Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Clockwork Orange Film and Book Analysis

I know many of you out there have probably already seen this Stanley Kubrick classic, but I wanted to review this one because I recently got a chance to read Anthony Burgess’s novel and I thought I might talk a bit about how the novel compares to the film version. Also, even though both the novel and the film are immensely popular, I write this review in hopes that those of you who haven’t experienced them will give both versions of the story a chance. In the following article I go in depth about the story, and the themes it speaks about, so if you don’t want to read spoilers, skip it, but in all honesty I try not to give too much away. In other words: their be spoilers ahead, but you might find the article interesting none the less.

On A Clockwork Orange we meet Alex De Large and his gang of ‘Droogs’. They are all in their teens (Alex is 15 in the novel) and they enjoy going around town at night causing all sorts of trouble. They like to fight with rival gangs, break into people’s homes to terrorize them, rape women, steal cars, beat up old people…basically, anything that involves breaking the law. This motley crew of individuals likes to live by the beat of their own ultra violent drum. These guys want money? They take it! They need a car? They steal it! They want to have sex? They rape a woman! Alex and Co. don’t care for other human beings, they only think of themselves and satisfying their own needs. These kids are young and full of life, but they are cold hearted preachers of hatred. Worst part is that Alex and co. are perfectly happy living this way! Alex can have a day filled with all these vile actions and then go home, put on some classical music and just relax while listening to Beethoven's 9th Symphony! Will their reign of terror ever stop? Will they ever learn to value human life or respect their fellow man?

Anthony Burgesses novel is an extremely well respected book, it’s been chosen by many critics, scholars and important magazines as one of the best novels to have been written in the English language; though Burgess himself considered A Clockwork Orange one of his “lesser works”. I can understand how an author can grow to dislike his own work, especially when it’s all anybody ever talks about. Imagine everywhere you went people only asked you about this one thing you did, of course it would get annoying. But aside from Burgess's personal perception of the novel, I think it’s a remarkable achievement of literature, and one of my favorite books. The message it puts across is such an important one, speaking to youth, letting them know how things work in the world when it comes to respecting other human beings. This idea of respecting each others because we all deserve it is a theme that pops up regularly in this story. For example, the story often pits the young vs. the old; it addresses the idea of how young people need to respect the elderly because someday we will all reach old age too and we will all want some respect and love from the young. Human beings are human beings no matter what age.

Alex and his gang, beating up an old man 

Another theme addressed is the right all humans should have to choose their own path in life, and that when the time comes to choose it, that it should be one filled with peace, love and respect for all life, to me this is really the central theme of the book: the respect all humans owe to each other, because really it’s the best way to live. Because what happens if we choose a violent, selfish path?  In the story, Alex chooses to continue his path of violence towards everything and so he ends up incarcerated and taken to the state prison for a crime he commits. While in jail, Alex begins to realize he has made a mistake. He discovers that jail is just too awful a place for him. So he volunteers for an experimental method called ‘The Ludovico Technique’. This technique is being tested out by scientists as a means to totally suppress violent tendencies in inmates. Kind of telling us : You don’t want to be good? Then we’ll make you be good! By Force!

The system finally catches up with Alex's violent tendencies

When the scientists begin to test their new technique on Alex, this offers us one of the most memorable images from the film: that of Alex’s eyes forcibly opened, screaming in horror as he is bombarded with violent image after violent image. By giving Alex an overdose of violence mixed with pain causing drugs, they aim to suppress his love for “the old ultra-violence”. But the question asked by this new technique is: should humans be forced into being good? Or should we choose to be good out of our own free will? What the novel and the story is really trying to tell us is this: be good, or the system will make sure you will be. In fact, the system has its ways to force you to learn humility, but it’s not something you might want! In many ways, the book is a warning as to the horrors of going to prison. A place where you will loose the freedom and the rights you have out in the ‘free world’. And ultimately, another fine message this story offers us is this: everything you do will come back to you. The idea that in this world, what you give is what you get. You give violence? Than you can expect to receive it in return; it’s the old idea that every action has a reaction.

The 'Ludovico Technique' in action

Ultimately, Alex learns his lesson. He learns to respect others. At first he is forced into doing this by The Ludovico Technique, but later in the story, the government realizes what a huge mistake they’ve made by trying to use this technique on the general population. In the story, society is horrified of the idea that we could loose our god given right of free will. So they reverse the technique. And the film ends on a rather dark note, with Alex saying “they cured me alright”. Bam! Fade to black. The film does hint that Alex is back to his old violence and music loving self, but every time I watch the film I am left with the doubt in my mind: was he really cured? Or did they mess him up for life? This is a very intriguing way to end the film and my hats down to Kubrick for ending it this way. In fact, Kubrick based his film on the American cut of the novel which ended exactly like that. You see when the time came to release this book in the United States; the final 21st chapter was omitted. The publishers thought that the original ending on the novel was too happy; they wanted that shocking ending that slams the door on your face. And that’s cool and all, but in reality, this final chapter was so important! It really took the message home! But alas, Kubrick said that he’d based his script on the version of the book that didn’t have the 21st chapter, and that he’d discovered there was an omitted chapter when he’d already finished the script for the film. He also mentioned that after reading the omitted chapter, he never really wanted to end the film that way anyways. But my fellow readers, when the time comes for you to read this novel, make sure you get the version that includes the final 21st chapter, you won’t regret it.   

