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The Story Behind The Screenplay: A Clockwork Orange

By Martin Keady · February 12, 2020

The Story Behind The Screenplay is a new series by Martin Keady, our resident cinema historian, that examines the origins of some of cinema’s greatest screenplays.

A Clockwork Orange is a story about blood (the spilling of it and the attempts to control that spillage) that fittingly was born in blood, as the author of the original novel, Anthony Burgess, was allegedly inspired to write it by a truly bloody, indeed tragic, incident from his own past. The subsequent film by Stanley Kubrick maintained the idea that antagonism and conflict were somehow hard-wired into the DNA of the story, as Burgess and Kubrick clashed over the screenplay, particularly its ending, before Kubrick himself pulled the film from British cinemas because he was frightened that it was inciting the very violence that it was supposed to condemn. As a result of all this blood and argument, it is easy to see why A Clockwork Orange might just be the most controversial film ever made, and why it maintains at least a patina of that controversy today, nearly half a century after its release. 

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The Original Novel and its Twin Sources of “Inspiration”

One indication of the importance and indeed popularity of the original novel A Clockwork Orange is that it occupies pride of place at the top of the list of “Bowie’s Books”, the hundred favorite books that David Bowie compiled just before his death in 2016, which has now been published by author John O’Connell (with brief essays on each entry in the list) as a book of the same name. 

Bowie was not alone, in either the music world or the wider world, in being fascinated by A Clockwork Orange, which was first published in 1962, when Bowie himself was only 15 and about to leave school to try and make a name for himself in the entertainment business. It is undoubtedly one of the most significant and influential English novels of the second half of the 20th century, being simultaneously a study of teenage violence, state control and the extraordinary power of language itself to create and shape the world. 

Nadsat, the teenage “slanguage” that Burgess invented for the book, was a unique amalgamation of English, Russian and Burgess’s own imagined words, and it has almost spun off from the novel to become a sort of sub-language in its own right; one that Bowie himself continued to reference right up to his death and the album that he released just before he died, Blackstar. In particular, the fifth song (of just seven) on Blackstar, Girl Loves Me, is almost completely written in Bowie’s own version of Nadsat, one to which he added his own fusion of words and sounds, opening with the lines:

“Cheena so sound, so titty up this Malchick, say

Party up moodge, ninety vellocet round on Tuesday

Real bad dizzy snatch making all the homies mad, Thursday

Popo blind to the polly in the hole by Friday

Where the fuck did Monday go?”

In a way, A Clockwork Orange was born twice, or at least had two separate but linked sources of inspiration. The first is that Burgess was given the ultimate deadline for an author, when he was misdiagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 1959. Burgess himself always claimed that he was so worried about what would happen to his wife, Lynne (whose real name, Llewela, sounds like something from A Clockwork Orange), that he immediately began writing furiously, producing no fewer than five separate novels to try and provide her with an income after his death. One of those novels was A Clockwork Orange and it was so immediately successful upon its publication that it overshadowed not only the other four novels he had written at about the same time but everything else that he would write subsequently, after it was realized that he had been misdiagnosed, in a literary career that would extend until his eventual death, from lung cancer, in 1993. 

This genesis alone would explain much of the breathless urgency of A Clockwork Orange.  A story about a young man (Alex) who tries to terrorize and even kill others that was written by a middle-aged man (Burgess himself) who feared an early death, which was apparently written in just three weeks. However, the actual source of inspiration for A Clockwork Orange, according to Burgess, was a story that was somehow even more awful than a wrongful diagnosis of terminal cancer.

Perhaps Burgess was so worried about Lynne’s future without him because she had already undergone one of the most harrowing experiences that anyone can endure. In the spring of 1944, when London was once again under aerial attack from the Nazis, Lynne was apparently attacked and assaulted during a blackout, not by enemy soldiers but by rogue American GIs. To add a further level of tragic irony, when she was attacked she had apparently been on her way home from her work at the Ministry of War Transport, where the D-Day landings – the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe that would finally bring an end to Hitler’s reign over the continent – were in the final stages of planning. Finally, Lynne had been pregnant at the time of the incident and it seems that the trauma that she experienced led to a miscarriage shortly afterwards.

Burgess was, famously, a great story-teller, to the extent that doubts still persist to this day as to whether he ever actually received the wrongful diagnosis that he claimed had kick-started his writing career. However, everything about the story of Lynne’s assault near the end of World War 2 rings horribly true and, even more importantly, echoes throughout the whole of A Clockwork Orange, which of course itself contains a truly horrific rape scene. But what is truly remarkable about Burgess’s novel is that it is a fantastic example of a writer inverting or subverting reality, or “flipping the script” as it is often described today, in that he made his protagonist not the innocent victim of a rapist but the rapist himself. Then, as if enacting a vicious revenge fantasy (and he would not have been human if he had not entertained such thoughts), Burgess shows how the rapist – Alex – is subjected to an extraordinary form of state intervention, whereby he undergoes a series of experiments to try and control the violence within him. So horrific are these experiments that both the author and his readers end up feeling something like sympathy for him, even though he has carried out truly heinous crimes. 

