Friday, April 8, 2016

Tolchocking to the Classics

This is my entry to Speakeasy and Now Voyaging's Beyond the Cover Blogathon.

***Note to the Fainthearted: A Clockwork Orange, the subject of today's post, is not a family-friendly book or movie, in even the most liberal of terms.  This post, while not openly glorifying the acts depicted in the book and movie, will also not be blunting the effects either, in an effort  to assuage sensibilities.  It is not my intent to get you to love the book or movie, nor it is it an attempt to send you screaming for the Alka-Seltzer, rather it is only to convey some of the aspects, many of which could be offensive.  You have been warned.***

When I was a lad growing up in small town in north Texas, the nearest thing to "gangs" we had was when some of the farm boys would get together and ride roughshod over the local pipsqueak (and I was one of the pipsqueaks).  The 1960's and early 70's were not all such blue skies and stable boy dreams though.   Sheltered as I was from reality, I still saw evidence of the violence and revolution in the world on the nightly news with Walter Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley.

Anthony Burgess looked at the world as it was in the early 60's and postulated what would happen if the world kept on progressing at the rate it seemed to be progressing.  The result was a little novella called A Clockwork Orange.

Spoiler Alert!!:  This review does include the ending of both the book and the movie in an effort to compare and contrast.  If you would rather see the movie and/or read the book first, be forewarned.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962) and
A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Anthony Burgess, in his own words, stated that A Clockwork Orange  was not his favorite book that he wrote.  In the preface to the unexpurgated* American edition printed at it's 25th anniversary, he lamented that he was remembered for this book, a knockoff, while some of his better works, in his opinion, were ignored.

*Unexpurgated-  For those of you who are European readers, you may or may not know that American editions up until 1987 did not include the final denouement that European editions did.  Which is why the movie ended abruptly if you had read the European edition.  I, myself, thought it ended the same way as the movie, up until then, because I only had access to American editions of the book.

When I was a young lad, I read just about anything I could lay my hands on.  Mad Magazine was one of my favorite comics, because it introduced me to movies that I never got a chance to go see because I was too young.  It also gave me titles of books which I could seek out.  Of course, at the age of 10 (when the movie version came out), I felt like I was not allowed to go to the adult section of the library, so I didn't seek out this book until I was well into high school.

The book, needless to say, is very graphic.  And a bit hard to understand if you are not prepared for it.  The narrator is Alex, a young 15 year old leader of a gang of thugs who roam the night, committing various acts of violence and robbery.  But the most difficult part of the book is that Alex speaks in a dialect that is supposed to be common among teenagers of the time, but may be wholly cryptic to the average reader.

"What's it going to be then, eh?

There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete and Georgie and Dim and we sat in the Korova Milkbar trying to make up our rasoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry.  The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus mesto, and you may, O my brothers, have forgotten what these mestos were like, things changing so skorry these days...."

Now, many of you are probably wondering  "Wait! droogs?  rasoodocks?  mestos?  skorry?  What sort of language is this book written in anyway?"  The Nadsat language, (or teenage language, if you will) of the dystopian future Burgess imagines is filled with words of Russian origin, as well as Cockney rhyming slang, and other bits of fun with language.  It creates a surreal atmosphere that in my opinion serves to blunt the graphic portions of the book.  Trust me, if you are a little old lady who gets shivers reading Agatha Christie novels, you'll faint dead away from reading this book, even with the violence blunted by the strange language.

The book has three parts of 7 chapters each (which as Burgess says represents in some ways the age of adulthood {7 x 3 = 21} thus the reason for his consternation when the American version published only 6 of the chapters in the last section).  The first section deals with a two day window into the life of Alex as the leader of his droogs.  The four commit all sorts of crimes on the first day, but at the end there is a bit of falling out which manifests itself on the second day.  The droogs confront Alex with issues and he tries to resolve them in the only way he knows how, by using force.  This causes some resentment and in the end, after a failed robbery attempt, they leave him unconscious for the police.

In the second part, Alex is a convicted criminal, serving 14 years for murder.  (See, the victim of the failed robbery attempt was killed, so instead of robbery, Alex was convicted of manslaughter.)  He convinces the prison chaplain he would like to try this new Ludovico technique which supposedly guarantees that he will be a reformed man and back on the street in a fortnight.  Alex doesn't really want to be reformed, he just wants to see if he can con his way through this setup and get released early.  The Ludovico technique proves to be a conditioned reflex sort of training, however, so that even when Alex wants to be mean and evil he feels ill and sick to his stomach.

