Reviews of A Clockwork Orange (1962) and related work

A Clockwork Orange (1962Text)

Anthony Burgess (writer).

Read in 2018.

A boy likes to listen to classical music, lie, rape children and commit assault. He manipulates his way through life in a decaying future Britain where rebellious youths like him speak a mix of rhyming slang and Russian propaganda with ironic Shakespearean grammar. Jailed for murder at 15, he gets an experimental new treatment at 17, said to ensure that he will never come back to the overcrowded prison where he learned nothing.

At once a vicarious thriller, a futuristic dystopia, a satire of ephebiphobia and a proper bourgeois novel on the themes of liberty, personal maturation and the depths of human callousness.

The literary solipsism is a bit stodgy, especially the many chiastic second meetings and the book—“A Clockwork Orange”—within the book. Nonetheless, it works well enough. Through all his suffering, Alex is never sympathetic, nor does his monstrous behaviour rest on any cop-out theory of the tabula rasa.

Violent protagonists are common, but they usually come with James Bond’s framing: An authorial, social or state sanction for the audience to accept the violence, and a vicarious power fantasy to make it feel good. There is none of that here. All the tricks for Overton acceptability with respect to social transgression—and audience identification—that Harrison pulled in The Stainless Steel Rat (1961) are absent.

Alex is, first and foremost, a character who enjoys violence for realistic reasons. Burgess made this as creepy as it should be. For example, Alex’s appreciative reading of the Old Testament (ca. 164 BCE) in prison makes perfect sense. Most of its authors had his attitude to violence.

References here: “The Game” (1991).

text fiction

A Clockwork Orange (1971Moving picture, 136 minutes)

Stanley Kubrick (writer-director).

Judging by the sports car being called a Durango 95, this version seems to take place somewhere around the turn of the century, perhaps near Kubrick’s own death. A fear of crime contributed to the director’s decision to move from the US to the UK. That’s ironic, because it was the shock of seeing 1950s UK youth culture after some time abroad that prompted Burgess to write the novel. The opening of this one recalls the violent crime, set to classical music, that opens Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966).

The final chapter, where Alex loses interest in crime, was cut from the American edition of the novel and was not filmed. Adding to the resulting bleakness, Kubrick inserted various props to signal that the near future is hypersexualized even beyond the circle of nadsat culture. The decadent late-Roman atmosphere makes a wonderful addition, amply aided by the innovative, teetering soundtrack. The opening’s rendition of Henry Purcell’s march from Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary (1695) is perfect.

The Ludovico method, an efficacious science-fiction application of the Skinner box to a human subject, looks great on film because it is about film. Where Burgess inserted an avatar of himself in his book writing something like the book itself (same title and theme but not evidently a novel), Kubrick is a bit more subtle, anticipating the controversy surrounding the release of the film by playing with the idea that cultural artifacts like films determine people’s behaviour.

References here: More experienced critics rate movies lower, Barry Lyndon (1975), Star Wars (1977), Story of Science Fiction (2018).

moving picture adaptation fiction