Stanley Kubrick

Clockwork Orange

The knifers and the knifed


With the publication in 1963 of his third novel, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Anthony Burgess became one of the most widely discussed novelists in the English language; with the release in 1968 of his film, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, Stanley Kubrick became one of the most widely discussed of American filmmakers; with the release in 1971 of the Stanley Kubrick film version of Anthony Burgess' novel, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, the two figures combined—or perhaps the word is "collided"—in the production of a work about which one of the kindest things that can be said is that it is…widely discussed.

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (the novel) is narrated by Alex, a London teenager living at an unspecified time in the future. He and his gang of three other young hoodlums spend their evenings enjoying "ultra-violence," robbing, raping, beating, torturing, murdering, and making war on other gangs. They do this, not because of their environments or their biological heritages, but because, as Alex puts it, "…what I do I do because I like to do." And why do they like it? "…thinking," says Alex, "is for the gloopy ones…the oomny ones use like inspiration and what Bog sends."[1] His only interest aside from ultra-violence and "the old in-out in-out" is symphonic music; he is particularly fond of the "Ode to Joy" at the conclusion of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Clearly such music appeals to him as pure emotion, akin, in its orgiastic anti-intellectuality, to "inspiration and what Bog sends." At one point, a snatch of Beethoven inspires him to stop thinking and start acting (violently) to solve a discipline problem in his gang; at another point, he achieves orgasm while lying in bed, imagining deeds of ultra-violence and listening to the "Ode to Joy."


Though, in principle, Alex and his droogs[2] are willing to attack anyone, they tend, in practice, to reserve their greatest fury for those gloopy enough to think. On the first night of the novel, they rob, strip, and beat an old man en route from the public library with some rare books under his arm. Their next target is a businessman, their third a writer. Alex, in a moment of levity, reads a line from the unfinished manuscript which he will shortly destroy: "The attempt to impose upon man, a creature of growth and capable of sweetness…laws and conditions appropriate to a mechanical creation, against this I raise my sword-pen…" The writer's manuscript is entitled, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.

Ultimately, Alex is convicted of murder and sentenced to a term in prison. While there, he kills a fellow prisoner and earns the opportunity to become the first experimental subject of a new rehabilitative treatment, a treatment which conditions the criminal to abhor the violence in which he had previously indulged himself. The word "conditions" is important here, for Alex is not to be taught that violence is wrong; indeed, when, in the midst of his treatment, he pleads that "all this dratsing and ultra-violence and killing is wrong wrong and terribly wrong,"[3] that "it's wrong because every veck on earth has the right to live and be happy without being beaten and tolchocked and knifed,"[4] he is informed that he is "not cured yet.…Only when your body reacts promptly and violently to violence, as to a snake, without further help from us, only then—." The fact that Alex's confession is a fraud, that he is merely seeking to escape from those he regards as his torturers, is irrelevant in this connection. What the conditioning psychologists are rejecting is not his particular insincerity but any belief in reason as a guide to action. "The heresy of an age of reason," one of them remarks, "I see what is right and approve, but I do what is wrong." And again: "We are not concerned with motive.…We are concerned only with cutting down crime."

But Alex recovers. And, though his suicide attempt has placed the government in a bad light, it has recovered by reversing his conditioning. "I could viddy myself very clear," Alex declares on the last page of the novel, "running and running on like very light and mysterious nogas, carving the whole litso of the creeching world with my cutthroat britva.…I was cured all right."[5]


The object of Burgess' attack is mindlessness; not violence, but the rejection of the mind in favor of the emotions; not behavioral conditioning, but the rejection of the mind in favor of the reflexes. Burgess is concerned with motives, and his plea is that only reason, cultivated after the fashion of scholars and writers and applied after the fashion of businessmen, can bring Man to a state of civilization. His plea is, conversely, that a mindless society can only be one in which, as Alex puts it, there are "some getting knifed and others doing the knifing."

Clearly, Burgess believes his position to be the moral one; the tragedy is that he does not believe it to be the practical one. He depicts men of the mind caught in a sort of vise between the mindlessness of the teenage gangs and the mindlessness of the government. Thus the writer, who serves as Burgess' foremost example of a man of reason, is first attacked and made a widower by Alex and his droogs and then "put away' by the government as "a writer of subversive literature."


