A Clockwork Orange I can’t say whether the progenitors of neuroscience would have believed that they could ever seriously study whether there was a deterministic quality to our mental processes, I do know the question is probably a bit older than that of the modern scientific method and that Burgess himself was most likely aware of it.
During the Reformation period in Europe, many new religious organisations branched off from the Catholic Church. One of the questions that divided them was that if God was omniscient, then wouldn’t that mean he already knows who is going to commit a sin? For the new religions, that would mean a bad person was always going to do the bad thing, but for the Catholics it still remained a matter of free will and choice. Anthony Burgess was raised Catholic. At times he described himself as an unbeliever or a lapsed Catholic, but regardless, he took a great amount of interest in the faith and it’s hard not to see that interest show in his version of A Clockwork Orange. Asked about his religious views at the end of his life, he said:
Christ used the term “the kingdom of heaven” — it is a metaphor. I don’t think it refers to a real location. I think it is a state of being in which one has become aware of the nature of choice, and one is choosing the good because one knows what good is.
Further to that, in another interview Burgess stated the novels he’d written are really all medieval Catholic in their thinking and that people don’t really want that today. All of this is to say, I don’t think this means Burgess’ ending makes it a weaker story than Kubrick’s, only a weaker satire. For however much it addresses the mechanistic aspect of our lives, it leans toward the concept of free will as a truth and as such, lets it’s protagonist live in a world that from the very beginning gives him the ability to choose a more righteous life and creates a narrative that will push him toward doing just that. For my part, this isn’t negated by the idea we don’t have any free will, because even if that’s the case we need to act like we do anyway, but each to their own in that respect. Meanwhile, with his film, Kubrick didn’t really allow for the possibility of choice to be considered in any earnest manner and as such was correct in thinking the original ending would have felt tacked on once he removed all the plot elements that led to it. All told, I do think Kubrick’s version does have a bigger impact on the viewer and a more devastating message overall, which goes a long way to explaining the greater amount of controversy the film experienced, though as I suggested before, I think that’s just as much down to the increased influence of cinema on the masses as it has to do with their lack of interest in Catholic philosophy.
On this point, it’s funny when you consider the fact that the novel, which includes far more depraved scenes of assault on both children and the elderly, didn’t actually experience much controversy at the time it was published.
Of the mainstream critics in the United Kingdom for example, many newspapers recognised it as offering a unique perspective, and, at the very least, was an entertaining read. Upon the release of Kubrick’s film though, an uproar overtook the country. Teenagers across the UK had supposedly taken to committing a number of copycat crimes. As is typical of such moral panic, there was little in the way of verifiable evidence that any incident could be linked to the film, but that hardly stopped the newspapers who had previously given the book admiring reviews from spreading such tales. Today, the question of whether a piece of media can be the source of antisocial behaviour has apparently been answered in a series of studies that showed even violent video games don’t have that power. No matter how many times the supposed problem is trotted out it’s essentially just become redundant, but it’s a fitting one to ask in the case of A Clockwork Orange because it provides some commentary on the subject through Alex’s violent outbursts as inspired by classical music and because the real-world reaction to the subject matter was as much of a ridiculous circus as anything portrayed throughout either version of the story. Back then, even without the evidence of psychological studies, Kubrick defended the film by saying that people cannot be made to do things which are at odds with their natures. Still, there was a small amount of irony in his statement, given that he would eventually have A Clockwork Orange pulled from theatres when the life of his family was threatened, presumably spurred on by another form of powerful media, the self-righteous newspapers themselves, but that’s neither here nor there. After the film swept across the world, A Clockwork Orange became a brand name for delinquency and a book that schools and libraries felt inclined to react to in a standard way for such community institutions; with little regard to rational thinking. The novel was banned in a handful of places, thereby labelling it as a taboo young adults should not read, thereby making it something young adults would want to read, and subsequently giving aspiring literary rebels the ressaurance that the written word hadn’t lost the power to shock and offend. Suffice it to say though, this wildfire of conservative reaction just wouldn’t have sparked off if it had never been turned into a film and might not have become so intense if it hadn’t been a big name director such as Stanley Kubrick at the helm.
