Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Clockwork Orange

I'd seen the movie "A Clockwork Orange" years ago, but only just now finished reading the book it was based on. For those who haven't read or seen it, the plot is this (SPOILERS AHEAD): Alex, a rotten youngster, gets into all sorts of hijinks with his thug friends, attacking and robbing innocent people and other thugs alike, and when Alex's friends betray him he ends up in prison as a result of one of their attacks. In prison, the government decides to "reform" him by conditioning his mind and body so that he would become violently ill at the thought of violence or sex (a side effect was that during the conditioning--which involved forcing him to watch violence and sex on film while injected drugs were making him ill--they were playing the films to the sound of classical music, which made him also react horribly to the music he once loved). Once "reformed" back into society, Alex becomes easy prey for his traitorous former friends, who attack him while he is unable to defend himself due to his fear of violence. Badly beaten, Alex staggers to a nearby home, which turns out to be a house in which he and his friends had previously committed a vicious attack. The owner of the house takes Alex in and nourishes him, before discovering that Alex was one of the attackers from years ago. To get revenge, the owner locks Alex in a bedroom and blasts classical music, forcing him to jump from the window to take his own life. The suicide attempt fails, Alex ends up in the hospital, and the government decides the "reform" was an embarrassment to them and they de-program him while he's convalescing. The film ends with Alex realizing that he "was cured, all right..."

The book goes on to have Alex out of the hospital and a little older, still a bit of a ruffian, and discovering that he was aging and would need to make the conscious choice to change his life. This more upbeat ending (for the book, compared to the film) does fit more with the book's theme that depriving a person of the choice to choose good will make them less human (hence taking a living thing, like an orange, and making it "clockwork", that is, machine-like). But that's not the only significant difference between the book and the film. In the film, Alex appears to be in his 20s or late teens, and at one point seduces a couple young women close to his age. The book makes Alex start at 15, and the women he "seduces" are actually 10 or 11. The book also has chapters taking place in prison, where Alex kills another prisoner, and the chaplain objects to the "reform" procedure. But Stanley Kubrick (the director) managed to tighten the story a bit, not only with the darker ending (which sends the message that one can't reform the bad, the bad shall remain bad) but with other clever tricks. During his attack on the house owner and his wife, Alex is singing "Singing in the Rain", a creepy version that must have haunted Gene Kelly more than the film "Xanadu" ever could. When Alex is being cared for by that same house owner later in the film, he sings the same tune while resting in the bath--the fatal slip that lets the house owner know Alex was one of the thugs from before. And of course, while the movie did use a bit of the "nadsat" (teenage slang) such as "in-out" and "ultra-violence" and "welly welly welly well", it doesn't go nearly so heavy on it as the book does. (At times, the book requires the reader to make a lot of guesses as to the meaning of the slang words that Alex, the narrator, uses)

On the whole, this is one of those rare instances where the book and the movie are both excellent, and one can't really judge that one is superior to the other.

But it also got me thinking--was the real problem that they were trying to reform Alex, or was it teh nature of how they did it? By making him averse to any violence, they made him defenseless. Perhaps the "conditioning" could have been done in such a way that he would have reacted aversely to offensive violence rather than self-defense. If such a thing were possible, you'd still have the issue of taking away his moral choices, but would that have been such a bad thing--especially when it was clear that as a youngster Alex had been making all the wrong moral choices?

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