The third part deals with Alex as a free man.  But he is not the happy man he thought he would be.  His mother and father don't want him around.  Victims who recognize him from his gang days beat the crap out of him.  And his former droogs are now grown up and members of the police.  Although not the kind of police you'd find on Leave it to Beaver.  Everyone it seems is out to get him.  In the end he tries to commit suicide, but is unsuccessful.  He does however end up with the effects of the Ludovico Technique removed from him and as he pronounces "I was cured alright".

Now the original American version ended there, but as I stated earlier, there was a denouement that had been left out of the American version that most Europeans got to see.  In it Alex is back on the streets with a new set of droogs,  But as he has grown older he begins to see a certain pointlessness to his current state of affairs.  This is enhanced when a bit later he meets up with Pete, the one former droog who was not made a member of the police.  Pete has grown older and is now a respectable citizen with a respectable wife.  And he no longer uses the Nadsat slang that Alex uses.  This causes Alex to contemplate he needs a change in his life.

The whole book is a platform to contemplate what free will really means, and are people with no free will to make the choice between good and bad any better than those who do have a choice but choose to be good.  You can really get to know Alex from reading the book, as the character develops over the course of the novel.  Although, like Holden Caufield in The Catcher in the Rye, you probably won't feel much empathy towards him.

OK, now having read the book, if you feel adventurous, we can go watch the movie.  Be forewarned, however, it is a Stanley Kubrick movie and Stanley was notorious for pushing the borders of what is acceptable, both visually and language-wise.

The movie itself was rated X when it first came out, but it was not, as one might think, rated X for sexual content.  To be sure, there are a few scenes involving nude women, but the X rating was given due to the graphic violence in the film.

We start out with a voice-over narration by Alex (Malcolm McDowell), with Alex and his three droogs Pete (Michael Tarn),  Georgie  (James Marcus) and Dim (Warren Clarke) sitting in a milk bar.  The camera lingers on Alex's face and pans to reveal the rest of the bar, while Alex's voice over introduces us to a typical night of his gang.

The film then segues into a typical night which involves beating up a drunken homeless guy, interrupting a gang rape by a rival gang for a good old-fashioned gang fight, stealing a car and racing down the road recklessly, endangering both motorists and pedestrians, and ending up at the home of a writer (Patrick Magee) and his wife (the writer supposedly being the author of the book on which this movie is based.)  The four ransack the house and commit various unsavory acts upon the two householders, including the rape of the wife.

Alex does it all while cheerily singing "Singin in the Rain" (which foreshadows a later development.)  After their night of debauchery Alex goes home where he listens to classical music, specifically Beethoven (which also makes a significant point later in the movie).  Being still 15, his mum comes to wake him up for school but he professes a headache and shoos her off.  He is visited by his juvenile parole officer (Aubrey Morris) who warns him that he is on the verge of going to real prison if he doesn't shape up, but Alex ignores him.  He cruises the local record store and picks up a couple of innocent girls, taking them back to his room.

Later that evening he is met by his three droogs in his own apartment building and they seem to have issues with Alex.  Alex engages in a three on one fight with them and ultimately seems to regain control of his leadership.

They go to pull of a big heist of a rich woman who lives alone with her cats.  Alex, alone in the house, engages in a one-on-one fight with the woman and inadvertently kills her with an enormous plaster dildo.  As a result, Alex is sentenced to 14 years in the prison.

The film segues, just as the book does, to Alex trying to adjust to life in prison.  He thinks he has everyone believing he is a model prisoner.  He approaches the chaplain about this new "technique" that is supposed to reform a prisoner and put him on the street in a fortnight. (That's 14 days or 2 weeks).  Of course, Alex doesn't really want to be reformed, he just wants to wrangle his way through the system and get back to his old life.

His chance comes when, on a visit by a government bigwig, Alex spouts off some platitudes as to how he wants to be reformed.  He is transferred to a different ward where he is prepped for this new technique, which he finds is just watching videos of people getting the crap beat out of them and girls getting raped. The rough part is he is strapped into a chair with special efforts made to make sure he can't take his eyes of the screen no matter how hard he tries.

This isn't the worst part, however.  The worst part is just when he is starting to be disturbed by the images, he is forced to have it be accompanied by music from his beloved Beethoven.  The upshot being that he is not only gradually being stimulated to be repulsed by the violence, he is also being repulsed by the strains of Beethoven.

