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Thought I would share a piece of my academic writing for those who may be interested.

Irredeemable Machinery: Kubrick’s Adaptation of A Clockwork Orange

           Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange remains meticulously faithful to its source material, even to the point of polarizing audiences with a portrayal of sadism that earned the film an “X” rating. In spite of the brutality, dialogue, and bizarre aesthetics that Kubrick seems to lift straight from the pages of Burgess’ novel, the film contains subtle ideological shifts that place it in opposition to its source material. While Burgess, a Roman Catholic, uses A Clockwork Orange to tell a moral parable, Kubrick’s pessimistic humanism gives the film a decidedly nihilistic bent.

           Both the novel and the film tell the story of Alex, a teenager in dystopian Britain whose hobbies consist of rape, robbery, and gang violence. After being betrayed by his cohorts, Alex is arrested for murder and subjected to a brainwashing therapy that renders him helplessly nauseated at the suggestion of sex and violence. Alex attempts suicide to escape a string of his former victims who have exacted revenge, and the trauma of this event undoes his therapy and restores his ability to control his own actions.

           Burgess has called his novel outright “a sort of tract, even a sermon, on the importance of the power of choice,” and it is the redemptive power of choice that he seeks to highlight (“Clockwork Marmalade” 247). The novel emphasizes a traditional Christian view of human nature as base and sinful, with the free will to choose action against such nature as its one redemptive element. This emphasis is shown most clearly through Alex’s victims who seek revenge, the character of the prison Chaplain, and the novel’s final chapter.

           While the Alex is clearly shown to be a psychopath (“…his viciousness is not the product of…conditioning; it is his own thing, embarked on in full awareness,” writes Burgess), it is the reaction of his former victims to the newly reformed Alex who expose the baseness of human nature (247).  The first of these is an old library patron, stripped and beaten by Alex and co. in the novel’s opening pages. Portrayed as a helpless victim, the man revels at the opportunity for revenge with the same sadistic glee that Alex showed while beating him. “A prized specimen of the cowardly and brutal young…here in our midst and at our mercy,” he announces to the library before leading a gang of elderly library patrons to beat Alex (Burgess, A Clockwork Orange 156).  As the elderly gang up on a helpless Alex, they shout, “Kill him, stamp on him, murder him, kick his teeth in” in an ecstatic frenzy not much different from that of Alex as he beats, rapes, and robs in the novel’s first scenes (157).

           F. Alexander, the writer who was beaten and forced to watch as Alex raped his wife, also reveals the nastiness of human nature when he encounters an Alex incapable of retaliation. Left maimed and alone after the death of his wife, F. Alexander easily becomes the novel’s most sympathetic character when he takes an abused Alex in from the rain and offers him food and a place to stay. However, it soon becomes apparent that he is only interested in using Alex to fuel his anti-government agenda after he reveals that he recognized him from the newspaper as the boy who had been “cured” of his criminal impulses by the state. Upon recognizing Alex as the one responsible for his wife’s death, F. Alexander decides that rather than parade Alex around on an anti-government crusade, he will instead drive him to suicide and make a martyr of him by blaming the government. When even this maimed, kindly man is revealed to be manipulative and sadistic, Burgess’ view of human nature is solidified.

           The one aspect of human nature that Burgess does see hope in, however, is man’s ability to choose. The importance of choice, along with Burgess’ Catholic worldview, are reinforced by the character of the prison Chaplain. The Chaplain is introduced in the novel’s second section, when Alex is incarcerated. He drinks heavily and preaches hellfire-and-brimstone sermons to the prisoners, seeing as there are no exceptions to Burgess’ portrayal of fallen human nature.

He becomes the novel’s most prominent mouthpiece for Burgess’ message when Alex approaches him with a request to be subjected to the “Ludovico technique” in order to ensure an early prison release. He cautions Alex about the process, stating that “the question is whether such a technique can really make a man good. Goodness comes from within…goodness is something chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man” (Burgess, A Clockwork Orange 92-93). The night before Alex is to begin treatment, he asks him, “Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses to be bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has good imposed on him?” (105). He is the only character who is genuinely concerned about the morality of Alex’s situation with no ulterior motives.

When a brainwashed and helpless Alex is put on display to be humiliated, the prison Chaplain is the only voice of dissent among those applauding the success of the state. “He has no real choice…he ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to a creature capable of moral choice,” he shouts to the assembly of police and statesmen (137). He goes on to argue that it was not the moral choice to do good, but the avoidance of nausea and anxiety induced by brainwashing that led Alex to be complacent in acts of violence and humiliation perpetrated against him in the demonstration. Echoing his earlier sentiment that a man who cannot choose ceases to be a man, the Chaplain argues the unethicality of what has been done to Alex by exhibiting his loss of humanity.

