It is Banned Books Week and we’re doing a double-bill review on one of the most infamous challenged book/film combinations of all time: A Clockwork Orange (novel written by Anthony Burgess in 1962, adapted for film in 1971 by Stanley Kubrick).
Content warning: A Clockwork Orange has violent and graphic content that can be distressing
A Clockwork Orange is the story of a near-future dystopia in which gangs of teenagers roam the streets at night talking in ‘nadsat’, a language made of slang words adapted from Russian, and perform acts of ‘ultraviolence’ on innocent bystanders. We follow Alex as he and his ‘droogs’ (friends) terrorise their neighbours and drink milk laced with drugs. Alex shows no remorse for his actions and puts on airs, becoming obsessed with classical music, but his crimes catch up with him and lead, in one of the most memorable cinematic images, to his indoctrination with ‘the Ludovico Technique’, extreme aversion therapy that does not cure his obsession with sexual and physical violence but only makes his existence more unbearable. Eventually, his violent nature is not cured, but he walks about everyday without anyone suspecting that his mind is filled with the most horrific images.
It’s easy to see why A Clockwork Orange shocked audiences and censors in both its incarnations: the descriptions of violence are both disturbingly casual and creepily fetishized, and could be very upsetting. The weird language of the novel, filled with words borrowed from Russian and changed, that makes it so hard to read but strangely satisfying when you get into the rhythm of it, becomes the bizarre visuals of Kubrick’s film, inexplicable and jarring. Kubrick uses some of Burgess’s famous lines narrated over the film while Malcolm McDowell gazes menacingly at the camera, and words like ‘moloko’ (‘milk’) are emblazoned across the walls of the bar Alex and his droogs visit.
The final chapter of A Clockwork Orange, the 21st chapter, gives hints that Alex may have been redeemed by his painful journey through adolescent violence to enforced ‘good behaviour’ and back. In an interesting reverse of expectations, an American publisher cut the final chapter with Burgess’s permission because he felt that an American audience would prefer a tale of violence right to the end rather than seeing Alex start on the road towards becoming a functional member of society again.
The film version also ignored this final chapter, and Kubrick famously withdrew the film from circulation in Britain for 27 years after two violent crimes were tenuously linked to it and Kubrick’s family received threats. In America it was given an ‘X’ certificate. Kubrick, however, remained adamant that the film could not incite people to violence, saying: “To try and fasten any responsibility on art as the cause of life seems to me to put the case the wrong way around. Art consists of reshaping life, but it does not create life, nor cause life. Furthermore, to attribute powerful suggestive qualities to a film is at odds with the scientifically accepted view that, even after deep hypnosis in a posthypnotic state, people cannot be made to do things which are at odds with their natures.” (Duncan, 2003, quoted in ‘A Clockwork Orange (film)’, 2015)
There is no doubt that both the book and film of A Clockwork Orange are shocking, but the question of whether they are in some way too disturbing to be consumed is one that is still very much under debate. Both are now considered classics, and not just because they are provocative, but are two of the most challenging works of an already-famous author and film-maker. Considering the increased tolerance for violence in the media these days, a modern audience might even wonder why a story with comparatively mild violence might be considered so controversial, but the context of the violence is what makes it horrible. While the term ‘ultraviolence’ was first coined by Burgess, it has since come to describe depictions of violence in media that aim to shock and disgust audiences. It is perhaps ironic that a film like A Clockwork Orange, with its visuals and sound design and gleefully monstrous protagonist, still has the power to disturb us even today.
Find the book of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess in the BOOK ZONE or at NORFOLK HOUSE at 823.91, and the film in the DVD LOBBY at 791.43 or NORFOLK HOUSE at 823.91 (this DVD is rated 18 and cannot be borrowed by anyone younger than 18).
Join in the conversation about censorship…
Read the history of film censorship with Forbidden Films: Censorship Histories of 125 Motion Pictures by Dawn B. Sova (BOOK ZONE 363.31) and Censorship in Theatre and Cinema by Anthony Aldgate and James C. Robertson (BOOK ZONE 791.430941). The controversial 2006 documentary on the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating system, This Film is Not Yet Rated, was classified NC-17 in America and 18 in Britain due to the example content the documentary used to show the hypocrisy in the MPAA’s system, and the process of the film-maker’s appeal to the MPAA is shown in the film itself (Book Zone 363.31).
Check out another book/film pairing that was originally condemned but are since recognised as classics: Kubrick adapted Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita for the screen in 1962. He toned many scenes in the novel down somewhat, suggesting rather than showing, but even so the film was cut for release in different countries, and was given an X rating in Britain. Find the book in the BOOK ZONE and NORFOLK HOUSE at 823.91 and the film in the BOOK ZONE at 823.91 (rating: 15), and watch the BBC4 documentary How Do You Solve A Problem Like Lolita? from 2006 about Nabokov’s life and relationship with the problematic novel (BOOK ZONE 823.91).
Doctorow, C. (2015) The Problem with Censorship is XXXXXXXXX, Budapest, Hungary. Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/doctorow/16182961310 (Downloaded: 01/10/15)
Duncan, P. (2003) Stanley Kubrick: The Complete Films, Taschen GmbH, quoted in ‘A Clockwork Orange (film)’ (2015) Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Clockwork_Orange_(film) (Accessed: 01 October 2015).