Enter Kubrick (or The Original “Stan The Man”)

A Clockwork Orange became one of the best-sellers of the 1960s, both in Britain and around the world, giving both Burgess and his wife the financial security that he had dreamt of when he had received his misdiagnosis. As a result, it eventually came to the attention of Stanley Kubrick, the great American film director who, after the commercial and artistic success of Spartacus (1960), arguably the greatest “swords and sandals” (or, more prosaically, epic) film ever made, had relocated from his native New York to Britain in the early 1960s. (Ironically, given what would happen in the aftermath of the release of his film of A Clockwork Orange, one of the reasons that Kubrick cited for coming to Britain was a fear of rising crime in America.)

Kubrick enjoyed a stellar sixties in Britain, making not one but two masterpieces that are arguably the defining films of their respective genres (just as so many other Kubrick films are arguably the defining films of their genres): Dr Strangelove (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) (1964), which is probably the blackest black comedy ever filmed; and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which is surely still the finest science-fiction film ever made. On such an apparently unstoppable roll, Kubrick was determined to complete his artistic hat-trick by making another film that, although completely different in subject matter and even genre, would match the sheer cinematic majesty and chutzpah of Strangelove and 2001. Eventually, after spending four long years working on his “Space Odyssey”, he decided to make a film that would almost literally crash-land back on earth, with a bump, in the present day. That film was A Clockwork Orange, based on Burgess’s novel. 

Before examining in detail his treatment of Burgess’s novel, it is worth making a wider point about Kubrick and the influence of literature upon his film-making. Put simply, but accurately, that influence was profound. At the start of his film-making career, in New York in the early 1950s, Kubrick either made documentaries, such as Day of the Fight or Flying Padre (both 1951), or features/film noirs, such as Fear and Desire (1953) and Killer’s Kiss (1955), that were based on original stories concocted either by himself or close colleagues. However, from The Killing (1956) onward, which was based on Lionel White’s novel Clean Break (1955), every film that he made was based not on a story that he had created himself but on an existing literary work (mainly novels but also the occasional short story). 

Kubrick is often described as “The Shakespeare of Cinema”, so complete has been his mastery of the medium and many of its most important genres, but it is in this respect – using an existing story, written by somebody else, as the basis for a film – that he is perhaps most “Shakespearean” in his artistic approach. Just as Shakespeare himself rarely invented stories himself and instead used existing stories or plays that he then completely rewrote, so Kubrick effectively spared himself the trouble of writing or even thinking up a story or plot for his films, instead using a preexisting story that he could then adapt for the screen and imbue with his own particular cinematic genius. 

If nothing else, that makes Kubrick undoubtedly the greatest adapter of literary works (in almost all genres, from sci-fi to historical fiction) in cinematic history. This may also explain the relative failure of his last film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), which is so often dismissed as “Eyes Wide Shite”. It was originally based on Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle (Dream Novel), but rather than retaining the original temporal and geographical setting of the book – Vienna in 1926 – Kubrick made the catastrophic mistake (the only real one in his career) of updating the story to New York in the late 1990s. Thus, the original source of energy and conflict in the plot – a doctor struggles to deal with his wife’s sexual fantasies – was completely neutralized. What would have been genuinely shocking and disturbing in Freud’s Vienna was barely even titillating in The Big Apple at the end of the millennium.

Kubrick’s Contentious Adaptation of A Clockwork Orange

Given Kubrick’s extraordinarily successful track record of adapting literature for the screen, from The Killing to Lolita to 2001, Anthony Burgess must have been hugely encouraged that the director, having acquired the rights to adapt A Clockwork Orange for the screen, would do not only a good job but a faithful one. If indeed he thought that, however, Burgess was ultimately to be disappointed, to the extent that he ended up disowning not only Kubrick’s screen adaptation but, to a large extent, the original novel itself.

In Kubrick’s defense, especially given his earlier record of remaining reasonably faithful to the source material that he was adapting, part of the problem arose from the simple fact that two quite different versions of the book – one British and one American – were published during the 1960s, and the ending of the story was very different in each. As John O’Connell writes in his entry on A Clockwork Orange in Bowie’s Books (2019), “The biggest difference…has to do with the ending. The British edition of the novel ends on an optimistic note, with Alex turning his back on violence and contemplating fatherhood. But the original US edition on which Kubrick based his screenplay omits this epilogue. It ends with Alex sarcastically saying, ‘I was cured all right’, having just shared with us his dream of ‘carving the whole litso (face) of the creeching (screaming) world with my cut-throat britva (razor)’.” 

