Amidst all the blather about Doctor Sleep, and Kubrick’s radical changes to Stephen King’s book, it’s worth noting that the esteemed writer/director was more than happy to treat all manner of literature as a selective buffet or movable feast, from William Thackery to Arthur C Clarke; it can’t have been a huge surprise to King that his ideas were handled in a piecemeal fashion. Anthony Burgess’s book A Clockwork Orange was similarly ransacked for ideas before being discarded; the result shocked audiences and critics in 1971, and still has the air of a text both sacred and profane.
As a kid, A Clockwork Orange was a film to be read about, but not seen; Kubrick withdrew it from the marketplace in the UK after some copycat violence. Those willing to stump up the cash could purchase fuzzy VHS dupes; today, it’s something of a shock to see modernist, brutalist vistas featured in such sharp focus. There’s a celebrated production design, plus innovative use of classical music; rather than the beautiful images of 2001, Kubrick features a much more muddy, garish aesthetic, in line with the vulgarity of his protagonist, Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his band of white-suited, masked Droogs, but also with the sinister world around him. A world where the black-suited government aim to subjugate the masses via thought control, and where the spirit of the individual is considered something to be worth eliminating. In this context, Alex’s deliberately mindless rebellion makes more sense, which casts a baleful light to view the notorious ultra-violence of the film’s shocking opening scenes.
Burgess created a writerly character, played by Patrick Macgee here, that clearly offers a surrogate for his own instincts. Frank Alexander’s wife is raped by Alex and his band of brothers, but when Alex unwittingly returns to his house, lobotomised and de-fanged, the writer is unable to put aside his own supposed sophistication, and seeks revenge. The message seems to be that our baser instincts are part of what makes us human; the idea seems valid, even if unpalatable at the same time.
Whether one agrees with the sentiment, and it’s one of the trickiest, most controversial ever dared to be expressed in a major motion picture, there’s plenty of striking details, from the music arcade that Alex visits, with artists like The Humpers or Heaven Seventeen providing the sounds, or Dave Prowse in chunky specs and cut-off shorts as an oddly supine bodyguard. The seedy setting, with social worker Mr Deltoid (Aubery Morris) a more than casual observer, is peculiarly British and plays up the banality of high-minded social interference. Ultimately it’s a non-binary parable that works best for adults; A Clockwork Orange is a sensational story of youth both revolting and betrayed, and observes standards falling due to a depreciating shortage of genuine human warmth; a grim world methodically lobotomised, with as little agency as a clockwork orange is predicated. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that the film’s creator withdrew this misunderstood text from the public eye.