A Clockwork Orange
When Anthony Burgess published A Clockwork Orange ten years ago, he compacted much of what was in the air, especially the odd mingling of dismay and violence (those teen-age gangs) with pious euphoria about the causes and cures of crime and of deviance. Mr. Burgess’s narrator hero, Alex, was pungently odious; addicted to mugging and rape, intoxicated with his own command of the language (a newly minted teen-age slang, plus poeticisms, sneers, and sadistic purring), Alex was something both better and worse than a murderer: he was murderous. Because of a brutal rape by Alex, the wife of a novelist dies; because of his lethal clubbing, an old woman dies; because of his exhibitionist ferocity, a fellow prisoner dies.
The second of these killings gets Alex jailed; word reaches him of the new Ludovico Treatment by which he may be reclaimed, and he seeks it and gets it. The treatment is to watch horrific films of violence (made by one Dr. Brodsky) while seething with a painful emetic; the “cure” is one that deprives Alex of choice, and takes him beyond freedom and dignity, and extirpates his moral existence. But the grisly bloody failure of his suicide attempt after his release does release him. Alex is himself again.
The novel was simply pleased, but it knew that aversion therapy must be denied its smug violences. And the early 1960s were, after all, the years in which a liberally wishful newspaper like the London Observer could regale its readers with regular accounts of how a homosexual was being “cured” by emetics and films.
“To do the ultra-violent”: Alex makes no bones about it. But the film of A Clockwork Orange does not want him to be seen in an ultra-violent light. So it bids for sympathy. There are unobtrusive mitigations: Alex is made younger than in the book. There are obtrusive crassnesses from his jailors: when Alex pauses over the form for Reclamation Treatment, the chief guard shouts, “Don’t read it, sign it”—and of course it has to be signed in triplicate. (None of that in the book.) There are sentimentalities: where in the book it was his drugs and syringes that he was shocked to find gone when he got home, in the film he has been provided instead with a pet snake, Basil, whom his parents have wantonly and hypocritically done in. Above all, Alex is the only person in the film who isn’t a caricature, the only person the film is interested in; whereas in the first-person narrative of the book, Alex was the only person Alex was interested in.
One realizes that the film is a re-creation, not a carrying-over, and yet both Kubrick and Burgess are right to call upon each other in what they’ve recently written in defense of the film, Kubrick in The New York Times, February 27, and Burgess in The Listener, February 17. The persistent pressure of the film’s Alexculpations is enough to remind one that …