Sunday, October 23, 2005

A Clockwork Orange

I just finished reading Anthony Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange", a book I have read numerous times throughout my life. I find that a good book is one you can revisit time and again, and gain something new from each reading. I am a different person now, at 40, than I was at 30, 20, or 12 (the first time I read the book), and I take away something new and wonderful each time I read it. There are other books that are the same for me - "Animal Farm" and "1984" being two such examples.

Apparently, Burgess was quite upset by the fact that this was his most famous book. Despite this, there is a great deal going on in the novel, and the story speaks on several different levels. It not only examines life in a violent world, but also speaks to issues of governmental interference; i.e. when does a government cross the line between democratic and totalitarian?

If you haven't read "A Clockwork Orange" then I highly encourage you to do so. At less than 150 pages, it’s a pretty short read, but still very entertaining and thought provoking. The book is written from the point of view of Alex, the protagonist, a violent and nasty individual if ever there was one. It can take a bit of time to get into the story, as the story is heavily peppered with Nadsat (a slang language invented by Burgess).

Alex narrates the book throughout, and there is no real attempt on Alex's part to explain what his slang terms mean. At the beginning, there are a few translations, but that doesn't last long. It is up to the reader to translate Nadsat into English by inferring through context. Don't worry though; it’s not too difficult to get the hang of things.

"...Dim had a very hound and horny one
of a clown's listo (face, that is)."

Alex's list of crimes is long: shoplifting, assault, theft, assault and battery, breaking and entering, rape and murder. Despite this, I find him a likeable character, and I truly felt for him. Despite his bestial nature, Alex is not unintelligent. He also has a more pure side, which includes a love - bordering on adoration and worship - of classical music. After an evening's violence, he would invariably return to his flat and drift away to Ludwig von or Mozart.

The novel also deals heavily with issues of free will. Is it better to have free will and choose to do violence and evil, or to have your free will removed and then be forced to do good? No matter which side of that debate you find yourself on, the book makes some valid points on both sides of the issue.

When Alex is finally captured by the police, he is sentenced to 14 years in the Staja (State Jail). He serves several years of his sentence when he is given a chance at early release. All he has to do is spend two weeks submitting to Ludivico's Technique; a new procedure designed to completely rehabilitate even the most hardened criminal.

Alex leaps at the chance, and is moved from the crowded and uncomfortable Staja to a private room in a clean, nice hospital. He is outwardly calm and innocent, but inside he has a good smeck (laugh) at the naiveté of the hospital staff. Alex's plan is simple: say the right things, put up with the hospital, and then head back out into the real world for a bit of the ultra-violence.

As it turns out, the procedure Alex goes through combines drugs and visual stimulation to actually condition the body to become violently ill at even the mere thought of violent. In a fortnight, he is transformed from a brutal and compassionless killer into a meek, mild and frightened young man. Any time Alex even contemplates violence, he becomes violently ill. Not only is he incapable of attacking someone, he cannot even lift his own rooks to defend himself.

There is also, to Alex, a horrific side effect. Because classical music was played during his conditioning, his love for Ludwig von, Bach and the others has been replaced by nausea and sickness. He can no longer stand to listen to the music that fed his soul. The one part of his psyche that was pure and good has been excised along with the violence.

From a lordly lion of the streets, Alex is reduced to a mewling kitten, a pathetic pawn of the government, the penal system, and those who would bring the government down.

I definitely don't want to spoil anything more for you if you haven't read the book, so I won't say anything more about the plot. However, I would like to say a bit about the movie version. Kubrick's version of the book is quite good; however, he definitely dropped the ball when he made certain changes to the plot. These changes were not necessary, and alter the overall message of the story. IMO, Kubrick was a good director, but not as good as everyone makes him out to be.

There is a fundamental difference between the American and British versions of this novel. In the US version, the last chapter is omitted. This has been widely regarded as a mistake, and has made a lot of people very angry. First off, the novel itself, as it was originally written, is brilliantly structured. There are 21 chapters (21 generally being considered the age in which a child becomes an adult), divided into 3 sections, each with 7 chapters (mirroring the Roman concept of the 7 year cycle). When you take away the last chapter, all that careful planning and structure goes down the bog.

In the original work, we see a chance at redemption, and we see how Alex grows and changes. It is, perhaps somewhat ironically, odd that the Americans chose to cut out the optimistic part of the novel and keep the pessimism. What that says about the US psyche of the 1960's, I will not bother to speculate about here. It wasn't until 1988 that a complete version of the novel was published in the US.

Naturally, Kubrick based his movie on the American version of the novel. He was aware of the British version, as Burgess himself made sure that he was informed. In fact, Burgess wrote a screenplay version of the book on his own, and submitted it to Kubrick. Why Kubrick chose to disgregard and reject the screenplay, we don't really know.

I just feel sorry for Kubrick for having "Eyes Wide Shut" known as his last work. To me, this is the film equivalent of Elvis' dying on the toilet.

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