After he has been conditioned, somewhat like Pavlov's dog, he is presented to a committee where it is shown that he feels violently ill when confronted with thoughts of violence or uncivilized behavior.  He is then released.  He goes home to his mom and pop who aren't expecting him, and who have a boarder who threatens him, and he is unceremoniously sent back out to the streets.

The latter part of the movie deals with his encountering of people from his past, including a bum that he and his friends beat up, who, now with bum friends of his own proceed to beat on Alex.  He is rescued by police, but the police are former gang members who brutally beat him up and deposit him in the middle of nowhere.  "Nowhere" just happens to be near the house of the writer he and his friends had beaten up and raped his wife.  The writer does not recognize him as this gang member however, due to the fact that Alex had worn a mask.  But he does recognize him as the recently reformed criminal, and being an advocate of the opposing political party wants to use him as a tool for his party to regain control in the government.

What gives away Alex's complicity in the previous events in the writer's life, which included the death of his wife after the rape, is Alex singing "Singing in the Rain" while taking a luxurious bath.  The writer realizes just exactly who Alex is and plots revenge.  He locks Alex in a bedroom and pipes in Beethoven loudly into the room.  Alex, unable to stop the music, and feeling violently ill due to the conditioning, jumps from the window to kill himself.

The end of the movie has Alex, still yet a pawn in the government battle of parties, now cured of his conditioning and posing for photographs with a government bigwig.  With rapturous visions of bloody carnage and wild sex running through his head, he announces "I was cured alright".

As stated earlier the movie ends here without the denouement of the European version of the book.  The American audiences of the 70's, by this time, were used to such stark endings.  Were the actual ending to have been filmed in the Kubrick film, I can't say whether or not it would have changed how iconic the film became,  but it definitely would have been perceived differently.

Although Kubrick tried to stay faithful to the original work, there are several differences between the book and the movie.  Some had to be done, just on general principles, while others were done to either condense and combine events or in the name of the narrative.  One particularly obvious change that HAD to be done was the scene in which Alex picks up two girls in the record shop.  In the book the girls are 10 year old youngsters and the sex is not consensual.  In the movie, the girls are older and there is some indication that they are agreeable to the act.

Also, as stated in the book section, Alex was 15, but in the movie he is aged to at least 17 or 18.  THis was probably done to lessen the impact of the movie and reduce the possibilities of controversy.  As for the rest of the changes, none are very significant.

A Clockwork Orange  was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director (it lost both to The French Connection).  It remains one of  only two movies, originally rated X, that were nominated for Oscars.  (The other being Midnight Cowboy, which did win Best Picture and Best Director).  The movie continues to be popular, and ranks on AFI's list of 100 Years...100 Movies.

The film itself was and is not without some controversy.  It notoriously was credited with inspiring several incidents in the UK, which caused Kubrick to withdraw it from release in that country.  Only after his death in 1999 were you able to see it in theaters in the UK.  Not surprisingly, the Catholic Church also condemned the movie, and forbade it's congregation to see it.

Well, that's it from the back seat of the Plymouth this week.  Hope you enjoyed it.  Drive home safely.



  1. I didn't realize there were two versions of the book, and that the earlier book was truncated. I read the shortened version some years ago, which I found thoroughly unsatisfying. The ending didn't seem to make much sense, but you've shown me why.

    I haven't seen the film, and I admit I have no plans to because I'm one of those sensitive viewers. However, I enjoyed your review very much, along the points you raised.

    P.S. When I was a kid, my brothers and I were big fans of Mad magazine too. Like you, we loved that it referenced movies we were not allowed to see, so it made us feel all hip and In The Know. We would STUDY that magazine – I'm not kidding!

    1. Can't say I blame you for not wanting to watch it. Even I get a little queasy sometimes, and I am closer to "jaded" than I an "innocent". Thanks.

  2. [Be warned: this is a twopart post]

    I just read the book and watched the movie this year and am utterly fascinated with both—obsessed even, I’ll admit. Few works of art manage to be as disturbing, entertaining, and thought-provoking. Burgess may have felt he did better work elsewhere but the novel is much too creative and philosophically-engaging to be so blithely disregarded by its creator.

    AOC was no doubt Kubrick's most controversial movie-- and considering nearly every film he made generated some form of controversy, that's saying something! I had avoided the book and especially the picture for years due to its reputation for being unpleasant and violent, but when I got around to them this year I was taken aback by how funny both are. The comedy is very dark, but it is there. The movie has moments that even border on slapstick. In fact, in the 2007 Malcolm McDowell commentary track, McDowell said when they were making the film, the crew and cast regarded it as a black comedy and political satire. Much to his surprise at the first screening, there was not a single titter in the audience as everyone was too busy gaping at the screen with shock. However, he said the last time he went to a screening (which at the time of that recording must have been the early to mid-2000s), the audience "got it" and roared.

