Did Stanley Kubrick ruin ‘A Clockwork Orange’?
There’s an old adage that the artist and their art don’t always get along, and British author Anthony Burgess (1917 to 1993) made it no secret that his 1962 novella “A Clockwork Orange” was not among his personal favorite works. As it turns out, he wasn’t much of a Stanley Kubrick fan, either.
Burgess wrote more than 30 novels in his lifetime, but thanks to Kubrick’s 1971 film adaptation of “A Clockwork Orange,” that is the book he is remembered for. Even worse, Kubrick botched Burgess’ original story. And he could only watch helplessly as the movie—especially that opening image of Malcolm McDowell as Alex—was instantly woven into the fabric of society.
The sordid tale that is “Burgess versus Kubrick” is still unfolding today, decades after both men have shuffled off their mortal coils. In April 2019, Andrew Biswell, professor of modern literature at Manchester Metropolitan University, was cataloging Burgess’s papers when he came across an unfinished, 200-page manuscript called “The Clockwork Condition.”
According to Biswell, this work is not a sequel but rather “part philosophical reflection and part autobiography.” News of Biswell’s discovery sent shockwaves throughout the world of literature and film. It opened a new chapter in a story that harkens back to Burgess’s childhood in Manchester, England, where “ragged boys in gangs would pounce on the well-dressed like myself.”
Eyes wide open
There are actually two versions of Burgess’ novel. The book, which takes place in a not-too-distant dystopian future, begins with Alex and his fellow “droogs” (gang members) getting high on “milk-plus” and then prowling the streets of London. After Alex’s droogs beat him and strand him at a home invasion—where he had murdered an elderly woman with a “silver statue” (Kubrick made it a giant porcelain penis)—he’s sent to “Staja” (State Jail, that is).
Two years into his sentence, Alex becomes the first test subject of the controversial “Ludovico Technique.” With his eyelids stretched open, he’s given nausea-inducing drugs and forced to watch hours upon hours of violent films. After two weeks of the treatment, Alex is pronounced “cured” and released from jail. Indeed, whenever he feels the urge to inflict pain, he becomes violently ill.
He is then locked in a room by a former victim and forced to listen to Beethoven until he can’t take it anymore, eventually throwing himself out of a three-story window. As he’s recovering, a nurse tests his reactions to negative suggestions, and lo and behold, his violent tendencies are back! Alex is cured of his “cure.”
This is where Kubrick’s movie ends, but not Burgess’ book.
Nature versus nurture
In the final chapter, Alex runs into a former droog who has given up crime and is happy, so Alex decides that he, too, will become a responsible citizen.
Burgess always maintained that a true work of literature requires the main character to undergo some kind of transformation, and the movie stole that from him.
He complained that his book became known as “The raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me until I die.”
In his defense, Kubrick didn’t even want to make “A Clockwork Orange” in the first place. He didn’t like the novel’s dialect, a Burgess invention called “Nadsat.” This Russian term loosely translates to “teen language.” Alex, a.k.a “Your Humble Narrator,” peppers his prose with colorful lingo that combines Russian and Cockney rhyming slang and, and as the author describes in the book, “a bit of gypsy talk, too. But most of the roots are Slav. Propaganda. Subliminal penetration.”
But Kubrick ultimately took on the project, in part because he wanted to prove that he could make an entertaining low-budget movie after his high-brow adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
When asked at the time if he’d collaborated with the author, Kubrick answered no, explaining, “I think it is reasonable to say that, whatever Burgess had to say about the story was said in the book.” Too bad for Burgess that Kubrick had the wrong book.
Even though Burgess didn’t regard “A Clockwork Orange” as his best work, it was among his most personal. Disillusioned with the rise of youth gang violence in England, he was still haunted by an incident that had occurred back in 1944.
While he was serving abroad in World War II, his pregnant wife, Lynne, was brutally attacked by four American servicemen during the London Blackout. Lynne survived, but her baby miscarried, and she was never quite “right” after that.
