Page to Screen is a recurring column in which CoS Editorial Director Matt Melis explores how either a classic or contemporary work of literature made the sometimes triumphant, often disastrous leap from prose to film.
Novelists can’t choose how they’ll be remembered — that is, which of their creations will be favored after they’ve, to borrow a phrase, snuffed it. Once wielding autocratic control over every thought, action, and detail attributed to their characters, they cede that unique monopoly upon publication. It then belongs to others, who, if sales are strong, will reimagine those stories — those very intimate and specific ideas — a million times over in infinitely different ways. The writer goes from being a de facto Bog or God to, in extreme cases, a slave to press clippings and public reception. It’s a demotion by any standard.
Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, made it known late in his life that he’d prefer not to be remembered for this dystopian novella. But all hope of that wish being respected had vanished the moment he let loose his little Alex “the Large” on unsuspecting readers in 1962. Once the glassy-eyed, diabolical incarnation embodied by Malcolm McDowell stared the camera down and delivered that first voiceover in the Korova Milkbar atop Wendy Carlos’ humanity-stripping synths in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film adaptation, Burgess’ fate was fixed. He’d forever be associated with droogies, ultra-violence, and all that cal.
Burgess’ wishes for letting A Clockwork Orange fade from public memory had less to do with Kubrick’s interpretation and more with the shortcomings he associated with the work, namely that the novella is “too didactic to be artistic.” He’s overly harsh in his self-critique, but there can be little argument that characters like the prison charlie, Dr. Branom, and at times even Alex are little more than mouthpieces for the story’s moral lesson. Going by a small handful of interviews, Burgess seemed to have admired several aspects of Kubrick’s film, particularly how the director and McDowell used “Singin’ in the Rain” as the aural link that tips off writer F. Alexander to Alex’s previous misdeeds. Burgess’ only real gripe with the film — one that seemed to fester over the years — came over the final scene in which Alex, now deconditioned, recoups in a hospital, cuts a cushy deal with the Minister of the Inferior, and declares, “I was cured alright.”
The author’s complaint? Well, that’s not how the novella ends.
Burgess penned A Clockwork Orange with the intention that it would run 21 chapters, a number significant in that it was the age of legal adulthood at the time. His American publishers, however, deemed the final chapter to be, as Burgess put it, “a sellout, bland, and veddy veddy British.” So until 1986, when the book was first published in the States in its entirety, Americans, Stanley Kubrick included, had been reading only 20 chapters. Hence, in the film, we get “I was cured alright,” slooshy Beethoven’s 9th blaring from speakers, and viddy Alex’s depraved fantasy of giving a devotchka with horrorshow groodies the old in-out in-out.
Chapter 21, by comparison, offers a far tamer cure. We find Alex three years older than when we first met him in the Korova Milkbar and now leading three new droogs. Recently, however, the usual mischief no longer excites him as it once did. When he bumps into his former droog Pete, who is now married, working, and settling down, Alex begins imagining that kind of life for himself.
“He grows bored with violence and recognizes that human energy is better expended on creation than destruction,” explained Burgess. “My young hoodlum comes to the revelation of the need to get something done in life.” In short, little Alex begins to grow up.
To some readers and filmgoers, the choice between endings may seem merely a matter of preference. It was more problematic for Burgess, though. “The twenty-first chapter gives the novel the quality of genuine fiction,” he noted, “an art founded on the principle that human beings change … The American or Kubrickian Orange is a fable; the British or world one is a novel.”
Burgess is right, of course. In the film, we journey so far only to come full circle. Alex is as Alex was, and we are given no reason to suspect he’ll ever cease to be a menace. Even more important, though, is the change in tone that occurs by dropping the novella’s intended ending. Without that final chapter, we’re left with a hopeless, deeply pessimistic story where, as Burgess described it, “evil prances on the page and, up to the very last line, sneers in the face of all inherited beliefs.”
