A Clockwork Orange: Is There Any Hope That This World Will Change For Better?


This article deals with the way the novel by Anthony Burgess A Clockwork Orange is interpreted by Stanley Kubrick who created a screen version of this book. Whereas A. Burgess believed that this world still can become better, S. Kubrick is sure that viciousness has become its integral feature. Is that really so?

Stanley Kubrick’s movie A Clockwork Orange was produced by Warner Bros. in 1971, and is a screen version of Anthony Burgess’ novel of the same name. Working on the film’s script, S. Kubrick rejected several drafts (of which one was written by A. Burgess), and eventually wrote the script himself. The film really differs from the novel greatly – its stylistics, its mood. I am positive that what the film represents is not only Kubrick’s own vision of the novel and the idea itself, but the point of view of the whole lot of people who watch what is going on in our society and do not believe anymore that anything can be changed. I read the book first, so my perception of the film was different from the perception of those people who had watched the film earlier than they read a novel.

First of all, let us consider the boys-delinquents (and primarily the main hero Alex). While reading a book, one can imagine a group of teenagers, whereas in the movie we see several mature, stalwart and robust young men, their leader being Alexander de Large (in the book 15) with his extremely long false eyelashes. In the film, he still goes to school, but he does not look quite like a teenager – though the play of Malcolm McDowell is brilliant. As for his “droogs” Dim, Pete and Georgie, they look even older. No impression of teenager delinquency is therefore produced by the film. On the other hand, the crimes perpetrated by the boys are so awful that in many people’s opinion they cannot be performed by schoolboys. The girls Alex meets in a musical store, Marty and Sonietta, are two innocent 10-year-olds in the novel, who were mercilessly raped by Alex just because they had not realised where they were and what the boy was going to do. In the film, they are two grown-ups, quite pretty and experienced, who voluntarily go with him.

Moreover, Alex’s supervisor P.R. Deltoid who should see to it that Alex were “a good boy”, in Kubrick’s movie seems to be a gay, who unambiguously likes his ward. All these are not mere coincidences, for, as we will see below, S. Kubrick is much more pessimistic in his perception of the contemporary society and its manners and morals than A. Burgess.

The film decorations and costumes present a marvelous picture of how people saw the future in the 1970s. The characters’ cloths and hair, the flats’ interior, the furniture, the “hypnotic” way the Korova milkbar is decorated – all this is just fantastic. In the book, there is no mention of Mrs. de Large’s green hair or tight-fitting costume of Mrs. Alexander. The film is full of unrealistically bright colors, which adds up to creating an atmosphere of farce (very grim though).

Reading a book, I imagined a film which was close in its stylistics to Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For a Dream or Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting – but in reality Kubrick’s screen adaptation proved different, but still wonderful. Bright colors and a lot of Beethoven’s music contrast and emphasize the ideas and the actions of the main heroes.

The “Nadsat” language is partially preserved in the film, but as it would be impossible to provide the audience with commentaries to each word in “Nadsat”, they are presented in less volume than in the novel. Still, there are words like “droog” (friend), “rassoodock” (mind), “viddy” (look), “govoreet” (speak), “devotchka” (girl), “malenky” (small), “malchick” (boy), “spatchka”(sleep), “Gulliver” (head), etc. This site presents a dictionary of the “Nadsat” language used in the book and in the movie: http://www.clockworkorange.com/nadsat.shtml. These words are important for preserving the atmosphere of half fantasy, half reality – a real horror accompanied by Ludwig van Beethoven’s music.

The use of “Nadsat” language initially deterred the film director, but afterwards he substituted visual sophistication for the extensive use of “Nadsat”. And music is something that really deserves attention. S. Kubrick uses classical music: there are pieces of Rossini, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony processed by Walter Carlos with the help of computer, the legendary song Singing in the Rain in the scene of Alex’s rape of Mrs. Alexander.

It is important to mention that A. Burgess himself did not approve of Kubrick’s interpretation. The ending of the film coincides with the so-called “American”, abridged version of the novel, with the last chapter missing. In the film (as well as in the “American” version) Alex regains his natural condition, which is not the best outcome, but at least more natural than artificial holiness. The conclusion is: evil brings evil, and each vicious deed will be followed by punishment, no matter just or not. English (original) edition of the book ends with Alex returning home, but feeling no more elation and pleasure from killing, robbing and raping. His desire to destroy is lost forever. He condemns his past deeds and is sentimental when communicating with women. As for the film, there is no doubt that Alex in the end is the same as he used to be at the beginning. Immediately after his going out of the hospital he is going to murder, assault and slug. The film ends with Alex’s dreams, and he smiles widely thinking about naked women and crying girls.