Burgess wrote “A Clockwork Orange” in only three weeks, and initial sales were low. But as the tumultuous 1960s unfolded, the novel was adopted by the counterculture movement on both sides of the pond. A film adaptation seemed inevitable.
According to Biswell: “Andy Warhol and his associates made a pirate adaptation under the title ‘Vinyl’ in 1965. Terry Southern and Michael Cooper acquired an option in the rights and wrote a script the following year. They wanted to cast Mick Jagger as Alex and the Rolling Stones as the droogs.” (The Beatles were reportedly going to score the film).
“A Clockwork Orange” hit theaters in England, the U.S., and several other countries in 1971.
“The film has just been a damned nuisance,” Burgess said at the time. “I am regarded by some people as…a mere helper to Stanley Kubrick. This, I naturally resent.”
It must have especially stung when the film garnered two Academy Award nominations for “Best Picture” and “Best Director.”
Anarchy in the UK
Then came the alarming reports of “Clockwork”-inspired crimes—including rapes and murders—that took place in England, home to both Burgess and Kubrick. Both the author and the auteur were asked about the attacks.
In 1972, Kubrick responded: “Well, I don’t accept that there is a connection…If there were one, I should say that the kind of violence that might cause some impulse to emulate it is the ‘fun’ kind of violence: the kind of violence we see in the Bond films, or in ‘Tom and Jerry’ cartoons.”
Not long after Kubrick gave that interview, he never spoke of “A Clockwork Orange” again. In fact, he used his considerable sway to keep Warner Bros. from showing it in England for the rest of his life.
So it was up to Burgess to defend “A Clockwork Orange” on his own.
“If I am responsible for young boys beating up old men or killing old women after having seen the film, then Shakespeare is responsible every time some young man decides to kill his uncle and blames it on ‘Hamlet’,” Burgess said in 1974 after he abandoned “The Clockwork Condition.”
Burgess had only agreed to write the follow-up because his publisher wanted to cash in on the blockbuster movie. He was told that he could write whatever he wanted to as long as it had “Clockwork” in the title. (Isn’t it comforting to know that crass commercialism isn’t a new thing?)
“Eventually Burgess came to realize that the proposed non-fiction book was beyond his capabilities, as he was a novelist and not a philosopher,” said Biswell.
So instead of a sequel following Alex into adulthood, Burgess began work on a missive lamenting the 1970s, especially movies and television of the time.
“This is the great age of communications,” he wrote. “But what the hell are we trying to communicate about?”
With that in mind, Burgess decided to structure “The Clockwork Condition” after his favorite poem, Dante’s “Inferno.” Every chapter would take the reader deeper into the realms of hell that comprise modern society.
Although he didn’t finish “The Clockwork Condition,” Burgess later penned a novella called “The Clockwork Testament (Or: Enderby’s End).” Plot: A reclusive English writer partners with an American filmmaker. The writer’s story is corrupted in the process, and its violent content makes him a target for murder. (Write what you know, they say).
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According to Biswell, Burgess had planned on including quotations from other celebrated writers and thinkers, interspersed with “surreal photographs” for “The Clockwork Condition.” So far, only two excerpts have been released to the public.
In one excerpt, Burgess explains the title’s origin: “In 1945, back from the army, I heard an 80-year-old Cockney in a London pub say that somebody was ‘as queer as a clockwork orange.’ The ‘queer’ did not mean homosexual; it meant mad. The phrase intrigued me with its unlikely fusion of demotic and surrealistic. For nearly 20 years I wanted to use it as the title of something.”
History 101 reached out to Biswell, who said of the discovery: “I think it will be possible to produce a publishable version of the book [‘A Clockwork Condition’], but there would have to be substantial interventions from an editor and a graphic designer. Anthony Burgess makes it clear in his outline of the book that he intended to collaborate with an artist.”
In the meantime, if you’re interested in learning more about Burgess and his books, you’re in luck. Out of all the excerpts included from the 1986 edition of “A Clockwork Orange,” it is certain that Burgess would be most pleased with the “Other works by Anthony Burgess” list.