Well, here’s to it!
Welcome to Making Film where we take an in-depth look at how cinema’s
greatest artists made their films. My name is Tyler and, in this episode on the screenwriting
of A Clockwork Orange, we are taking a look at the themes, many of which appear throughout
Kubrick’s work as well as structural similarities to his other films.
In several of Kubrick’s films, he used satire to communicate the themes of the story. Kubrick said,
“A satirist is someone who has a very skeptical, pessimistic view of human nature…
but who still has the optimism to make some sort of joke out of it. However brutal the
joke might be” (Interviews 107).
This is perhaps most prevalent in Dr. Strangelove, which is considered Kubrick’s comedy movie,
but what’s interesting is that there is satire throughout A Clockwork Orange, Lolita,
Full Metal Jacket, and even Barry Lyndon, but you wouldn’t
really consider those movies to be comedies.
You’re absolutely right, sir.
Shut your bleedin’ hole!
However, it’s the satire that really draws you in and makes these stories with pretty
serious subject matter accessible and amusing. It took several watches for me to realize
how funny Barry Lyndon is. The civility of the characters in the movie is so over-the-top.
I love this scene after Barry had gotten into a very uncivilized scuffle with his step-son.
He sees a friend at a restaurant and invites him over to sit at his table. The man says
that he is meeting someone even though it’s obvious Barry just saw the staff remove the
place setting across from him. It’s something you might see in a sitcom, but here, it’s
played totally straight and really shows how artificial our masks of civility are.
I see you’re alone. Why don’t you come over and join me?
Well, thank you, Barry. You’re very kind, but I’m expecting someone to join me soon.
The nature of A Clockwork Orange’s setting gives it even more room for absurdity.
The bizarreness of the core of the plot— with the government using brainwashing to keep
people from being immoral— is preposterous enough for A Clockwork Orange to be considered
science fiction. No one expects that the government would literally employ such a treatment, but
it points our attention at other ways we are manipulated
against possibly following immoral instincts.
And let’s have a little reverence, you bastards!
Kubrick centered his themes around technology in A Clockwork Orange as well as his previous
two films. Many consider Dr. Strangelove, 2001, and A Clockwork Orange to be a trilogy
of films linked by these themes revolving around technology. Dr. Strangelove shows the
potential for mankind’s technology to end the human race and 2001 shows the potential
for mankind’s technology to replace the human race. In A Clockwork Orange, technology
has the potential to change the very nature of what mankind is (Walker 291).
Stop it! Stop it! Please, I beg you!
These themes are framed by a technocracy — or a society controlled by “technical experts.”
A cynical view of authority is a theme that exists in most of Kubrick’s work. This theme
exists in Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, Full Metal
Jacket, and Alison Castle notes that it even exists in Spartacus — which isn’t considered
a “Kubrick project” (Alison Castle). There are politicians, the military and, in
the case of A Clockwork Orange, even scientists that are attempting to force a person to conform (Alison Castle).
And as pointed out in Stanley Kubrick: New Perspectives, quite often this deals with
male violence (New Perspectives 222). Whether that be trying to force Alex to conform to
being non-violent in A Clockwork Orange, to forcing Gomer Pyle to conform by becoming
violent in Full Metal Jacket, to the violence in 2001 as a means for humanity to become
defined and advance, to the justification of violence in Barry Lyndon as existing inside
civil conformity, to even Jack conforming to the rest of the spirits in the hotel by
committing acts of violence against his family in The Shining.
It should be noted that the this theme in A Clockwork Orange existed previously in the
novel, which is likely why Kubrick became interested in the story (New Perspectives 222).
However, there are some new themes invented by Kubrick that didn’t exist in the novel.
One is the theme of [quote] “intense, often physically intimate (but not explicitly sexual)
relationships between men” (New Perspectives 229). This is brought out in scenes that Kubrick
added like Mr. Deltoid doing this,
… save you from yourself!
the Minister of the Interior feeding Alex at the end,
as well as the character of Julian (New Perspectives 229).
Aside from these themes, another thing that really makes A Clockwork Orange a Kubrick
movie is its structure. Kubrick often played around with structure, but most often he favored
a structure based on symmetry. Everything that happens before Alex’s treatment is
mirrored in what happens after the treatment. His conflict with the droogs, the drunk, his
parents, and Mr. Alexander are all revisited in the second half of the film (Alison Castle).
It’s beautifully elegant in its simplicity. The structure is similar to Eyes Wide Shut
where there is a huge set piece in the center of the film and the second half shows the
protagonist revisiting everything from the first half (Commentary).
In A Clockwork Orange, Alex starts at a high point and then falls to a low point
This is the real weepy and, like, tragic part of the story beginning,
oh, my brothers and only friends.
and then back up to a high point at the end. This is inverted in Kubrick's next film, Barry Lyndon.
