Columns > Published on March 22nd, 2013

Book vs. Film: A Clockwork Orange

Anthony Burgess’ dismissal of the Stanley Kubrick adaptation of his novel A Clockwork Orange is one for the ages. It wasn’t the last time one of Kubrick’s notoriously devastating films pissed off the author of the source material – Stephen King once said that The Shining is the only one of his book adaptations he can remember hating – but Burgess’ ire is certainly the most memorable, renouncing his own book after having seen the movie it spawned:

We all suffer from the popular desire to make the known notorious. The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate: written a quarter of a century ago, a jeu d'esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me until I die. I should not have written the book because of this danger of misinterpretation.

I certainly don’t believe A Clockwork Orange the film is glorifying sexual violence, nor do I believe by a long shot that Kubrick’s The Shining is the worst Stephen King adaptation. (It’s clearly the best.) It seems as if Kubrick’s deliberate contradictions and tendency to set the audience at unease make those authors uncomfortable, as do his liberal adaptations of their work. But here’s what’s interesting about Burgess’ claim – in many ways, A Clockwork Orange the film is more palatable than the book.

This is particularly true in regards to the victims. In the book, Alex rapes two ten-year-old girls he’s gotten drunk on Scotch and soda in a horrifying chapter that escalates in casual bleakness.

…and then I felt the old tigers leap in me and then I leapt on these two young ptitsas. This time they thought nothing fun and stopped creeching with high mirth, and had to submit to the strange and weird desires of Alexander the Large[…] But they were both very very drunken and could hardly feel very much[…] They were like waking up to what was being done to their malenky persons and saying that they wanted to go home and like I was a wild beast. They looked like they had been in some big bitva, as indeed they had, and were all bruised and pouty. Well, if they would not go to school they must still have their education. And education they had had.

In the film, Alex has seemingly consensual sex with two teenage girls not much younger than he. Similarly, in the book, he attacks an innocent old man returning from the library. In the film, it’s a drunken tramp.

Now, I’m certainly not arguing that Burgess’ novel glorifies sexual assault and Kubrick’s film does not, as both are clearly parables about the damaging effects of ultraviolence. But I find it surprising that Burgess thinks the film is more indulgently depraved than his own novel when the most disturbing scene in the book doesn’t even appear in the movie. Is it only that no words, however evocative, can ever pierce our comfort level the way an effectively directed scene of violence can? Is there any thematically faithful version of A Clockwork Orange that wouldn’t be harder to watch than the book is to read?

There are many smaller particulars in which the film and book differ – Alex’s weapon in the book is a razor, and in the film it’s a knife hidden within his cane; in the book he’s conditioned against all classical music, and in the film it’s only Beethoven’s Ninth; he volunteers for the Ludovico conditioning in the book and it’s assigned to him in the film; in the book he’s fifteen and in the film he’s a few years older; there is no mention of “Singin’ in the Rain” in Burgess’ novel. The title A Clockwork Orange is given no explanation in the film, but in the book Alex finds a manuscript in the home of the couple he assaults:

Then I looked at its top sheet, and there was the name – A CLOCKWORK ORANGE – and I said: ‘That’s a fair gloopy title. Who ever heard of a clockwork orange?’ Then I read a malenky bit out loud in a sort of very high preaching goloss: ‘—The attempt to impose upon man, a creature of growth and capable of sweetness, to ooze juicily at the last round the bearded lips of God, to attempt to impose, I say, laws and conditions appropriate to a mechanical creation, against this I raise my swordpen—‘

But the most drastic disparity between A Clockwork Orange the film and the novel is that Kubrick’s film omits a (sort of) happy ending epilogue written by Burgess for the book. The original American publication of A Clockwork Orange also excluded this chapter, in which Alex is growing out of his taste for violence and looking forward to a future with a wife and son, whom he does not want to turn out like Alex himself. Without this epilogue, A Clockwork Orange ends on a truly black note. Kubrick’s film is based on the more dismal American version of the novel, and in a forward written by Burgess in a 1986 edition, he makes his displeasure known:

It is with a kind of shame that this growing youth looks back on his devastating past. He wants a different kind of future.

There is no hint of this change of intention in the twentieth chapter. The boy is conditioned, then deconditioned, and he foresees with glee a resumption of the operation of free and violent will. ‘I was cured all right,’ he says, and so the American book ends. So the film ends too. The twenty-first chapter gives the novel the quality of genuine fiction, an art founded on the principle that human beings change. There is, in fact, not much point in writing a novel unless you can show the possibility of moral transformation, or an increase in wisdom, operating in your chief character or characters. Even trashy bestsellers show people changing. When a fictional work fails to show change, when it merely indicates that human character is set, stony, unregenerable, then you are out of the field of the novel and into that of the fable or the allegory. The American or Kubrickian Orange is a fable; the British or world one is a novel.

[…] My book was Kennedyan and accepted the notion of moral progress. What was really wanted was a Nixonian book with no shred of optimism in it.

So therein lies the root of Burgess’ displeasure with Kubrick’s adaptation. He’s a Kennedy man and Kubrick’s a Nixon man. So which are you?

Okay, if we’re voting Kennedy or Nixon, there’s a clear answer there unless you want to sound like an asshole, but the true question is Burgess or Kubrick, and I don’t want to choose. These are two artistic geniuses with two different visions. Yes, Burgess created this story and in that way it belongs to him, but he also sold the rights to Hollywood, and in that way it does not. I don’t want to live in a world where I have to choose between a brilliant author or a visionary director, and thankfully, I don’t have to. I love the book. I love the movie. And that’s that.

Do you come down on one side or another? Speak up in the comments!

About the author

Meredith is a writer, editor and brewpub owner living in Houston, Texas. Her four most commonly used words are, "The book was better."

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