The end of the film predetermined its destiny. Many critics saw in it a direct call to violence, not noticing the film’s social and cultural background. S. Kubrick always emphasized that he was absolutely unbiased towards either Alex and his friends or their victims, and only stated that the society could not take on responsibility to rectify anybody, because as often as not this society consists of latent murderers and rapists (Mr Alexander torturing Alex, policemen and warders beating prisoners, etc.).
The book was written by A. Burgess as a “moral revelation”, illustrating the thesis that the state aims to subdue its citizens’ free will. He depicts England in future (not very remote future, in about 1995) where people live in constant fear for their own lives, where young scoundrels rage throughout the country.

In Kubrick’s film, there are a lot of symbols: Alex has got a pet boa-constrictor in his room, and on the wall there is a picture of a naked woman, which is an allusion to original sin. In the house of a catlady assaulted by Alex there are the same pictures as those hanging in Alex’s house. The image of Christ, naked and suffering, appears when Alex is listening to his favourite Beethoven in his room after “horrorshow” evening. A group of four dancing Christs looms on the screen when Alex is struggling with the catlady. Moreover, a catlady is killed with a gigantic phallic statuette, and she is trying meanwhile to defend herself with the statuette of Beethoven.

A. Burgess explained the meaning of the word group “clockwork orange” in the following way: there is a group of aboriginals in whose language orang-orang means “a human”. Moreover, in London slang this expression means “a freak”, “a crank”, “a person having a maggot in his brain”. When the film was released, its numerous fans understood the meaning of its title in their own way: due to psychological “treatment” Alex has turned into “the clockwork orange”, as he is seemingly healthy and strong, but completely broken inside.

A Clockwork Orange is a story of a personality. The S. Kubrick’s character embodies all human instincts – both apparent and hidden. At the beginning, seeing Alex perpetrating all those atrocities we blame him. After the conducted experiment, Alex is a kind of “robot”. And, unexpectedly, we begin to feel sympathetic towards this young “monster”. How is it possible, that both A. Burgess and S. Kubrick managed to evoke such feelings in the minds of readers and audience? Eventually, evil will always remain evil, and crime will always remain crime, no matter if the society itself proves immoral and criminal trying to exterminate this evil.

In both the novel and the film, Alex is contrasted to the abject and dastard world, which is not able to win any respect, or to bring up a noble person. Who are people surrounding Alex and his friends? Old women in Korova Milkbar ready to provide each and everybody with an alibi for a glass of beer and a bar of chocolate. Alex’s good-for-nothing and weak-willed parents, who reject their own son because a tenant has paid them for rooming in advance. Ten-year-olds seeking romantic dating with any scoundrel. Policemen beating prisoners and being not any better then the latter are (by the way, one of the Alex’s friends, Dim, has eventually become a policeman).  Alex is only 15, and his cruelty is monstrous, his cynicism is unrestricted… And there is a question – whether it is a fault of human nature, or is it civilisation which generated this monster?

Both the novel and the film made an attempt to answer this question, and they should not be viewed as pure criminal stories encouraging young people to perform crimes. They try to build a model of the contemporary civilization and a personality within it. Whereas A. Burgess has the possibility to “cite” directly and word-for-word what Alex is thinking or feeling, as he operates with words, S. Kibrick has to “translate” from words into vision, that’s why one of this film’s characteristics is its certain vagueness, omission. But a lot is gained, as the audience comprehends also subconsciously, using their imagination.

Compared to the novel, the movie emphasizes the cruelty of the civilization and the state, which finds the only decision possible – to fight the evil with its own weapon, and to use violence against violators. In Kubrick’s film, the first third (Alex’s crimes) is shown in a farce manner, like some dark comedy. Beginning with Alex’s imprisonment, the stylistics of the film changes. It becomes more psychological, mote realistic, and each representative of the society – warders, ministers, doctors, politicians – are all comprehended by the audience as a real criminals. They are no better than Alex used to be, and now he is a victim. The society has not changed, but people exchanged their roles: brave and criminal Alex becomes a poor sufferer, and all guardians, myrmidons of the law, and prudes prove to be delinquents. The Evil seems ineradicable and inevitable, and this thesis, according to S. Kubrick, should be taken for granted.

Philosophic ambiguity of A Clockwork Orange (both the book and the film) is certain. The priest expresses the main position of both artists: a criminal should change, but breaking his very nature is violence, as it deprives him of the choice between the evil and the good. “Ludowick’s method” makes him physically unable to perpetrate any crime, but as for emotions and thoughts, Alex’s essence, they remained the same. There is a collision between the “old” Alex and the “new” one, and that’s a torture for him to feel constantly this contradiction between his mind and his flesh. The very way to change Alex is monstrous and immoral. The result is no more important, as he becomes not a proper “good citizen”, but “good against his will”. This Christian ideal has been achieved by means of violence, which contradicts the Bible. Jesus Christ called for conscious choice of the good, for training one’s personality by means of overcoming its imperfection. If a personality is changed via performing violence, there will be no personal development. For the Minister, it makes no difference which way will lead to Alex’s “healing”: “We are not concerned with motive, with the higher ethics. We are concerned only with cutting down crime”, he answers to the priest who calls to remember the Christ’s idea. At last, a personality who simply has to behave according to Christ’s commandments, becomes absolutely helpless in this cruel world.

