I recently responded to a friend’s Facebook post commenting on the differences between Anthony Burgess’ novel A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s adaption of the material. I tried to describe why I thought the changes that were made by Kubrick were valid and why I saw his concentration on sex and sexuality in the film (compared to the novel) as being so crucial and important an element.
What I wrote was a combination of my own thoughts and observations, mixed with ideas raised in conversation with others and, finally, other notions and observations made by professional critics, both contemporary and at the time of the film’s release.
Here is my response as I sent it. I repost it here simply as a conversation starter and because I so enjoy this type of discussion. I hope you do, too:
I think it’s important to see the film of CLOCKWORK within the context of the time in which it was made. Newfound sexuality, the sexual revolution, sexual conversations were out there in a way that was the antithesis of where they had been in the years just prior to this period. Sexual violence was also something that was finally being discussed as opposed to swept under the rug. I think it does a disservice to Kubrick to think of him as unsophisticated or adolescent. I think he’s one of the few directors for which these terms do not apply. Don’t mix up commentary on a subject for being a justification or acting out of a subject. As for subtlety, the film may be more subtle than you think in this regard. The simple fact that some people saw the film as “cool” or “got off on it” is extremely telling. I don’t think Kubrick himself was making the film to elicit such responses. He was making it in reaction to such responses and raising the topic for conversation. That said, subtlety is not a requirement for me in storytelling. Though it’s something I admire greatly. But there have been many masters of filmmaking who are not known for subtlety. In fact, quite the opposite. The great David Lean being one of them. Never subtle, but almost always amazing.
What Kubrick wanted to address in CLOCKWORK reflected what he saw in society. He wasn’t trying to simply adapt Burgess’ ideas or vision. He was “interpreting” them to what he felt was important and contemporary. In his eyes. A great book should leave one thinking, asking questions. The end of a book should be (in my opinion) the beginning of a journey for the reader in life. Burgess’ book sent Kubrick on his own journey which, for me, is incredibly appropriate and exactly what I would want from him. That said, I think that Burgess and Kubrick did say many of the same things and I don’t feel the film is as far removed from the book as you do. There have been a few films that were direct, literal adaptations of books and, in many cases, those films did not work for some of us as well as other adaptations that tried to capture the “essence” of the material as opposed to transcribing it directly. It’s another medium and another storyteller at work. One could not adapt a painting into a film and expect them to be the same.
Burgess wrote the novel 10 years before Kubrick turned it into a film. There were great cultural shifts in those 10 years which are reflected in Kubrick’s adaptation. Burgess’ wife had been raped after the war and a lot of what’s in his book comes from an autobiographical perspective. Kubrick is taking in the story via his own experiences, as we all do, and what the characters and story mean for him. As for the book’s ending, Kubrick was more of a pessimist with a sense of the ironic than was Burgess. That is why he kept the ending he did (he did read Burgess’ other ending). The film reflects the social anxieties and political concerns of its time. Not to mention, fashions, styles, etc. The naked women furniture in the Korova Milkbar were inspired by sculptures (by Allen Jones) that had been on display and gaining lots of attention. Again, Kubrick was making a commentary. Even Alex’s costume in the film was very different from the description in the book. Kubrick was making a commentary on a certain type of cricket-playing English gentleman.
Filmmaker Fellini stated of CLOCKWORK “I was very predisposed against the film. After seeing it, I realized it is the only movie about what the modern world really means.” Again, I think it’s crucial to take the film in under the context of the times. And to give Kubrick some credit. He was never a flippant filmmaker. And he, unlike many other filmmakers today, dealt with sexuality directly and in ways that were often misunderstood (EYES WIDE SHUT). Also, Burgess was a Christian and came from that perspective. Kubrick, on the other hand, was more of a pessimist and saw the State as using many of its most violent and disturbed individuals to maintain control. Alex’s droogies becoming policemen and Alex himself being hired by the Minister of the Interior at the film’s end. Kubrick was always very vocal in regards to politicians and the military and their use of “collecting” violent individuals to enact their needs and maintain control. Again, look at the political and social upheavals, the wars, police actions, taking place at the time. Alex and his droogies are “evil” but also very human. Are they so different from a society that acts similarly but in the name of morality?
Alex is the Id. And I think any portion of him that we may recognize (consciously or, more important, unconsciously) in ourselves is a very scary notion which quite easily elicits anger and a condemnation of the film itself instead of an exploration of what it evokes in us as human beings and members of society. Alex also has some very noble and attractive qualities: he’s witty, smart, VERY much “alive,” not to mention his deep appreciation for music. Another thing to consider is that Kubrick uses films of violence as the tool with which to try and control Alex. They are the government’s form of propaganda. Kubrick is HIGHLY aware of the power of film and of violence in film. And he says as much in this sequence. He is making a commentary on his own medium and, in a way, the very film he is making.
Kubrick also chooses to comment on how open-sexuality, which had until recently been a rebellious act, had now become incredibly casual. This is one reason for the imagery in the home of the woman he kills with the penis statue. CLOCKWORK is also, in many ways, satirical. It can not –should not– be taken at face value. No Kubrick film should if it is to be understood and its many secrets revealed. And yes, there is a journey that needs to be taken in order to get to that place. But it is a journey I, as a lover of film and filmmaking, find wholly worthwhile.
And I absolutely think Kubrick’s vision is about “choice.” The entire film suggests that to try and make Alex good, they are, in fact, making him less than human. And their tactics are equally as horrific as Alex’s own. “It is necessary for man to have choice to be good or evil, even if he chooses evil. To deprive him of this choice is to make him something less than human — A clockwork orange.” –Stanley Kubrick.
In his write-up on A CLOCKWORK ORANGE at the time in “The Catholic News,” John E. Fitzgerald wrote: “The film seems to say that to take away a man’s choice is not to redeem him but merely to restrain him. Otherwise we have a society of oranges, organic but working like clock-work. Such brainwashing organic and psychological, is a weapon, that to totalitarians in state, church or society might wish for an easier good even at the cost of individual rights and dignity. Redemption is a complicated thing and change must be motivated from within rather than imposed from without if moral values are to be upheld. But Kubrick is an artist rather than a moralist and he leaves it to us to figure what’s wrong and why, what should be done and how it should be accomplished.”