Barry starts at a low point and climbs to a very high position before falling back
down to his previous status. Even the final act of 2001 shows a regression to a simpler
state with the baroque room and Dave becoming the Starchild. Similar again to A Clockwork Orange
is Eyes Wide Shut where Bill goes down a rabbit hole and winds up somewhat back to
where he was on the other end.
This structure lends itself to the myths, legends and fairytales that Kubrick was so
interested in. In the book, Stanley Kubrick Directs, Alexander Walker said, “Alex is
that ‘hero with a thousand faces’ on whom magic is practiced by evil powers, who survives
the worst, and who is ultimately restored to the realms he came from. The last third
of the film, moreover, following the "reformed" Alex's progress through the world he once
terrorized, has the same story elements of symmetry and coincidence that give to tales
of magic their cyclic form and narrative satisfaction, qualities that both liberate the imagination
and at the same time control the external world” (Walker 292).
Alison Castle mentions that this circular nature of A Clockwork Orange is represented
visually in the “bowler hat, billiard balls, eye lined by false eyelashes, the prisoners
circling around the exercise yard, and women’s breasts” and there is also symmetry in the
“bar, in the mirror-filled bathroom of the Alexanders’ home, and in the checkered floor-tiles”
and even the name “Clockwork Orange” having to do with “the duality between the mechanical
(clockwork) and the organic (orange)” (Alison Castle).
Perhaps the most important theme in A Clockwork Orange is that of freewill and choice. The
prison chaplain is the moral center of the movie and he delivers a line that is quite
possibly the film's thesis statement.
When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.
Malcolm McDowell: The film is about freedom of choice. And freedom of choice being, we
are free to live a good life—a righteous life— or to be an immoral life.
But that’s our choice. It’s not up to the state to choose for us.
Kubrick said, "The central idea of the film has to do with the question of free-will.
Do we lose our humanity if we are deprived of the choice between good and evil? Do we
become, as the title suggests, A Clockwork Orange?… Aaron Stern, the former head of
the MPAA rating board in America, who is also a practicing psychiatrist, has suggested that
Alex represents the unconscious: man in his natural state. After he is given the Ludovico
‘cure’ he has been ‘civilized’, and the sickness that follows may be viewed as
the neurosis imposed by society" (Michel Ciment). The question is: is society the only reason we
don’t behave like Alex? Is there an unconscious level in which we would want to behave like Alex?
Is selfishness instinctual and it is our burden to overcome it?
Have you not everything you need? If you need a motorcar, you pluck it from the trees.
If you need pretty Polly… you take it.
I’ve always been disturbed by the idea of how potentially different my morality would
be if I was born into something like Nazi Germany. It’s strange to think that someone
you know would be a despicable person if not for a society that convinces that person that
they don’t want to. If Alex was living in a society in which the things he did were
not considered to be bad, would he still be an immoral person?
There was a philosopher named Rousseau who put forth an idea that people are born innocent
and it is society that corrupts them. After all, even high art and culture like Beethoven’s
Ninth Symphony works against the idea of peace in the film. The music helps to trigger violent
tendencies in Alex (Alison Castle). Kubrick responded to this saying, "I don’t think
that man is what he is because of an imperfectly structured society, but rather that society
is imperfectly structured because of the nature of man. No philosophy based on an incorrect
view of the nature of man is likely to produce social good” (Michel Ciment).
Burgess was brought up Catholic with the idea of "original sin.” He said that Alex is
a man in that he is inherently violent, he sees beauty in the world (in this case, music),
and has an affinity for language.
Some great bird had flown into the milk bar and I felt all the malanky little hairs on
my plot standing endwise.
But if you produce a human being without the will to do evil, then you produce a human
without the will to do anything (MacAndrew). In an interview Burgess said, "The film and
the book are about the danger of reclaiming sinners through sapping their capacity to
choose between good and evil,... Most of all, I wanted to show in my story that God made
man free to choose either good or evil; and that this is an astounding gift" (Interviews 156).
In the same interview Kubrick gave his thoughts on the matter. He said, "The fact that Alex
is evil personified is important, to clarify the moral point that the film is making about
human freedom… The question is whether or not the Ludovico treatment really makes
a man good… The essential moral question is whether or not a man can be good without
having the option to be evil and whether such a creature is still human... To restrain man
is not to redeem him” (Interviews 156).
Kubrick had said that he doesn’t choose stories based on politics or the issues of
the day and that it just so happens that A Clockwork Orange was particularly topical
when it came out. I guess it still is. Dr. Strangelove and 2001 were even more topical
when they came out. In an interview with Gene Siskel, Kubrick said that the themes of “behavioral
psychology and the conditioning of antisocial behavior” were only partially what interested
him in the story, but that his main focus was on the novel as a work of art (Siskel).
That said, he mentions in the interview how these themes relate to B. F. Skinner’s 1971
book Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Skinner was a psychologist and the book, according to
Wikipedia, [quote] "argues that entrenched belief in free will and the moral autonomy
of the individual (which Skinner referred to as ‘dignity') hinders the prospect of
using scientific methods to modify behavior for the purpose of building a happier and
better-organized society” (Wiki). He thought that the limits of personal freedom keep a
person from truly having free-will.