In the novel, a miracle happened, as Alex, who had dreamt of taking part in the Crucifixion on Calvary and seen himself in the dress of a legionary, began to feel himself another person, changed, grown-up, ready to say “good-bye” to all his former life. Stanley Kubrick who shot the film almost 10 years after the novel was written, does not believe that such magical transformation is possible. The motion picture ends with Alex’s visions of his future new crimes and a horrifying shot of his winking eye. The problem of Alex, as well as of all our civilization, according to S. Kubrick, cannot be solved, as it is the society itself that betrayed the ideals of Christianity. From the viewpoint of religion, a man combines in himself light and darkness, the evil and the good, and the real way to form a human is to choose between them. The Alex’s misfortune is that the modern way of life leads to eradication of the good, death of the spirit, and consequently predominance of the evil. We come thereby to a question. Which is better: to remain a scoundrel, or to become a zombified “clockwork orange”?

Why are this book and this film so topical today? Just look around. There are a lot of alexes, georgies, petes, dims, billy-boys… Why are they like that? Nobody can satisfy this question. Bad genes, lack of cultural training, parents who do not care about their children, as well as politics, TV, public opinion – in general, life itself which produces such frenzied and furious freaks. And how to deal with these young delinquents? To show them films about violence, strengthening their effect with nauseating drugs, and everybody will become good and loving? A person should be brought up in such a way, so that he or she be able to make his own conscious choice between the good and the evil himself, and be responsible for this choice afterwards.

In general, both A. Burgess and S. Kubrick try to find the accelerant, the “catalyst” of Alex’s cruelty – and they come to totally different points. S. Kubrick, with all his good will and belief in man, makes Alex a monster, not capable to be awake to his faults. In the end of Burgess’ book, Alex is thinking about his family, his future son who will have – perhaps – to go through all the tortures his father had to come, the movie ends with a scene, where Alex, dressed as Roman legionary, mercilessly gushes Christ accompanied with his favourite Ludwig van’s music. Both artists question us, whether the role of society and upbringing is significant for the mechanism of violence, but S. Kubrick cuts the end of the book (which is so untypical of him) and lets no chance to his main character.

Stanley Kubrick was perhaps the first film director to be concerned with the problems of teenage delinquency, which has now become one of the most urgent problems of our society. We penetrate into Alex’s soul and see what makes him commit these terrible crimes, shocking us sometimes with their inanity. Sure, the film is more pessimistic than A. Burgess’ novel. But is reality any better? Do we have the right to be optimistic?

The film as such can under no circumstances be compared to the book. These genres are totally different. First of all, any film director comprehends the idea of the book in his own way and shoots it the way he sees it. There cannot possibly be absolute identity between the book and the film, just as there cannot be any absolute identity between several people’s opinions of the same movie or novel. What is also important is that for the cinematography of 1960s-1980s the conviction that the evil was almighty was characteristic. After reading either the book, or watching the film, one is likely to have a lot of unanswered questions and non-understood yet problems. All stereotypes are reversed. This is what makes A Clockwork Orange especially precious, for if everything were at once understandable, univocal, “nice and sparkling clear” (Alex de Large), there would be no need to read the book or watch the movie.

Doubtless is the fact that to conclude experiments with a human being is evil. Moreover, the results of any psychological experiments can be absolutely unpredictable. But what is the society to do with such alexes? To imprison them? Their instinct is to destroy, and they will always continue killing and destroying, even after they had been in jail. To kill them? But how to be sure there is no mistake?

And also there is the problem of choice. What allows a person to be good or bad? In fact, that is the free choice of the former or the latter. And if there is no choice, if the good is performed because one just cannot help doing good – not on personal, or religious, or any other voluntary grounds, but because one is made to do good – can this be called the Good?

The priest in the prison where Alex was kept claims that “goodness comes from within. Goodness is chosen. When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man”, and after the experiment had been conducted and Alex had been “treated”, the priest repeated this idea: “The boy has no real choice, has he? Self interest, fear of physical pain drove him to that grotesque act of self abasement. Its insincerity was clearly to be seen. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice.”

Less than ten years separating the edition of the book and the release of the film had impact upon the way this idea is treated. Whereas the writer believed that there is still a hope for this world , S. Kubrick is much more pessimistic. What do you say, people of the 21st century?

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This entry was posted on Thursday, October 28th, 2010 at 5:54 am and is filed under All News, Books, Novels, Screen Adaptations. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.