I was nineteen. The book’s title was funny. The Clockwork Orange. I found it lying hidden among a pile of “other” books on the kerbside. It cost me ten bucks. I started reading bits of it on the bus back home. I wasn’t able to get past the first chapter…” It must be the rattle of the bus”, I thought. The truth is, it was the book.
He was an officer. A good officer, diagnosed with brain tumour. It was time for him to go home. Six years he spent in the heat of colonialism. A White man in a predominantly yellow world, Malaya, to be precise. Hordes of bananas (colloquial slang for one who is yellow on the outside and white on the inside) sucking up to him. His only solace? Works of American psychologist , B.F. Skinner who incidentally, a strong believer in the Pavlovian school of thought, wrote about possibilities of utilizing the Pavlovian principles on the human race. Application of this kind of behavioral modification could erode the moral structure. The possibility of man forfeiting his freedom to make a choice was a daunting prospect. Disturbing.
Britain, 1961, Home. He was struck by developments, the teenage gangs the Mods and the Rockers, the paranoia, the paranoid .It wasn’t the same, the sixties was not where he wanted to be. He was stuck in a time warp – the subcultures of the coffee bars, the dress codes ,the slang vocabularies, every nook and corner seemed to have one. People no longer spoke English. To be in, you had to know, to know you had to learn. But what was the question. He finally settled down at Hove on the south coast, he keenly followed the Bank-Holiday gang fights in the seaside resorts such as Brighton. He started writing a book, one of a total of five, which he ended up writing that year. It got personal, his most personal.
He called it The Clockwork Orange.
It was set in the near future. Like Alex says “Just as soon as you can imagine it, but not too far ahead – it’s not today, that’s all.”
Alex and his droogs, the Korova Milkbar, their home away from home, Moloko, a psychedelic chocolate drink that seems to do more to them than any brand of milk would, their daily intake of milk-plus (drugs) heralds you into a new world – the world which speaks ‘ Nasdat’, a potpourri of American – English, colloquial Russian, Slavic gypsy language and Cockney rhyming slang. It’s the language that Alex and his droogs speak, the language in which the story is narrated.
The American version is a mega-killjoy.
The British Edition had 21 chapters structured in three sections of seven chapters each (all of them starting with the rhetoric query–What’s it going to be then, eh?). The American edition in turn, had twenty chapters, the last one being omitted. To add to the insult, the edition carried a glossary of Nasdat which instead of being of assistance, turned out to be a mega-killjoy. In case you picked the wrong ‘un here’s what really happens in the final chapter – Alex has been released from hospital and is changing round the Korovo bar with a new gang of droogs. He seems to have visions of settling down with a wife and a baby, symbolic because it occurs in the twenty first chapter and twenty one is the age when children traditionally reach adulthood. He seems to have made a choice between right and wrong. The omission of the last chapter has a profound influence on the entire fabric and the intent of the work. This made the American edition lack the numerical and rhetorical unity of the British edition. It also ended the book in a more pessimistic and downbeat mood with Alex’s future uncertain.
Burgess once said–“My book was Kennedyan and accepted the notion of moral progress. What they wanted was a Nixonian book with practically no shred of moral optimism in it…”
The main problem with works of this genre is that they quickly became dated, anachronistic and absurd, given the perishability of the form, one major asset, which this work seemed to have was surprisingly, the cinematic version. Thus the contribution of Stanley Kubrick to the cult status of this book cannot be questioned. The film’s early-70’s apocalyptic vision of a near-future Britain where law and order have collapsed and an authoritarian right-wing resorts to brainwashing as a method of social control, remains a powerful and often disturbing picture of a society towards moral and political decay. Whether the time of the film’s release can be seen as a prophetic allegory to Thatcherism seems ponder-able.
There is no H A L singin’ ‘Daisy Daisy, I”m going crazy’ or spaceflights as in the director’s previous film 2001-A Space Odyssey, just plain havoc and “a wee bit of ol’ ultra-violence.” The fact that serious emphasis wasn’t laid on the storyline earlier is because the film seems to follow the novel very closely… in fact, to a T.
The original choice to play Alex and his droogs were incidentally the Rolling Stones, but all was not lost when Malcolm McDowell took on the role of Mr.(?) Alex DeLarge. These guys indulge in atrocious acts just for the very purpose of doing them. Art for art’s sake seems to be the dictum. Their art–plain ol’ ultra-violence. They kick a tramp to death, have gang fights in derelict operas, steal a car…all in a day’s work.
Then comes the auto-biographical phase. They enter the house of writer Mr Alexander (Patick Magee) faking an accident, beat him up and gang-rape his wife, forcing him to watch the act. This is one of the most violent and kinetic scenes of the film with Alex providing musical accompaniment with his mocking version of Singin’ in the Rain.
During World War II, Burgess was stationed in Gibraltar where his first wife was savagely attacked and raped by a gang of four American GI deserters. She suffered a miscarriage and Burgess always attributed Lynne’s early death to the trauma, thus auto-biographical. The book which Alexander is writing in the film is— A Clockwork Orange. The manuscript is discovered by Alex while he is ransacking the house, prompting him to remark “That’s a fair gloopy title. Who ever heard of a clockwork orange?”, the scene is presented on screen with a degree of explicit and graphic detail that was unprecedented then. Eyes Wide Shut hadn’t yet been made.
Alex continues on his plunderous binge, his orgiastic frenzy comes to an end when he bludgeons to death the Cat Lady (Miriam Karlin) with her collection of erotic objects d’ art. He is sentenced to fourteen years in prison. Another issue of contradiction seems to be Alex’s eclectic taste – he loves Beethoven, whom he knows on first name basis, Ludwig Van, he calls him. During his term he is approached by the Minister of the Interior (Anthony Sharp), who persuades him to be guinea pig for the Ludvigo Technique, an experiment in aversion therapy. He is pumped with pornographic images and drugs, set to the tune of Beethoven’s Ninth. Nausea. He is released, tortured by Alexander, attempts suicide.
(Kubrick is said to have lost a fortune on cameras, dropping them in order to get a perfect point-of-view shot of the free fall, many of them didn’t survive.)
There’s Alex on a bed in the hospital with the voice-over saying “I was cured all right”… (all the time listening to Beethoven and fantasizing.)
The key sequences are transcribed from page to screen in the form of a first person narrative as seen from Alex’s eyes, supplemented by subjective camera work, which leaves the spectator uncomfortable and at times disturbed. The voice-over provided by McDowell is truly gripping. However, the use of Nasdat at times, distances the watcher from the true gruesomeness of the dialogue. Sometimes, it’s better not to understand.
The rape sequence makes the watcher feel like a voyeur. Even Burgess an avid admirer of Kubrick’s ‘visual futurism’ in 2001, personally found this representation too stark for his Catholic taste (Although he was full of praise for Kubrick’s poetic ,level-headed, mind-opening film in public) The use of music like Rossini’s ‘Thieving Magpie’ during the joyride in the stolen car, for instance, and the ballet-like movements in the gang fights makes the film even more disquieting. Kubrick wins hands down…
As expected of Kubrick, he leaves the end indeterminate. Why? In Kubrick’s words, “I think the essential moral idea of the book is clear. It is necessary for man to have 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 – A Clockwork Orange
By the way, remember somewhere in the beginning I told you that Burgess was diagnosed with brain tumour? (His depression being one of the main causes for him to write.) It was diagnosed wrong.