A Clockwork Orange: Anthony Burgess

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The Book

'A Clockwork Orange' is one of the most important novels of the Twentieth Century. It, in conjunction with Kubrick's film version, has had a continued impact on society. Burgess' use of language was almost unprecedented at the time, and he never repeated the technique with such success. On its publication in 1962 this novel did not arouse anything like the huge controversy that might be imagined from its current notoriety and continued status as a cult classic. Anthony Burgess was not a new author and, to a large extent, the literary fraternity felt he was extending the trends of his previous works and 'trying to be clever'. At the time, 'A Clockwork Orange' gained more attention for Burgess' invented 'Nadsat' language and use of musical ideas, than for its very obvious violence. Burgess, himself, preferred this view of the work; he was much opposed to violence and it is present in the novel primarily to show the differences and misunderstandings existing between the generations in the novel. There are two versions of the novel: Burgess' original version, and the American edition that is a chapter shorter.

'A Clockwork Orange' is the story of Alex, a teenage criminal living in a future, distopian vision of Britain. The gap between youth and age is heavily underlined by Alex's use of Nadsat, a teen language Burgess created from a mixture of rhyming slang and Russian. During the course of the novel Alex is imprisoned for his crimes and, since he wishes to shorten his sentence, manages to become a test case for the 'Ludovico technique'. This 'cure' for criminal tendencies is created through injections of nausea inducing drugs just before the prisoner is forced to watch films of abominable crimes. Alex, therefore, comes to associate watching and committing violent behaviour with incredible feelings of sickness, and cannot be of further harm to society. He is then released back into the community where he is helpless, and ensuing events cause him to attempt suicide. He ends up in hospital where, whilst unconscious, he is operated upon at the instigation of the government attempting to make up for the PR blunder they made in sanctioning the 'cure'. This surgery removes the 'Ludovico' associations from his mind. He becomes the old Alex once again. This is where the American edition of 'A Clockwork Orange' ends. The original version contains an extra chapter which shows that Alex does begin to grow up and reject violence on his own terms. The original American editor neglected this ending, preferring to see the story more as an allegory concerned with ideas of criminal behaviour and choice, rather than as a novel with a complete plot.

'A Clockwork Orange' is, in part, a satire of the world Burgess saw beginning to grow around him, and feared. A world where society comes first, the individual second. This is shown in the novel through the 'Ludovico technique', which removes an individual's ability to perform crimes, but which also removes their choice to do so. Once Alex is released from prison he is unable to defend himself if provoked; he forswears violence, not through his own will, but through his inability to act. The act of violence is cured, but not the tendency, and Burgess suggests that this does not constitute a cure but, in fact, creates an incomplete human being.

A major theme throughout the novel is Alex's love of music, most particularly 'Ludwig Van' (Beethoven). However, one of the films he is shown during the Ludovico technique is set to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and, by the time of his release, the sound of Alex's favourite piece of music occasions the same response in him as physical violence: total nausea. Besides hinting that Alex's love of music suggests that there is more to his character than pure violence, Burgess uses Alex's inability to enjoy it upon his release to underline the sheer inhumanity of such a cure. The final chapter of the original version is important to Burgess' ideas about the differences between the generations. Alex begins to feel for himself that there is more to life than crime; he has no inclination to beat and rob, and we are shown, when Alex meets Pete1 in a pub, that it is not just Alex who is changing. Burgess shows that Alex did not require the extremities of the Ludovico technique to neuter his desire to commit crimes, growing up does that by itself.

The Movie

Stanley Kubrick's film version of 'A Clockwork Orange' is one of the greatest translations of a book to the cinema screen. It was withdrawn, shortly after its release in 1971, when Kubrick received threats from members of the public who were concerned about the levels of violence portrayed in the film. The irony of this situation should be considered: in their anxiety about the effects of screen violence, people were threatening to harm the man who had brought it to the screen. They wished to deny audiences the choice of whether or not to see a film that has the theme of choice at its core. Its banning turned a film that was perhaps not mainstream into a must-see movie. Removing the film from distribution was one of Kubrick's few concessions to public opinion during his career. However, by that time, enough people had seen the film to make a legend of it.

'A Clockwork Orange' deserves its status as a classic film: one of the greatest films made by a great filmmaker. Despite making the film in Britain with a predominantly British cast, Kubrick used the American edition of the novel and was, apparently, unaware that any other version existed until the film was complete. This does not diminish the power or brilliance of the adaptation, the main argument in the matter being over the source-material, not the film. Malcolm MacDowell's central performance as Alex is probably the greatest of his career, as he creates on screen a character that is both revolting and strangely sympathetic, particularly in his inability to defend himself upon his release from prison.

Kubrick's depiction of Burgess' distopian Britain is incredible and brilliant. A world of concrete and plastic, strange shapes and violently contrasting colours. The contrast between the lives of Alex and his Droogs, full of vitality and madness, and that of their parents generation who have accessorised wildly to fill their lives, is sharply drawn. However the main backdrop to the movie is the soundtrack. This comprises, in the main, of the classical music so beloved of Alex in the novel, particularly Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Kubrick, however, does not use the warm, full orchestral sound that most of us are used to. Rather he distorts it, as the story distorts the world, and presents an electronic sound, fast, furious and modern, reflecting Alex's defining characteristics.

'A Clockwork Orange' is a faithful adaptation of the novel; Kubrick keeps Burgess' story, character, and use of language intact. The violence of the story is carefully choreographed and, with the presence of Alex's voice-over and the soundtrack at the fore, we almost seem to be watching Alex's 'ultraviolence' from a distance. If to glamorise something is to throw a sheen over it and highlight it, then it can be argued that Kubrick's vision does glamorise the violence of the film. This does not, however, make it any less repulsive. The costumes the gang don for their attacks symbolise the monsters they have become, and the juxtaposition of 'Singing in the Rain' with the rape scene further alienates the audience from the actions of Alex and his Droogs.

Throughout the film Kubrick consistently refuses to insult his viewers' intelligence, or their stomachs. The scene in which Alex is strapped down in order for the Ludovico technique to be performed upon him must rank amongst the most horrific images in cinema. No subtitles are offered for the translation of the Nadsat Alex and his friends speak, and the language itself is strangely easy to follow, as it is in the book. The adult characters seem almost alien in their differences to Alex and the Droogs and only the Prison Chaplain, who takes Alex under his wing, displays any degree of humanity. Besides Burgess' themes of age and choice, Kubrick also emphasises one idea that appears more subtly in the novel. This is that the government's main aim is simply to remain in power, and their desire to follow public opinion slavishly is only to achieve this. Kubrick's vision of the future is truly one to marvel at.


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1One of his former Droogs.

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