    The movie is still controversial to a degree, though I don’t think it’s from the depiction of the “ultraviolence” itself any longer. (Indeed the violent scenes are tame by today’s standards: they’re stylized and not always particularly bloody. We also never see the consummation of the rape of Mrs. Alexander, only the cruel, horrifying build-up.) I think it’s Alex himself who makes people uncomfortable: he’s a funny, charismatic, sexually attractive villain-protagonist who never achieves redemption and many viewers, I think, are disturbed by how much they enjoy him. Kubrick often compared Alex to Shakespeare’s Richard III, but even Richard got his come-uppance in the final act. There’s also the presentation of the material; in the essay which comes with the 2011 Blu-ray, the author observes that “[i]n Kubrick’s capable hands, even the ugliest world can be beautiful when filmed in slow-motion with a wide angle lens. We’re treated to the lovely sounds of Beethoven and ‘Singin in the Rain’ while terrible scenes are playing out before our eyes. Rather than frown on the behavior of the nefarious Alex, Kubrick invites us to delight in his evil deeds, even to mentally participate…. [L]ike Alex during the Ludovico treatment, we can’t avert our eyes from the carnage unleased by the droogs, nor can we ever hear Beethoven’s Fifth again without thinking certain uncomfortable thoughts. Is Kubrick really celebrating rape and violence? Anyone who thinks so doesn’t understand Kubrick, who surely expected his audience to read between the lines.”

  3. [Continued]

    Still, some claim this element led to Kubrick unwittingly glorifying violent behavior, but I think there’s also something deeper and more disturbing at play: Kubrick is claiming that Alex exists in every one of us. Everyone has the potential for evil and violence, no matter their morals or personality. This is also shown in the reaction of Alex’s victims to his helpless state in the last third of the plot: of course, they have every right to desire vengeance, but their violent reactions are contrasted with the New Testament idea of “turning the other cheek” and loving one’s enemy. Both they and Alex reject these ideas, gleefully clinging to the Old Testament idea of “an eye for an eye.” In the book, F. Alexander is portrayed as especially hypocritical, since in his writings he expresses something like a Christian view of humanity, claiming all humans are “capable of sweetness” in spite of everything.

    The difference between the two endings is striking. Burgess was a lapsed Catholic, but it seems like in this case you could take the man out of the Church but not the Church out of the man, for the book’s ending has quite a Catholic philosophy: that though we are fallen beings born into a fallen world, there is potential for redemption and grace, but only if we choose it for ourselves. In contrast, Kubrick was much more cynical; even when he read the original ending (during the making of the film, I might add), he claimed he felt the story was stronger without it. Spielberg once claimed AOC was Kubrick’s “most defeatist picture,” the one in which he appears to give up on humanity. I haven’t seen all of Kubrick’s oeuvre yet, but I would have to agree. The film’s ending is both hilarious and creepy, with the individual evil of Alex DeLarge subsumed into the greater ill-will perpetuated by the totalitarian government of Burgess’s futuristic Britain. I was disappointed by this conclusion on the first viewing, having read the book first, but now having seen it again, I don’t think we are meant to leave the theatre with a sense of resolution. AOC, both book and movie (but especially the movie), is about leaving the viewer with questions, food for thought. No wonder AOC has remained popular and haunted us ever since.

    Gosh that was a long reply. Can you or can you not tell how much this story has been on my mind?

    1. I'll say one thing. it was a very erudite reply. :-) Thanks.

  4. Great work, this was a big and tough subject to tackle and I really enjoyed reading. Thanks so much for joining the blogathon! Nice to have such a great post be part of it.

    1. This movie and a previous entry "Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai..." are indications that the more profound effect a movie has on me, the better I can write about it. Thanks for the kind words.

  5. Fabulous article on one of my all-time favorite films...I can tell it's one of yours, too! It's dazzling on so many levels...the futuristic production design, Kubrick's iconic camera work, the brilliant script adaptation that teaches us the lingo of droogs in amazing shorthand...first rate. As is your post--I am excited to pull this DVD off the shelf again, thanks to you!!

    1. The book is definitely one of my favorites. I'm not as much a devotee of the film, although I do think Kubrick is only one of a handful of directors who could have pulled it off without being to over-the-top or too censorial. Thanks, Chris

  6. Great job with this post! We are so lucky you decided to join us! Thank you for that by the way!


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