Clockwork Oranges

March 26, 2010

It often goes without saying that a film based on a novel is not going to be as good as the novel itself. This usually occurs because people don’t realize that said film is not (and ought not to be) the novel in movie form but rather a different work entirely. Nevertheless, I almost always find myself preferring the original work over the film when I happen to be familiar with both, with only one notable exception. Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film, A Clockwork Orange, is in my estimation a better work than Anthony Burgess’s 1962 original novel of the same title.

In the 1986 Norton edition of Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, the author laments the success of a story of which he seems to think very little and voices his displeasure of the original American publication of the book which omits the final chapter as well as Kubrick’s film which uses the American publication as its source. On page xii of the Introduction, Burgess writes:

The twenty-first chapter gives the novel the quality of genuine fiction…There is, in fact, not much point in writing a novel unless you can show the possibility of moral transformation, or an increase in wisdom, operating in your chief character or characters. […] When a fictional work fails to show change…then you are out of the field of the novel and into that of the fable or the allegory. The American or Kubrickian Orange is a fable; the British or world one is a novel.

I mostly agree with Burgess in that a novel usually shows some sort of change in the protagonist, though I do prefer to regard it as a descriptive rather than a prescriptive characteristic. The main problem I have with his assessment, however, is his contempt for Kubrick bastardizing his work and removing from it the “quality of genuine fiction.” After all, Burgess chooses not to include this quality until the very last chapter; on page xii of the Introduction, he even admits that “There is no hint of this change of intention in the twentieth chapter.” I will add that there is never a hint of it in the preceding nineteen chapters, either. His attempt to make his work “genuine fiction” is merely tacked on in the final few pages, and the original American publisher was right to disregard it—as was director Stanley Kubrick.

The film version is actually incredibly faithful to the original work in terms of plot and dialogue—in fact, many lines in the film are indeed word for word from Burgess’s text. Kubrick managed to keep nearly every important plot element of the novel while at the same time masterfully adding in the elements that separate the two media: namely, visuals and music. Kubrick’s film is pornography at its best; he uses music and images to shock, arouse, and excite the viewer, and he succeeds on every level. Music plays an integral role in the book, but the film actually allows the viewer to experience the music, which exponentially increases the desired effect. In short, the film is not only pure art, but pure pointless art. As Burgess laments, the viewer gains nothing from the film except for the experience of having watched it and enjoyed it.

That is not to say that it is impossible to gain anything from the film; it does indeed address moral and ethical and political issues, and watching the film will at least potentially cause the viewer to think about how the events of A Clockwork Orange relate to society and human nature. What the film does not do, however, is tell you what to think about these events. It opens the conversation, but it does not dominate it. The same cannot be said of the book, or at least the final chapter of the book. On page xiv of the Introduction, Burgess writes:

It seems priggish or pollyannaish to deny that my intention in writing the work was to titillate the nastier propensities of my readers. […] But the book does also have a moral lesson, and it is the weary traditional one of the fundamental importance of moral choice. It is because this lesson sticks out like a sore thumb that I tend to disparage A Clockwork Orange as a work too didactic to be artistic.

The very author of the work does not consider his novel to be artistic, and yet I’m still compelled to disagree with him anyway. Burgess apparently focuses on content in his evaluation of art, but my tendency is to lean toward form instead. For some reason, Burgess doesn’t think very highly of his accomplishment in writing an entire novel in what he calls nadsat, the language of A Clockwork Orange’s teens (also called nadsats); on page xiv of the Introduction, he even indicates that his lingo gets in the way of the story, but I would contend that the language is more important than the story.

Kubrick took A Clockwork Orange and utilized everything that defines a film as a media to provide an experience for his audience. He combined raw visuals, supernal music, and a compelling narrative and created an absolute masterpiece. Despite his griping in retrospect, Burgess utilized what makes a novel unique—the interaction of the reader with words on the printed page—and created something wonderful, as well. It is the language of A Clockwork Orange that separates it from other works, and reading it provides an experience one can’t possibly get anywhere else. For that reason, I must disagree with Burgess that his work is not artistic, and I will add that, for whatever it’s worth, watching the film invariably makes me want to read the book, but reading the book does not leave me wanting to watch the film—I’d just as soon read it again.

