Understanding Clockwork Orange

On the 40th anniversary of Kubrick’s famous adaptation of the Burgess novel, Tim Robey analyzes the movie’s impact. I am surprised to see a British writer missing the critically important point that Kubrick’s version is not based on what Burgess actually wrote and what most Britons actually read.

The UK version of the book has 21 chapters. In the final chapter, Alex realizes the emptiness of his life, renounces violence and gets married (sounds Dickensian, does it not?). But the American publisher refused to publish the book in that form, making the book end after Chapter 20 with Alex still violent and sociopathic.

Kubrick read the US version and made the film based on that. He apparently saw the UK version much later and said he didn’t like it, but we will never know what would have been the cinematic result if the American publisher hadn’t imposed such a change in the book over the author’s objections.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

3 thoughts on “Understanding Clockwork Orange”

  1. Very interesting! And it fits with the fact that Burgess was one of the last Christians in Britain (I mean that in a good way: he believed in redemption, not just retribution).

    I do think the U.S. version, though, is truer to what would be likely to happen in the real world. Give the involuntarily conditioned sociopath his free will back, and the first things he’ll think about are sex and ultra-violence.

  2. I always thought that “I was cured all right” meant that Alex had his free will restored, and that he could again think of the things that the bad guys had conditioned him against. The inference that he will resume acting out his fantasies is not necessary, but the viewer could easily be led to believe that he will resume his sociopathy. Andrew may be correct in inferring that the ultra-violent will be the first thoughts to cross the sociopath’s mind, but the freedom of will does entail this almost by definition.

    Kubrick captured the US version of the book as well as could be expected. Some of the language magic was lost but enough of the Russian-derived vocabulary (e.g. “horrorshow”) was preserved to make the film work.

    The prison chaplain was portrayed as the only adult authority figure with any humanity, and his objections to Alex’s treatment were in terms of free will. This also goes well with what Andrew said about Burgess’s Christianity.

  3. The current US edition of the book follows the author’s wishes and includes the suppressed chapter.

    I disagree with the interpretation (which is probably how Kubrick read it) that Alex was sociopathic. In the movie, Alex is a grown manin his 20s, while in the book he is an adolescent. The way to read the book is that he is a troubled kid doing what a lot of the other kids were doing. It wasn’t just his own gang, but Billyboy led a gang and the implication that this was a widespread phenomenon, not the product of abnormal psychology.

    As is true of many young violent hoodlums in the real world, when he reaches maturity he develops empathy for others and a sense that he doesn’t want to continue this lifestyle forever. There are plenty of examples of this in the real world. I didn’t learn of the suppressed chapter until years after my first reading, but to me it has the ring of truth.

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