August 2003

Jen Crispin

hundred books

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

The question to be answered about a book made into a well known movie is always: Is it worth reading the book if you've seen the movie? In almost all cases I would say yes (I'm obviously prejudiced), but in the case of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, I say yes with some hesitation.

Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of A Clockwork Orange was such a widely successful cult film that even if you haven't seen the movie, you're surely familiar with its imagery. Stills of the film's protagonist, Alex, and his droogs, dressed up for "a bit of the old ultraviolence," or Alex with his eyes propped open for his reprogramming are staples at college poster sales, music stores, and many head shops. These images are powerful because they work, they grab and hold your attention in a way that only images can.

But the imagery isn't even the primary reason why reading the book and watching the movie are such profoundly different experiences. Rather, it is the language. The slang, "nadsat," is so thick in places as to be unintelligible. In the movie, this underlines the unreality of the main characters, and makes the violence somehow more sick and bewildering from the point of view of the victims. In the book, however, this hard to penetrate vocabulary creates a distance between the reader and what is going on. When you read a fragment like: "and you could viddy her veiny mottled litso going purplewurple where I'd landed the old noga," and have to either flip back in the book to try and determine the meaning of words like "litso" and "noga," or you refer to a glossary, that time spent away from the action of the story seems to mute it, which I am sure was not the author's intention.

Simply put, Kubrick's adaptation of A Clockwork Orange comes off as a more effective and compelling way of telling the story, and the movie does stay fairly faithful to the book. With one major exception of course, and that being the twenty-first chapter.

The twenty-first chapter of Burgess's book was not published in the original American printing, though it was included nearly everywhere else. Although Kubrick himself was British, he likewise chose to drop the last chapter from his film. What happens in the last chapter to make it so very unpopular? Well, I'm going to tell you, so if you don't want to know, skip the rest of this paragraph. After Alex spends most of his teenage years pursuing a life of crime, is apprehended, reprogrammed in prison so as to be incapable of immoral actions, taken advantage of by his old victims to the point that he attempts suicide, and then is unprogrammed so that he can be free to commit any heinous act his twisted little heart desires? Well, simply, Alex grows up. It is finally hammered home to him that his life of crime is not likely to bring him faithful friends, love, or any kind of stability. What's more he sees his old droogs grown up, though one has died, one has a "respectable" job now, and the other is married. Alex himself gets bored of the ultra-violence and begins to daydream of a wife, and even of babies.

Is Alex's transformation believable? Well that's the only question about this story that you will have to read the book to answer. If you're curious, read the book. If you have been unable to watch the movie because you are too disturbed by the violence, read the book. Otherwise, stick to the movie.