Burgess himself addresses this issue directly in a 1990 essay, writing that the novel is “an inquiry into the nature of free will…Whether we like it or not, the power of moral choice is what makes us human. For moral choice to exist, there has to be opposed objects of choice. In other words, there has to be evil” (“Programme Note for A Clockwork Orange 2004” 260). For Burgess, morality lay in choosing to do good, but humanity lay in the ability to choose at all. This free will is the only redemptive element of base human nature, for it allows man to go against his nature and achieve his humanity. When Alex has no choice, he has no humanity because he is simply a slave to the impulse of self-preservation programmed into him by the state.

This redemptive power of choice is illustrated clearly in the novel’s final chapter. The beginning of the chapter mirrors the opening passage of the novel, with Alex (his powers of choice restored) sitting in the Korova milk bar with an all new gang of sadistic teenagers. They go about their normal routines of violence and theft, this time with Alex taking a passive role as he grows bored and discontent with this lifestyle. He eventually takes the night off and wanders into a coffee shop where he is shocked to find Pete, a former gang member of his, well-groomed and happily married. After picturing himself married and settled down with a son, Alex concludes that he has outgrown his hedonistic lifestyle and must establish himself to become fulfilled. “I am not young, not no longer, oh no. Alex like groweth up, oh yes,” he concludes in the novel’s closing passage. He has, through his own experiences and of his own free choice, finally become good.

         When Stanley Kubrick adapted the novel to film in 1971, he remained largely faithful to the text while subtly shifting the story’s focus to a much darker place. While Burgess provides readers with a parable of moral choice, Kubrick assaults audiences with a dark satire of society as a self-perpetuating machine of sadism. For Kubrick, there is no redemption from the bleak view of human nature shared with Burgess.  Freedom of choice only serves to distinguish one as an individual among the crowd, and that is the most anyone can aspire to. This is communicated through Kubrick’s changes in characterization, use of music and editing, and omission of the novel’s ending.

With certain characters, Kubrick chooses to play on the sympathies of the audience less than Burgess, or, more aptly put, in a different way than Burgess. This begins with Alex’s victims. The defenseless old library patron of the novel becomes a somewhat belligerent drunk in the film. While justification for his beating is never suggested, he is shown as a much less sympathetic character. A similar switch is made when the novel’s elderly cat lady with a Beethoven bust is replaced by a middle aged woman in a leotard whose house is filled with sexually perverse art. Once again, Kubrick never suggests that her death is justified, but her profane dialogue and lewd home décor make her a less sympathetic character than her literary counterpart. Even F. Alexander’s sympathy is done away with as Kubrick spares no time before showing him hunched over the phone plotting to use Alex as a means of anti-government propaganda. Without any sympathy for the victims, audiences are able to feel as if there is less morality, law, and order being carried out in Alex’s punishment than there is just awful people preying on awful people.

Kubrick’s alteration of characters within the prison serve to demonstrate the state as an entity that takes just as much sadistic pleasure in tormenting Alex as Alex does his victims. Although the Chaplain’s lines about goodness and choice are kept intact, an added bit of dialogue to Alex alters the composition of his character. When Alex asks to speak to him in private, the Chaplain pulls him aside and says, “Is there something troubling you, my son? Don’t be shy to speak up. Remember, I know all the urges that can trouble young men deprived of the society of women” (Kubrick). While Burgess makes the priest an alcoholic to demonstrate his fallen nature, Kubrick inserts this line (which is voyeurism at least and a sexual advance at most) to implicate the Chaplain into the prison’s system of sadism and exploitation. The sadism of the state is perhaps personified in the character of the chief guard. A minor, two-dimensional character in the novel, Kubrick’s chief guard (portrayed by Michael Bates) is a cartoonish caricature who seems to be having the time of his life humiliating and insulting the inmates.

Instead of simply suggesting the imperfect human nature of these characters, Kubrick transforms them into detestable people who are taking their turn at a sadistic thrill now that Alex’s turn is up. They are seen as being every bit as on the prowl for victims to indulge in their punishments, humiliations, and experiments as Alex is when he comes across the drunkard.

           In adapting A Clockwork Orange to film, Kubrick made stylistic choices to shift the audience’s perception of characters and events. Although Alex professes a love for both criminality and Beethoven as he narrates the novel, Kubrick weds the two in a way that pulls the audience deeper into Alex’s psyche than even Burgess could. Within the first ten minutes of the film, Alex and his droogs get into a gang fight. Quick cuts of paired off gang members smashing chairs and bottles over one another’s heads are juxtaposed with a playful, bubbly rendition of Rossini’s “La gazza ladra.” While the audience members may not be having quite the fun of Alex, the editing of the scene makes for a rousing spectacle rather than brutish street violence.

The same can be said for the cat lady’s murder. The same playful music is heard while Alex giddily dances around the room, jabbing at the cat lady with one of her lewd sculptures, the camera joining in the dance and whirling the audience around the room. Much like the rousing nature of the gang fight, the music and camerawork add dark humor to the murder of the cat lady, a character already sold to the audience as disposable and unsympathetic.