Of all this, the author appears to have taken it in his stride, but only barely. A Clockwork Orange, as it happens, was written in a mere three weeks. Anthony Burgess had been diagnosed with a brain tumour and so committed himself to writing a number of short novels in an effort to leave some sort of mark on the world before he died. Of this circumstance, I can only imagine he wanted to complete ideas he thought to be important but also to balance them with what could actually be achieved in what he believed would be a short time. In this regard, I do think he struck upon an extraordinary well of inspiration when it came to writing A Clockwork Orange and that it is one of the most provocative and startlingly original books of the 20th century. The personal revelation for the material is heard loud and clear throughout the text as Burgess confronts a very real type of monster that practically destroyed his and his wife’s life. The Nadsat language itself was utilized toward a number of fascinating literary ends which, though it was mostly transcribed to the screen verbatim, was robbed of much of its original point due to the fact that Stanley Kubrick chose to portray or omit incidents that the language was constructed to obscure. Of that film, Malcolm McDowell’s performance is about as good as acting gets, but he was still ridiculously old for the part, even after Kubrick aged up the character, which is to say, the nature of the novel as a purely textual work meant that Burgess was better able to explore the linguistic theories and to capture a fleeting age of youth that Hollywood has rarely even attempted to portray in a realistic manner. In spite of that, in a way the book could never be as shocking as Kubrick’s more punk rock portrayal of Alex and his kind, but it’s a worthy attempt at creating something divine, even if Burgess became frustrated that thanks to the film, it would become his most popular book, and, as far as he was concerned, a fairly misunderstood one. That is, as the years would go on, he was disappointed that Christian scholars didn’t think that the story was relevant to the notions of their faith. Burgess had apparently wanted Kubrick to better communicate to the world the moral questions that the story brought up and when the director showed little interest in telling people what they were supposed to take from it all, the two of them fell out as a result. At any rate, Burgess stated in his biography that the book was always in danger of being misunderstood and so simply shouldn’t have been written and that it was too didactic to be considered an actual work of art besides. Of these protests though, I think that he was really playing the heel, given that he still got around to writing a musical version of the story in which a parody of Stanley Kubrick appears before being kicked off stage, which is all to say, though Burgess apparently felt like any of his other books should have been more popular than this little worthwhile little shocker, as Time magazine described it, he was clearly impassioned by what message A Clockwork Orange was supposed to get across.
I’d like to end this episode by speaking a little more about Kubrick and Burgess’ relationship with one another, which was, so far as I can tell, as contentious as many of the others Kubrick would have with the author’s he enlisted. Kubrick, in the case of A Clockwork Orange, wrote the screenplay for the motion picture alone. He only phoned Burgess once in the course of making the film and the subject of the conversation had nothing to do with the book. Burgess, for his part, would go on to voice his opinion that the film was indeed more of a pornographic version of his story, but before they fell out over the supposed Christian merits of the story, they actually went on to gain some respect for one another, given that Kubrick asked Burgess to write a novel about Napoleon on which they could base a screenplay. The novel, according to Kubrick, turned out to be something he couldn’t turn into a film, but I for one intend to read it if only to enjoy a deeper understanding of both the writer and film director’s minds. To this end, I’d also like to suggest you check out the Youtube channel CinemaTyler, whose production history videos on Kubrick’s films were an invaluable resource in the creation of these essays. As ever though, if you’d like to hear me ramble on a while longer, I have two other videos about books that inspired Stanley Kubrick; The Shining by Stephen King and 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke, the links for which are appearing on screen now and are pinned in the comments below. I’d threaten to give you a tolchock across the gulliver if you don’t click one of them, but if the Youtube bruiseboys ever learned Nadsat I’d probably get banned. Until then…