A (Brief) History of 'A Clockwork Orange'
When A Clockwork Orange comes to mind, you may imagine four deviant teenagers dressed in all white parading down the streets of London. Maybe you think of Malcolm McDowell singing and dancing to a disturbing rendition of "Singin' in the Rain". Or perhaps the crystal clear image of a young boy strapped in a chair with his eyes being forced open is burned into your mind. Whatever the scene is in your head, chances are you associate the words "A Clockwork Orange" with the film.
Despite the many stage productions of the story over the years (and, of course, the original novel), Stanley Kubrick’s film is perhaps the most well-known portrayal of the story. Kubrick's retelling of the novel was scary, funny, and (above all) uncomfortable, and developed controversy, a cult following, and a lasting legacy. But to truly understand the deep cultural impact of A Clockwork Orange, it’s imperative to know the whole background. And the background of Kubrick's cult classic began in the early 1960s with Anthony Burgess’s classic novella.
Upon opening Burgess's novella, the reader is faced with a challenge: the text is practically unreadable at first. The story is set in near-future dystopian England and is a first-person narration by a 15-year-old named Alex (if you're note familiar with the plot, I urge you to read this A Clockwork Orange summary).
Burgess was a linguist and wrote the story in a language he created on his own called Nadsat—a word that allegedly translates from Russian to mean 'teen'. The language is a strange mix of Russian and Cockney slang. The first paragraph can be difficult to read through, before the reader has had the chance to familiarize herself with the odd fictional dialect:
There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus mesto, and you may, O my brothers, have forgotten what these mestos were like, things changing so skorry these days and everybody very quick to forget, newspapers not being read much neither.
The novel was published in the United Kingdom in 1962 and is considered a jeu d’esprit; a French phrase meaning ‘witticism’ or a ‘literary work showing keen wit or intelligence, rather than profundity’. Essentially, Burgess did not think of his novella as being profound and thought it lacked deep insight and depth. The novella is comprised of twenty-one chapters (three parts, containing seven chapters each). Though the book is a jeu d’esprit, Burgess held significance to the number of chapters in the novella. To him, the number twenty-one symbolized maturity and adulthood. In fact, it is in the twenty-first chapter that our narrator—rebellious and violent—decides to change his ways and become a better person. Twenty-one, in this respect, is the ultimate sign of maturity for Alex.
When Burgess brought his novel to the United States for publication he cut the final chapter per the suggestion of his publisher. The American publisher felt Alex’s self-rehabilitation was too “Hollywood” for a reader’s taste, and felt that a rehabilitated protagonist felt too much like a happy ending; the American publisher favored a darker ending to the book. In need of money, Burgess complied and the American version was printed, lacking the final chapter.
It was this version of the novella, however, that Stanley Kubrick based his screenplay on. Thus the film ends on the twentieth chapter, completely omitting Alex's rehabilitation.
Aside from the ending, most people agree that Kubrick's film is otherwise fairly true to the novel. The movie was released in 1971 and shot mostly on location in London and Kubrick—a known perfectionist—dedicated a lot of time to finding his perfect A Clockwork Orange cast. Ultimately, Malcolm McDowell was chosen to play Alex and Patrick Magee was selected as Frank Alexander.
Though Kubrick’s film is not exactly a scene-for-scene copy of the book, it managed to highlight important moments while adding the appropriate amount of on-screen flair expected from a Hollywood production. For instance, arguably the most famous scene from the film is of Alex dancing around while singing “Singin’ in the Rain” before raping the wife of author F. Alexander. The song and dance was not even part of the script; it was completely improvised by McDowell during production.
But the lack of a twenty-first chapter ending means the film misses the ultimate point that the novella was able to portray. Without the last chapter, it means Kubrick’s movie ends with Alex still craving ultra-violence. His aversion therapy has failed him, and the film ends with him sarcastically reflecting that he was "cured".
Burgess's novel expressed that the battle of good versus evil exists within and that true change can only come from the inside, not from strict control. Alex’s prison time and aversion therapy fails him, and it is not until the very last chapter does he finally choose for himself to end his violent ways. The point is that no man can force another to be good or evil, man must choose it for himself. This idea of free will is explained during a conversation Alex has with the prison chaplain:
It may not be nice to be good, little [Alex]. It may be horrible to be good. And when I say that to you I realize how self-contradictory that sounds. I know I shall have many sleepless nights about this. What does God want? Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some ways better than a man who has the good imposed upon him? (2.3.13)
Kubrick's film lacks this kind of revelation and does not represent the chaplain's idea of good and bad. Instead, it simply implies that good and evil cannot change. The book argues that there cannot simply be goodness, but instead, there must always be the choice of goodness within everyone. This is where Kubrick’s screenplay, in my opinion, fails.
Naturally a film that depicts incredibly violent and sexual imagery also drew in a lot of controversy. Upon the United States release in 1972, A Clockwork Orange was given an X (for Explicit) rating, deeming it viewable only for adults. Kubrick eventually cut about 30 seconds of sexually explicit footage with less graphic content in order to keep the film at an R rating. The National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures rated it C (for Condemned), forbidding Roman Catholics from viewing it. In 1982 the film was stripped of the C rating and was instead given an O (for Morally Offensive) rating by the Conference of Bishops.
Though the US release had its own controversies, it still did not receive the uproar the release in the United Kingdom did in 1971. Several rapes and murders were attributed to the film's violence; specifically a sex attack on a young girl in the 1970s was blamed on the film when it was revealed her attackers chanted "Singin' in the Rain" during the incident. The film was then banned in the United Kingdom but in 1999, after 27 years, The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) granted that the uncut film was allowed to legally be viewed.
And so the legacy lasts: both the novella and film version of A Clockwork Orange have become an incredibly important piece of culture. The story has stood the test of time through two different book publications, a film based on the "wrong" version of the novella, and a ban in United Kingdom theaters. None of this has stopped A Clockwork Orange from being as spectacular of a story in present day as it was when Burgess first published it in 1962.
Editor's Note: For clarification, 'A Clockwork Orange' was banned in the United Kingdom per the request of Stanley Kubrick, following controversy.