The element that solidifies Alex’s psyche above all else is Kubrick’s use of Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9.”  While discussing the film in his documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Žižek argues that “No.9” uses “Ode to Joy,” with its celebration of unity and brotherhood of all mankind as “an empty container open to all possible meanings.” He goes on to ponder, “Whenever an ideological text sets all humanity unite in brotherhood, joy and so on, you should always ask…is this all, really all, or some are excluded? And the great genius of Beethoven is that he literally states this exclusion. All of a sudden the whole tone changes into a kind of a carnavalesque return. It’s no longer this sublime beauty.”  He proposes that Alex identifies with this exclusion, being set apart from society.

After hearing a woman sing “Ode to Joy” in a bar, Alex returns home and listens to the next movement, this music of exclusion. As he listens, he fantasizes about all manner of destruction and mayhem, finding his identity in these horrors. Onscreen, Kubrick displays a phantasmagoric sequence of deaths and disasters intercut with closes-ups of Alex’s smiling vampiric face, fangs dripping with blood. Once again, while the audience may not revel in these images, Kubrick’s choice in their depiction gives the scene a rousing, rapturous tone that conveys Alex’s perception of the world.

Kubrick’s use of editing to shift the story make its clearest statement in the film’s final scene. Free from the government’s brainwashing, Alex is shown in good spirits being vulgar to anyone who speaks to him. The Minister of the Interior arrives to personally apologize to Alex for the actions of the State, feeding Alex his hospital meal for the entity of the conversation, a metaphorical gag about how Alex, freed from the government by a third party’s sadism, is once again free to contribute to the cyclical machine of crime and punishment. Immediately afterwards, a crowd of reporters rush in with flowers and large speakers blaring “Symphony No. 9.”  After a shot of Alex’s smiling face, the film cuts to a fantasy sequence of Alex having sex in the snow with a woman while well-dressed Victorians applaud. He is back to his old ways, this time with the approval of “polite” society, a society that needs his individualistic sadism in order to indulge in its systematic sadism. In voice over, Alex says sardonically, “I was cured, all right” before the film cuts to its ending credits (Kubrick).

In his essay “Nihilism and Freedom in the Films of Stanley Kubrick,” Daniel Shaw calls this final sequence “one of the most ambivalently exhilarating sequences in the history of cinema” (222).  He goes on to say that “Kubrick celebrates Alex’s recovered freedom of choice here. No matter how monstrous Alex is, even more monstrous is a state apparatus that can rob the individual of his free will” (222).  Kubrick himself addresses the issue in an interview when he says that “It is necessary for man to have the 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” (qtd. in Shaw 224). In the same interview, Kubrick goes on to say that he supports the Freudian reading of the film first proposed by Aaron Stern, of Alex as man in his natural state, a Freudian Id with no restraint of Ego or Superego (Shaw 222).  Kubrick’s words support Burgess’ notions of a base human nature, while the film’s final scene revels in that nature in a way that supports his nihilism.

Kevin Stoehr argues that Kubrick’s nihilism is active rather than passive. He writes that while “passive nihilism…accepts the meaninglessness of existence and ‘blinks’ indifferently,” active nihilism focuses on the “condition of contemporary culture in order to point beyond such a condition… [and]…highlight the negative in order to indicate our positive capacity for creative and individualistic self-creation” (qtd. In Shaw 226).  Bringing back Žižek’s ideas about Beethoven, the fact that “Ode to Joy” plays during Alex’s fantasy supports both Stoehr and Shaw’s view of the final scene. Alex is finally included in society as a contributing member, providing sadistic crime to uphold society’s sadistic system of law and order. While Burgess celebrates the redemptive quality of Alex choosing to be good, Kubrick celebrates Alex’s ability to choose at all, for where could the potential for humanity to avoid the spectacles of the film be found if not in the capacity to choose? For while Kubrick’s worldview is ultimately a nihilistic one, he sees a glimmer of optimism in man’s ability to affirm himself as an individual.

Burgess’ novel takes its title from a manuscript Alex glimpses when he breaks into F. Alexander’s house. The phrase comes back to him after he is abused and humiliated before an audience to prove the effectiveness of the state brainwashing. “Am I just to be like a clockwork orange?” he shouts out (Burgess, A Clockwork Orange 138). “A clockwork orange” here meaning something organic that is to function as a machine, which is what Alex has become. Kubrick’s film version gives no explanation for its title, leaving the clockwork orange’s function ambiguous. Given the ideological flourishes of Kubrick’s adaptation, however, one can conclude that the term refers not only to Alex, but also to every human being, each of them caught up in the cogs of a mechanical society.


Works Cited

A Clockwork Orange. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. 1972. Streaming.

Abrams, Jerold J. “Nihilism and Freedom in the Films of Stanley Kubrick.” Shaw, Daniel. The Philosophy of Stanley Kubrick. Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky, 2007. 221-233. PDF.

Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. London: Penguin, 1962. Print.

—.“Clockwork Marmalade.” Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. London: Penguin, 1972. 245-251. Print.

—. “Programme Note for A Clockwork Orange 2004.” Burgess, Anthony. A ClockWork Orange. London: Penguin, 1990. 259-262. Print.

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. Dir. Sophie Fiennes. Perf. Slavoj Žižek. 2012. Streaming.

-24 November 2015