Alex is conditioned, made constitutionally incapable of violence, and released. On the outside, he re-encounters his victims of two years before. When visiting the library, he meets the scholar he had attacked and is subjected to a vengeful beating. The fight is stopped by two police, two of Alex's droogs-of-old, who take him to the outskirts of the city and settle old scores of their own. Half-dead, he stumbles for help to the home of the writer. At first he is unrecognized and receives assistance. Later he is found out, and the writer too seeks revenge. Learning that the films used in conditioning Alex against violence have inadvertently conditioned him against the music he had once adored, the writer locks him in a room near the top of a building and plays Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" on a phonograph until, in agony, Alex attempts suicide by jumping from a window. This is, of course, precisely what the writer has planned. It will simultaneously win personal revenge (Alex had raped and murdered the writer's wife) and public exposure of the government's conditioning program for what it really is: the transformation of a man into an automaton, into an organism run like a robot, into a clockwork orange. to evil, the fact remains that he distinguishes between the good and the evil. Alex asks, "…this biting of their toenails over what is the cause of badness is what turns me into a fine laughing malchick. They don't go into what is the cause of goodness, so why of the other shop?"[6] And Burgess answers: the rational is the good; the mindless is the evil.

This is not the meaning of the story in Stanley Kubrick's film version.


For someone who has read the novel, the film treatment of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE is an unusually eloquent example of the importance of selectivity in art. Kubrick leaves the major details of Burgess' story as they are, but he so changes certain minor details as to rob the result of any intelligible meaning. His hatchet-job begins with Alex's victims. The scholar on his way from the library becomes a drunken bum in an alley; an old woman who lives alone with her cats and works of art becomes a health nut who lives alone with her cats and such works of art as a sculpted penis and scrotum; the parole officer, who loses his job for his failure to reform Alex, becomes a homosexual; the small businessman vanishes entirely. Burgess' representatives of reason and sanity become Kubrick's representatives of a culture different from Alex's sub-culture but equally decadent. Only the writer remains. And his significance is diluted by the elimination of any reference to his manuscript. One is not told in the film that the writer stands for reason and humanism; one is not told the significance of the title, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Burgess' portrait of a society in which the forces of reason are destroyed by the forces of mindlessness becomes Kubrick's portrait of a decadent society whose children have learned its lessons too well. Burgess' sharply focussed damnation of anti-intellectuality becomes Kubrick's diffuse nightmare of a society in which everything is wrong and all because of the older generation. Since certain members of the current younger generation are primarily responsible for Kubrick's absurdly inflated reputation as a filmmaker, it is possible that this grotesque distortion of a novel is a cynical play for popular favor. Whatever the explanation, it is merely an explanation; there is no excuse.

In fairness, I should mention that, given its botched screenplay and its meaningless overuse of photographic gimmickry (one sex scene is shot in Keystone-Kops-style fast motion, one fight scene in slow motion), much of Kubrick's film is effective. The acting is uniformly good throughout the picture, and Malcolm MacDowell's performance as Alex is superb, one of the best I've seen on the screen in recent years. It is nonetheless true for having become something of a cliché in those same years that such skillful performers deserve a better vehicle for their art.


[1] A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, which has been rightly called "a linguistic tour de force" (by Geoffrey Aggeler in the ARIZONA QUARTERLY, Autumn, 1969), is narrated in "nadsat," the teenage slang of Alex's era. It is far from arbitrary; the precise meaning of every word in its vocabulary may be determined by following clues in the text. Moreover, most of the words' meanings are clear from context. For readers of this review, however, I shall provide definitions for the nadsat words. Gloopy=stupid; Oomny=brainy; Bog=God.
[2] Droogs=friends.
[3] Dratsing=fighting.
[4] Veck=person; Tolchock=to hit or strike.
[5] Viddy=to see; Noga=foot; Litso=face; Creech=to cry out or shriek or scream; Britva=razor.
[6] Malchick=boy.