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My first post was a bit of a general statement on my purpose here (or lack thereof), so this time I will attempt to provide some pointlessness in action. My first object of unscientific observation is a film I saw in theater about a month or so ago—Grant Heslov’s The Men Who Stare at Goats. Having no copy of the film before me, my recollections may be vague and spotty, and there may be some spoilers in the coming analysis, but I certainly recall coming away from the film with a sense of gratification achieved only upon the consumption of something completely superfluous.

As I mentioned before, the question on just about everyone’s mind after watching a film or reading a book or what have you is “Okay, well, what did that mean?” We’re so ingrained with this search for meaning that we often judge things based on what we think they mean, and when we don’t know what something means…well, then we just dismiss it, don’t we? (Sorry, I didn’t mean to get all collective there and lump everyone together into the ubiquitous general “audience”—I’ll try not to do that).

The meaning of The Men Who Stare at Goats is not readily apparent—at least, not to me, anyway. Maybe there are some brighter folks out there who can find a message regarding the state of the U.S. military in the film, or war in general, or the relationship between the counterculture and the dominant culture, or the dangers/pleasures (if there’s a difference between dangers and pleasures) of LSD and other recreational drugs. I, however, can claim no such brightness, unless I’m sat down with a copy of the film and pressured to find some relevance between the film and the above topics. That wouldn’t necessarily be the film talking, though—that would be me being a mouthpiece for an outside issue. I believe that this is a film that is best enjoyed as a story, and sometimes (I think this may be Stephen King I hear somewhere in the background, but don’t ask me in what or when) a story is just a story.

I’m thinking primarily of the ending of the film in my overall evaluation of it. The fates of Lyn Cassidy and Bill Django (played by George Clooney and Jeff Bridges, respectively) are left ambiguous; Larry Hooper, the film’s “villain” played by Kevin Spacey, suffers a black eye but is not ultimately brought to any sort of definitive justice; and Bob Wilton, the film’s storyteller played by Ewan McGregor, gets the story for which he was looking and apparently even more than that. Really, that’s probably what the film was about if it was about anything: Wilton’s story. The psychic spies (or Jedi Knights, as they are so often called) are a nice gimmick, but nowhere in the film is the audience provided with concrete evidence of anyone having any real psychic abilities…until the very end. The film almost goes out of its way to convince you that there are no real Jedi warriors in this particular world, but then, at the last second, it turns that assessment on its head, and makes you wonder whether this is the only real Jedi, or if they were all Jedi, or if Jedi are only existent in galaxies far far away, galaxies to which everyone is privy except for Bob Wilton, the fact of which is never allowed to escape you during the film (oh, the irony).

Really, the ending doesn’t provide much closure to the film. It’s the kind of ending that makes one say “What, that’s it? Why didn’t they explain what really happened and tell me what I’m supposed to think?” Negative capability is what that’s called, and I personally like it when things go unexplained, because usually the explanations suck. Since we’ve already mentioned Jedi, we may as well stick with the topic and bring in everyone’s favorite little midichlorians, a perfect example of something awesome (The Force) getting murdered through over-explanation (“No, Ani, it has nothing to do with ancient mystical powers, it’s actually more akin to a really high sperm count”). Anyway, when films choose not to explain, they flirt with the possibility of accusations of pointlessness, and the films that don’t shy away from a little flirting and even go so far as to show some leg are often the best ones in my book.

In the end, the film tells a good story without beating you over the head with any preachy moralizing or heavy-handed messages. It makes you laugh, and it makes you think. Is it beautiful? Yeah, I’d say it is. Is it a great movie? Probably not, but it’s solid all around. So, then, is it art? I daresay yes. This is a film that doesn’t try to be anything other than a film, and it succeeds at doing just that.