>After Stanley Kubrick directed Dr. Strangelove in 1964, which Rogert Ebert called the best satirical film ever made, he went on to direct what I consider to be four of the greatest films of all time — 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Shining (1980), and Full Metal Jacket (1987). All of these films were based on novels or short stories that were adapted into screenplays written by Kubrick. While I have seen all of these films multiple times, only recently have I finished reading Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange and I’m going to write a bit about what makes the film and book so unique and how the mediums of novel versus film convey both similar and differing effects (especially in regards to the end). Obvious warning: spoilers ahead.
A Clockwork Orange centers around its young, ruthlessly violent protagonist–Alex. Told from his point-of-view, through a teenage slang vocabulary brilliantly coined by Burgess called “Nasdat” (which combines Russian and English), we are introduced to a futuristic, dystopian version of England where teenage gangs roam the streets at night engaging in various forms of “ultra-violence” (rape, robbery, murder). Eventually, Alex is betrayed by his “droogs” (friends) and is finally picked up by the police after murdering a woman. In prison, Alex manages to become the first test subject for a new rehabilitative treatment intended to reform violent criminals. After Alex is tortuously brainwashed into becoming a harmless, violence-fearing citizen, he is released from prison and encounters a series of old friends who are not keen on forgiving and forgetting the old days. As Alex continues to suffer, finding himself being continually exploited for political purposes, the story leaves us wondering whether a person’s humanity remains intact when they are deprived of free will and their ability to make their own decisions between good and bad.
The first few times I saw the film, I remember being captivated by the ambiguity of the setting. What year was it? What city were they in? What type of government regime was this? None of these are made clear in the film, leaving viewers with a disturbed and distorted sense of uncertainty throughout. The architecture shown in many of the outside, urban shots situates the film in a futuristic and timeless limbo–you’ve never seen such a setting before and even as dated as the film is, the imagery still seems like some sort of terrible, inevitable future.
Burgess’ book, however, does find a way to provide more of a sense of specificity in regards to the setting. Burgess describes a world in which people rarely ever leave their homes at night, where scholars huddle together around candle-lit desks like outcasts in local libraries, and where the State mandates that all able-bodied citizens must work everyday in factories and warehouses. Although told from Alex’s detached and apathetic, yet intelligently cultured perspective, we are able to ascertain a better picture of Alex’s world and how it came to be through the novel. Alex’s narration, however, although brutally honest and not lacking in detail, cannot entirely provide in literary form what can be brought to life on the screen. The story yearns to be painted with Kubrick’s avante-garde, erotic, and generally over-the-top visual sensibilities. Kubrick is well-known for his painstaking attention to detail and overall perfectionist work ethic, so it goes without saying that the visual world he creates is vastly encompassing and entirely purposeful. Add the fact that Kubrick is an aficionado of classical music, which plays such a huge role in Alex’s life, and you get a film that is literally bursting with audio-visual stimuli, as frightening and disturbing as they may be.
While Burgess’ novel stands alone as a rather brilliant, tragic, darkly comedic, and satirical character study, Kubrick’s filmic adaption has allowed the story to not only reach wider audiences, but also transcend the bounds of unambiguous interpretation. With this, I refer to the controversial omission of the final chapter of Burgess’ American-published version of the book. The final chapter, which was left out of my copy of the novel as well as the film, depicts Alex’s true rehabilitation in which, despite reverting to his violent tendencies, he sees the error in his past ways and chooses to accept his entrance into adulthood with a vow to search for a mate and eventually, a family. Although Kubrick has stated that he surmised some publishers had forced Burgess to at some point tack on this final chapter, the truth is that Burgess actually wanted the final chapter to remain, citing the American version that Kubrick used for the film as “badly flawed”. Because American publishers convinced Burgess to drop the final chapter in order to make the ending more austere and hopeless, we are left with two entirely conflicting final interpreations according to the creators of this story.
With Burgess’ conception of the final chapter, Alex regains his free-will and reverts to his violent past, picking up with a new gang. Only after sensing new-found boredom with this lifestyle and seeing an old gang-mate happily married does Alex begin to believe that marriage and love would provide perhaps a more comforting and satisfying lifestyle. In this sense, we see that for all the violence Alex once committed, it was all a phase. Our interpretation focuses less on innate human tendencies and more on the social phenomena that may have helped to produce or incubate such a disturbing period in a young person’s life.
In Kubrick’s version of the story, we are left with a ‘re-reformed’ Alex fantasizing about his next act of ultra-violence, eager to free himself from the institutional shackles of the hospital, and the prison, and the politicians that have only served to temporarily divert him from his violent desires. In this viewing, we perceive Alex as some sort of devilish beast, incapable of being cured or treated. We ignore the possibility of a socially produced demon and simply accept Alex as innately evil. We are left with perhaps more dilemmas under this reading, as there is neither a cause nor solution to such a problem, simply the simmering fear that one’s humanity cannot be controlled and that the forces of nature are beyond our understanding. As trite as this message may be, it remains powerful and ultimately has contributed to the enduring significance and cult-status of A Clockwork Orange. The sociologist in me wants to say that Burgess’ original, extended ending provides more social critique, allowing us to more fully debate the role of society and the State in matters of morality and human choice. The cinephile in me, however, knows that Kubrick’s film is far too abrasively unnerving and symbolically multifaceted to suggest it should have been done any other way.