A Clockwork Orange is a worthy adaptation with its own unique spin


By Tom Clegg, 2nd Year, English and Philosophy

Originally a 1962 novel by Anthony Burgess, Stanley Kubrick’s infamous A Clockwork Orange (1972) has since become cemented in cinema history.

When considering whether a film adaptation of a book is successful, we might consider if it is own version of the fiction, or whether it simply projects the author’s ideas through film? Does it maintain the message of the book? Does it use the art of film to enhance it?

This certainly displays Kubrick’s stamp. Every set displays the futuristic design expected - right down to Alex’s duvet, covered in three-dimensional, multi-coloured pyramids. More stylistically, Kubrick changes Alex’s character in order for him to fit his model of evil.

Stanley Kubrick and Malcolm McDowell behind-the-scenes of A Clockwork Orange | IMDb / Warner Bros.

In Kubrick’s film there is often a study on pure evil and how it functions in its environment - think of Full Metal Jacket (1987) where institutionalised murder in the Vietnamese War affects each character distinctly, or The Shining (1980) where the mind of a writer turns in on itself.

In the book, Alex is very childish: falling down weeping in front of the police. The disparity between the versions is best presented in the scene when he is tested to see if the Ludovico technique has worked.

Does A Clockwork Orange use the art of film to enhance the book?

In the book, he is not forced into the licking the man’s shoe - he offers to do so: completely submissive. Furthermore, when the woman enters he falls on the floor, exclaiming: ‘[o] most beautiful and beauteous of devotchkas [women], I throw like my heart at your feet for you to like trample all over’.

Such weakness does not fit Kubrick’s evil.

His addition of the song ‘Singin’ in the rain’ is to great effect. It not only shows that Alex’s joy in ultra-violence never diminishes - he sings it both when he is assaulting the author and his wife and whilst bathing - it provides an elegant way for the author to discover who Alex truly is. This realisation is frailer in the book.

Alex forced to lick the aforementioned boot | IMDb / Warner Bros.

So, the adaptation is not just a copying of the book - and what’s more, Kubrick’s interpretation of it is very effective. Does it maintain the core message of the book? No. Burgess wrote this book in the defence of free will.

He was scared of the psychological advances of B.F. Skinner, who carried out experiments on behaviour modification. His goal was to ‘achieve… control under which the controlled, though they are following a code much more scrupulously than … the old system, now feel free’.

Though there is reference to Alex’s free will being diminished, the focus is more on the character that is Alex. The film is less elegant in this way. There is little focus on societal mood.

The change of perspective from philosophical issue to ultra-violence makes the film more callous, both physically and metaphysically. In the book, Alex’s weapon of choice is not a cane complete with knife within, but a cut-throat razor. The cane is brutal - the cut-throat razor is skillful.

The adaptation is not just a copying of the book - and what’s more, Kubrick’s interpretation of it is very effective

When Alex fights Dim and Pete in the book, he outsmarts them; in the film he merely beats them into some water. In terms of metaphysical elegance, or lack thereof, the book is able to position the reader completely within Alex’s mind: all violence is completely from his intelligent, calculated perspective.

The film is destined to fall down on this - it is impossible to be fully in Alex’s mind, hence the ultra-violence is manic. So, ironically, the increased attention on Alex lessens our ability to be fully part of him.

The behind-the-scenes photos are equally dark and stylised as Kubrick's film | IMDb / Warner Bros.

Finally there is the issue of the last chapter’s omission from the film. When the book was published in America, the publishers did not include the final chapter, where Alex becomes bored of ultra-violence and yearns for a wife and child; he grows up.

Kubrick read this version of the book, only realising that there was an extra chapter when Burgess went to a private viewing of the film and told him. This final chapter is the ultimate ending to the book. It solidifies the success of free will, completes Alex’s coming of age, and shows great pessimism.

Ironically, the increased attention on Alex lessens our ability to be fully part of him

Furthermore, though Alex is bored of ultra-violence, he realises that his child will go through the same phase, and its children too, resulting in an endless chain of horror. All this is missed in the ending of the film.

Does it use the art of film to enhance the book? If we accept the change of message and take the film as a Kubrick creation with features of the novel, his use of film is exceptional.

The Droogs are 'ultra-violent' beyond Burgess' original imagination | IMDb / Warner Bros.

Kubrick’s portrayal of emotion is wonderful. When Alex kills the lady, the definitive blow brings an amalgamation of art onto the screen that is both overwhelming and erotic - just as Alex’s emotion would be. What’s more, the interaction between Alex and music - he whistles to the backing music - forces a connection between him and us.

We are at once in his head, feeling his emotions, and assaulted by him. There are further examples of his skill, but these are the ones that made a particular impression on me.

But is it a good adaptation? Though it deviates massively from the book, it is. Kubrick uproots the story and uses it as a structure for his brand of evil.

Featured: IMDb / Warner Bros.

Do you like Kubrick's adaptation of the story, or do you think it is 'chepooka'?