Burgess has a stake in A Clockwork Orange as a novella. As moviegoers, though, do we care so much about the flaws of a film having an irredeemably wicked protagonist or an ending devoid of moral hope? Not really. The film owes nothing to those particular conventions of literary fiction. The allure that Kubrick taps into is the fascinating playfulness of Burgess’ Nadsat (the hybrid English-Russian slang sprinkled here in italics); the timeless appeal, however perverted and twisted here, of brotherhood and a night out on the town; a Huxleian distrust of authority; and the chance to vicariously indulge in the very dark, but also very real, human desire to have whatever and whoever we want whenever we want.
Burgess wasn’t ignorant of that last appeal. “It seems piggish or Pollyannaish to deny that my intention in writing the work was to titillate the nastier propensities of my readers,” he confessed. “My own healthy inheritance of original sin comes out in the book, and I enjoyed raping and ripping by proxy.” Without that morally redeeming ending, it’s as if Burgess suspects he’s played the role of pornographer more than novelist.
However, something else quite strange is at work here. Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange accomplishes something that Burgess’ does not: the film version actually leads us to root for Alex the thug, Alex the rapist, Alex the murderer, who performs all his wicked misdeeds with unabashed alacrity and zeal. In the novella, Alex, despite being our “Humble Narrator,” feels more at a distance, like a curiosity or an exhibit at the zoo – the beast behind thick protective glass. In the film, Kubrick, with the help of Carlos and, of course, McDowell, manages to make us sympathize with the beast to the point that we feel the urge to open its cage and free it, even though we’ve witnessed its predilection for destruction. It’s this desire, I suspect, that makes viewers agreeable to the film’s ending — that would make them shrug off or altogether reject Burgess’ intended conclusion had it appeared on screen.
There are three particular scenes in Kubrick’s film that situate us squarely in Alex’s corner, something the novella never particularly tries to achieve. The first comes mid-film, when Alex the guinea pig is placed on exhibit to demonstrate the effects of Ludovico’s Technique for prisoner rehabilitation. As disturbing as Burgess’ prose is, his scene pales next to the gut-wrenching emasculation and dehumanization smugly witnessed by an audience as McDowell licks the sole of another man’s shoe and crumbles in the mere presence of a nude beauty. The display is made all the more unbearable when the man and woman, both actors, take bows for applause before exiting the stage, Alex left slumped in agony each time.
Likewise, the viewer cringes when a recently released Alex — now declawed, defanged, and entirely helpless — finds himself dragged to the countryside, tolchocked, and nearly drowned in a trough by former droogs-turned-millicents Dim and Georgie as Carlos’ merciless, metallic score gongs in unison with his beating. Finally, we have the unintended side effect of the Ludovico Technique, which has conditioned Alex against the music he loves and causes him to try to leap to his death and snuff it when F. Alexander seeks revenge via surround sound. At this point, we recognize that there is truly no joy or purpose left for Alex in this life. Surely, no crime we’ve witnessed could warrant this punishment – this invasion of mind, heart, and soul that has left him flesh and bone but morally mechanical.
So, when the Minister of the Interior or Inferior, who approved Alex for conditioning and sat front row during that humiliating showcase, carves and forks steaky wakes into Alex’s sardonic rot, we viewers smile all over our litsos in delight at the tables having flipped. No doubt it says something about our society that we take more umbrage with the crimes against the individual than with Alex’s crimes against many individuals. Kubrick’s film ends with true victims discarded and forgotten, political cockroaches surviving the fallout, and our Humble Narrator free to resume life as his terrible self. And as Gene Kelly lightheartedly croons “Singin’ in the Rain” over the closing credits, we sincerely feel that Justice, in some sick, twisted way, has been served. It’s one of Kubrick’s great mozg-fucks.
When we talk about the missing chapter of A Clockwork Orange, it’s not a matter of the book or film being better. Each ends as it must. The novella leaves us with the hope that man, though burdened by original sin and animalistic tendencies, will naturally veer towards decency as youth fades. The film strikes a small victory for the individual, repugnant as he may be, in a sterile, callous world that strives for order and uniformity, but it offers no hope for a more humane tomorrow.
But we aren’t clockwork oranges. We have both book and film and Bog or God’s gift of choice when it comes to which to read or viddy.
What’s it going to be then, eh?