Ironically, therefore, Kubrick – the American who was now resident in Britain (partly because he was scared of what his own country was becoming) – chose to go for a harder, tougher and far less optimistic ending to the story than the one that Burgess – the Englishman who had effectively shared the story of his wife’s wartime attack, including the loss of their baby – eventually settled upon. 

Moreover, the ending of the film was not the only way in which it differed significantly from the novel. Many of the differences may be attributable to the fundamental difference between literature and cinema: in the former, even the worst violence (of the kind that Alex indulges in) is only described, using words, and left for the reader to imagine; whereas with the latter, such violence is actually shown and can almost literally sear itself on the viewer’s imagination. Burgess certainly felt that, as John O’Connell puts it, “The film made it easy for readers to misunderstand the book.” 

That might be the universal lament of authors everywhere who feel that the cinematic adaptations of their work are somehow not true to them, or at least give a less nuanced version of the material. However, given the explosive subject matter of the book – sex and violence, the treatment of which was based on a deeply traumatic personal experience – the usual reservations of the original author were enormously magnified. Dickens, Jane Austen and even Shakespeare himself might, if they were alive today, complain about the misrepresentation of their work on screen, but given the origins of his story Burgess had more cause than most authors to feel let down, even betrayed, by Kubrick’s cinematic adaptation of his work. 

The Aftermath

There was a third act, as it were, to the story of A Clockwork Orange (that is, the story of its writing and filming, rather than the plot of the book itself). First, there had been the two traumatic real-life incidents (initially, Burgess’s terminal misdiagnosis and then, even worse, the memory of his wife’s wartime assault, which had cost them their first child) that had led to the writing of the book in the first place. Then there had been the conflict between Burgess and Kubrick about the screen adaptation, to the point that Burgess ultimately dissociated himself from the film and, to a large degree, the novel itself. And finally there was what followed the film’s release, which itself was bloody, or at least far bloodier than the aftermath of most films. 

Initially, A Clockwork Orange just encountered problems within the film industry itself, particularly with regard to its rating. When it was released in America in 1972, it was given the dreaded “X” rating, which meant it could only be seen by adults (those over the age of 18) and therefore limited its mass appeal, especially to the kind of teenage moviegoers who were very much part of its intended audience. 

However, the film’s problems soon extended beyond the film industry, spilling out into wider society, especially in Britain. Upon its release, it instantly generated enormous controversy and plenty of bad publicity, especially in the press, which largely denounced its depictions of extreme sex and violence. Of course, that might not have been fatal in itself; as the recent experience of Blue Story (2019), another film about teenage violence that was at least temporarily banned in Britain, demonstrates, nothing sells like notoriety. However, A Clockwork Orange went further than generating mere “notoriety”. In fact, it was explicitly linked to a number of violent attacks by young people on older people, in particular one case in which it was claimed by a lawyer that “the link between this crime and sensational literature, particularly A Clockwork Orange, is established beyond reasonable doubt”. 

Even though it was “sensational literature” rather than sensational cinema that was being blamed for such attacks, Kubrick was sufficiently troubled by the reaction to the film that he himself asked the production company, Warner Brothers, to withdraw it from release in Britain. It was duly withdrawn in 1973 and it was only after Kubrick’s death in 1999, more than a quarter of a century later, that the film was finally re-released in Britain, in cinemas and on TV. Interestingly, given that he had apparently fled America at least partly because of his fear about the rising crime levels there, Kubrick only insisted on the ban in Britain, as if fearing that America had already been lost to the rising tide of teenage violence. 

A Happy Ending (After a Bloody Beginning and a Conflicted Middle)?

It is now nearly fifty years since A Clockwork Orange was filmed and initially released. In that time, it has gone from being probably the most famous film ever to be banned, and certainly the most famous film ever to be banned by its own director, to what it is almost universally regarded as today – one of Kubrick’s absolutely undisputed cinematic classics, and a worthy follow-up to Strangelove and 2001. It represents the completion of the greatest phase of Kubrick’s career (between 1964 and 1971), which remains the bedrock of his still formidable reputation today. 

As for Burgess, he continued to write in almost every imaginable form of literature: more novels, but also plays, screenplays, essays and even libretti, as he always described himself as “a musician who writes…instead of a novelist who writes music on the side”. Nevertheless, A Clockwork Orange remains his greatest and most enduring work, and one that, as David Bowie demonstrated on Blackstar, continues to exert an almost gravitational pull on other writers and artists, let alone readers. 

It would be wrong to say of such a controversial work, and one that was literally formed in the most agonizing of circumstances, that the story of A Clockwork Orange has a “happy ending” (certainly not in the traditional “Hollywood” sense of that phrase). Nevertheless, it is an extraordinary work, both in literature and cinema. And given that it might never have been written at all – if Burgess’s original cancer diagnosis had been correct, he might never have finished it – the fact that it is now almost universally regarded as one of the most remarkable and perceptive books and films about the two most fundamental human preoccupations (sex and violence) is surely some cause for celebration, however muted and however belated. 

Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.”

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