What’s it gonna be then?
If you don’t feel like digging too deep, the book and movie of A Clockwork Orange can be viewed as almost identical, especially if you are comparing the film to the version of the novel originally published in the United States (US version was missing the final chapter, though there are conflicting stories over why this happened, but subsequently, it is the version of the story that Kubrick’s film is based on). But, if you’re willing to peel back the layers, you quickly viddy a two very different tales, oh my brothers. Read on as your humble blogger attempts to sum up one of the best examples of how changing the medium in which a story is told changes everything.
In 1962, Anthony Burgess wrote the dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange. The story is told be one of the most unreliable narrators I’ve ever met – Alex. He is a 15-year old gang leader. He speaks in Nadsat, a slang language used by teens to make themselves sound more dark and mysterious than they really are. Alex loves language and when you first pick up the book (assuming you have not seen the movie), you might struggle to catch up with his different code words.
As we all know, language has power. Burgess talks about this in the introduction, saying the creation of Nadsat happened because of his own cowardice; he was scared to write the things that Alex was doing. Alex not only uses this language to confuse adults, but to also hide behind, for he is a coward too. At the start of the book, Alex and his droogs (friends) head out to cause a bit of mischief. With Alex recounting the evening in Nadsat, both the reader and Alex are able to step back from the ultraviolence that really occured. It’s not until later in the book, when he begins to confront the actions of his past, that we, the reader, fully realize what he has done.
In 1971, Stanley Kubrick adapted the novel into a movie. Though the film now carries an R-Rating from the MPAA, originally it was given the X-Rating, because of the old ultraviolence (men are beaten, women are raped…a lot). The movie is intense, showing us all of the horrible things that Alex and his Droogs get up to in the course of a few evenings. There is a lot of bright primary colors (one of Kubrick’s trademarks) and also lots of sexual imagery (Alex hits a woman with a large penis statue, in her home with is decorated with pornographic paintings). From the first few moments, the audience knows that Alex is horrible.
Malcolm McDowell is not 15, and does not look a thing like a teenager. His age and the age of his droogs is never really made clear, though we hear his mother tell him to get ready for school. McDowell’s voiceover speaks in Nadsat, almost word for word from the book, yet because the audience sees what he is doing as he is doing it, it changes how they experience the story. The buffer is not there because you see it all on screen.
To me, that is the brilliance of the book. The words, the language, as a buffer. Alex talks a lot, he makes himself sound important by speaking in Nadsat and confusing the reader/listener, making them feel not on his level. This lets him get away with more. But when you are interpreting something like this for film, it is harder for the narrator to play games like that with the person experiencing the movie.
And, of course, there is the end of the movie. Kubrick went with the ending American audiences had read – chapter 20, the brainwashing on Alex has been removed and he makes it clear he will be up to his old tricks in no time. But the book has one more chapter, a 21st chapter, where now 18 year old Alex bumps into one of his droogs and re-evaluates his life, without the aid of brainwashing. Two very different endings with two very different “morals” to the story.
I think this is one of the few times I’ve seen an adaptation that is both faithful and unfaithful. The sheer act of putting the story into a visual medium takes something away from what was going on with the language. Yet it’s hard to deny that Kubrick’s vision of the story is unique and has had an effect on filmmakers to this day. It stays with you in a way no other film does.
Is it blasphemy to say that I would like to see the film remade? Does it say something about my own person standards that I want to see the movie made with a 15 year old Alex? How does age change the story? How does his age change how much I believe he can change?
I’ve only touched upon the first quarter of the movie. Alex’s arrest and susequent government sanctioned brainwashing, the debate if making him physically ill when he thinks bad things is actually fixing anything…this all exists in the book and the movie.
I’ve ordered a book that just discusses the film because I’m curious about choices that were made. And even though it may appear that you can trade out the movie for the book or vice versa, they are both two very different experiences. I suggest you viddy them both.