Now, aside from the omission of the 21st chapter in the film, there are very few differences between the book and the film. Kubrick did an excellent job of translating this book. The themes are intact, practically every scene in the book made it into the film with very few moments being omitted. This is the kind of book that you read, and as you read it you can see the film playing in your mind, you can hear the lines spoken. I swear I heard Malcom McDowell’s voice every time I read the words “Your humble narrator”. In a world where book to film translations are often times disastrous, A Clockwork Orange is not. It is a faithful translation of the book every step of the way. Add to that Kubrick’s pitch perfect visuals and image compositions and you have yourselves a masterpiece. The film is a perfect marriage between images and music, with Kubrick making extensive use of classical music to effectively enhance many of the scenes. In other words: there’s a lot of Beethoven in this film! There are some tough moments to watch too, like the scene where Alex and his droogs break into a house and rape this woman as they make the husband watch. I guess it all serves as a way to nail the idea home that Alex and his pals are completely out of control and have total disregard for human life. It aint easy watching them doing these vile acts, specially as they sing "Singing in the Rain" while doing it. The horrifying part is that there are people like this in the world. People that never learned that the choice to be good to our fellow man should always come from within ourselves.  That same as a freshly squeezed orange can produce delicious orange juice, we are all capable of goodness and humility and that if  we don’t choose to be good on our own, then the system can turn us into mechanical versions of human beings, hence the title ‘A Clockwork Orange’. We don’t want to be Clockwork Oranges now do we?

Rating for the book and film alike: 5 out of 5   

Kubrick (left) and McDowell (right) taking a coffee break in between filming


Neil Fulwood said...

Great write-up Franco. I love the novel, the way Burgess almost makes you learn a new language in order to decipher it. "Nadsat" is a brilliant creation and I experience the same thing as you whenever I re-read it - I hear McDowell's voice in my head.

And what a performance from McDowell. One of the most memorable pieces of film acting ever - period. I've read that it was his equally effective turn in 'If...' that brought him to Kubrick's attention.

This article has achieved what all good film writing should: it's made me want to sit down and immediately watch the film again. And dig out Burgess's novel for another read.

Unknown said...

Great review of one of my favorite movies and one of my favorite books. I have to say I do disagree with the 21st chapter though. I've always felt it was anticlimactic.

Franco Macabro said...

@Neil: Thanks for the kind words man! I'd just finished reading A Clockwork Orange a couple of weeks ago and felt compelled to write this.

I failed to talk a bit about "Nadsat" but yeah, that is such a special part of reading that book! At first it's kind of difficult to understand what they are saying...but as the book progresses, you actually learn what the hell words like 'prestoopnick' means! Awesome experience.

Agree about McDowell's performance, this along with his performance on If... are my favorite of his. Caligula was a fun performance as well, however over the top it was.

J.D.: Kubrick felt the same way about the 21st chapter, about it being anti-climactic and all, I liked it because it nails the point home. That final chapter is really what the book is all about, growing up, maturing. That ending reminded me of the ending for the Coen Bros. Raising Arizona. Dont know if you remember, but in that movie, High also chooses a better life, with family and love. Same goes for the ending for Trainspotting.

Direct to Video Connoisseur said...

This was one of the rare cases where I saw the movie before I wrote the book, but I loved them both, and I'm glad you did too. I think this is one of five combinations to make both AFI's 100 years 100 films and Modern Library's 100 best novels of the 20th century, which is a lofty distinction, but as you pointed out, well deserved.

Franco Macabro said...

@Direct to Video Connoisseur: Yup, its a different experience reading a book after seeing the film, sometimes the films images pop up in your mind as you read, or you hear the voices of the actors. Its like watching the movie in your mind.

But that only happens with those good film adaptations that make an effort to really transport the ideas and scenes from the book onto the screen.

This also happened to me with Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Thomas Harris's Silence of the Lambs. The directors behind the film versions of these books did such fine jobs, that reading the novels and watching the films are almost the same experience.

Some books that are entirely different experiences from the films that were made of them are:

Blade Runner
The Never Ending Story
Starship Troopers


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