Kubrick said, "Certainly one thing which relates to the story is the question of how authority
can cope with problems of law and order without becoming too oppressive and, more particularly,
in relation to the ever-increasing view that politics are irrelevant to the solution of
social problems, that there's no time for political and legal solutions, that social
issues have to be solved immediately even if this means going outside law and politics.
What solutions authority may evolve certainly concerns me, and is one of the great unanswered
Kubrick notes that the political right and left are depicted in A Clockwork Orange—
The Minister being [quote] “a figure of the Right” and Mr. Alexander as [quote]
“a lunatic of the Left” (Michel Ciment).
The Government’s big boast, as you know sir, is the way they have dealt with crime
during the last few months. Recruiting brutal young roughs into the Police, proposing debilitating
and will-sapping techniques of conditioning.
This is a pretty good depiction of Kubrick’s cynicism toward politics. In that interview,
Kubrick agreed with Siskel that society seems to be impatient when making attempts at solving
problems. He said that this mood is likely due to the extreme political promises that
politicians often make in order to get elected as well as [quote] "the intense over-communication
of ideas which contributes to this feeling that if a problem can't be solved in a very
short time one shouldn't attempt political or legal solutions but more radical or antisocial
or extralegal solutions” (Siskel). We see this even today in a wide variety of quote/unquote
“solutions” to problems. However, I can’t think of a better representation of this idea
than Ludovico treatment. How convenient it would be to make it impossible for criminals
to commit more crimes. Kubrick elaborates saying, "I think the danger is not that authority
will collapse but that, finally, in order to preserve itself, it (established authority)
will become very repressive. Law and order is not a phony issue, not just an excuse for
the Right to go further right” (Siskel). In a separate interview, Kubrick goes on to say,
"Certainly one of the most challenging and difficult social problems we face today is,
how can the State maintain the necessary degree of control over society without becoming
repressive, and how can it achieve this in the face of an increasingly impatient electorate
who are beginning to regard legal and political solutions as too slow?" (Michel Ciment).
A Clockwork Orange is seen as a pessimistic film and perhaps no part is more pessimistic
than the ending. Alex is both offered a job in the government and ‘cured’ of his treatment.
Kubrick said, "Alex’s last line,
‘I was cured all right,’
might be seen in the same light as Dr. Strangelove’s exit line,
‘Mein Fuehrer, I can walk.’
The final images of Alex as the spoon-fed
child of a corrupt, totalitarian society, and Strangelove’s rebirth after his miraculous
recovery from a crippling disease, seem to work well both dramatically and as expressions
of an idea” (Michel Ciment).
However, there have been optimistic interpretations of the ending. The book Stanley Kubrick: New
Perspectives notes that the final image seems to depict Alex having consensual sex and in
the previous scene, while being shown slides and asked to fill in the word bubbles, Alex
reverts to his hoodlum ways until there is a picture depicting a naked woman where Alex,
instead, makes a joke (New Perspectives 233).
What do you want?
No time for the old in-and-out, love, I’ve just come to read the meter.
In the book, Alex narrates in the equivalent scene as [quote] “There were like pictures
of real horror show devotchkas, and I said I would like to give them the old in-out in-out
with lots of ultra-violence” (New Perspectives 233). McDowell improvised all of his lines
in this scene, so it is possible that this theory of Alex being cured as a separation
of sex and violence was not intended or even considered by Kubrick.
That said, New Perspectives also notes that Kubrick changed the William Tell scene from
the rape of underage girls to consensual sex among adults, which could be a setup to a
separation of sex and violence at the end of the film (New Perspectives 233). The final
line in the American version of the book has Alex listen to the Ninth Symphony and imagine
[quote] "carving the whole listo of the creeching world with my cut-throat britva…” Finally
reading, "I was cured all right” (New Perspectives 233). Kubrick could have just
as easily had the final image as something much more nefarious.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Malcolm McDowell on his interpretation of the ending.
He said, "Alex is free at the end; that's hopeful. Maybe in his freedom, he'll be able
to find someone to help him without brainwashing. If his 'Ludwig van' can speak to him,
perhaps others can" (Interviews 156).
Thanks for watching! Stay tuned because the final video about the Screenwriting of A Clockwork Orange
will ask the question: Are we supposed to identify with Alex?
I just want to quickly mention that a friend of the channel has a new book coming out on
Kubrick’s The Shining. His name is Robert Vatcher and the book is “I Am Jack’s Ax”
Breaking Down the Barriers of Stanley Kubrick’s Film The Shining. Keep an eye out for it.
It should be out before the end of the year.
A Clockwork Orange was suggested by my Patrons over on Patreon. If you like this stuff, please
send a dollar my way on Patreon and help me get around demonetization issues— you’ll
and get to watch the new episodes before everyone else! Click the link here now.
Until next time, I’m Tyler; thanks for watching!