The failure of many adaptations of fiction into film can be traced to the fact that their makers neglect to appreciate the different qualities and limitations of the novel and the film as art forms. Basic narrative and dialogue can be transcribed from novel to screenplay, but doing so does not take advantage of the strengths of film: montage, sound, spatial fluidity, immediate, visceral accessibility. Unsuccessful adaptations from fiction tend to be slow and talky, stylistically dull, and usually lead the audience to compare the film to its source unfavourably. Successful adaptations do not necessarily invite competition with their sources, but rather act as complementary works of art, informing and being informed by the novels on which they are based as well as being successful on their own terms.
When analysing the adaptation from fiction to film, the oeuvre of Stanley Kubrick provides a particularly fertile ground - all but the first two of Kubrick’s films originated from novels. Some considerably altered their source (the suspense novel Red Alert became the black comedy Dr Strangelove), others (2001, Full Metal Jacket, adapted from The Short-Timers) remained fairly true to their origins. The source novels ranged the gamut from the forgotten (Barry Lyndon, Traumnovelle) to the famous (The Shining). Only two of his films derived from novels by critically well-regarded, contemporary writers: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. Lolita, a fascinating, flawed film, probably diverges too far from the original to really be considered a successful adaptation – restrictions on what could be filmed at the time almost doomed the project from the start, and the novel probably remains better known, certainly more notorious nowadays. In a sense, Lolita was a trial run in a way for A Clockwork Orange. By the late ‘sixties, the success of films like Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy had heralded in a new, more permissive era of cinema in which sex and violence were not only allowed, but regarded as vital for box-office victory – hence, A Clockwork Orange could work as an adaptation in ways that Lolita could not. Burgess wrote on the Lolita/A Clockwork Orange comparison:
Burgess aptly summarises here the key difference between fiction and film – a novel is totally dependent on words, a film is dependent on image and sound. The danger in adaptation lies in the conversion from the one to the others. An obvious example of this discrepancy at work is in A Clockwork Orange’s setting. In the novel, the setting is made deliberately vague, somewhere in the West, sometime in the near (to when it was written) future. The film, in visualising and vocalising the words of the novel, is forced to make the setting more concrete – England in the late ‘seventies or early ‘eighties, a time and place, according to Aggeler,
In terms of genre, Burgess’s novel is one in a line of dystopian fiction which includes Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. While ostensibly science-fiction in that they detail life in the future, such novels, especially Burgess’s, are less concerned than traditional sci-fi with the technological minutiae of life in the future than with the human experience of such a world. Furthermore, such dystopias are more often than not a commentary on the time that they were written. The common thread that runs through at least these examples of dystopian literature is that of the individual forced by the state to conform through extreme means and tragic results – one of the most potent images in both Burgess’s novel and Kubrick’s film is that of Alex licking the actor’s boot to demonstrate the effectiveness of the Ludovico treatment.
Interestingly, considering that it was third in a trilogy of films set in the future, after Dr Strangelove and 2001, that Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange seems very non-futuristic in retrospect – the sets, costumes and hairstyles seem more representative of the excesses of the nineteen-seventies than of any fantastic future world. Burgess himself noted this:
However, one of the few technological details that seems to hearken from science fiction is Alex’s stolen Durango 95. It is hard to pin down a genre for Kubrick’s film. Canby, not particularly helpfully, classifies the film as Drama, but interestingly not as Science Fiction nor (and I would assert, incorrectly) as Comedy. Although undoubtedly a black comedy (echoes of Dr Strangelove, surely), the response that the film constantly provokes is laughter – from Alex’s sardonic voice-over to the excesses of the performances of Patrick Magee (as Mr Alexander) and Aubrey Morris (as Deltoid). Nelson argues: ‘If the generic niche for 2001 is "mythological documentary," then A Clockwork Orange may be nothing less than a psychological "case study," except that its investigative method works from the inside...’ (142).
In any case, by the early seventies, regardless of the genre, a new Kubrick film was an ‘event’. A large audience of Kubrick devotees, amongst them critics and the wider public, anticipated his new film. Although the potential audience was limited by the film’s fairly restrictive ‘R’ rating, it was nonetheless a commercial, and to a lesser extent, critical success, no doubt partly due to the controversy that surrounded the film. The audience presumed by the film, therefore, were the fairly intelligent, more mature cinemagoers that had made 2001 such a success.
The audience presumed by Burgess’s novel, conversely, was considerably smaller. At the time, his novels sold poorly, and mainly amongst the British literati. They offered his publisher enough prestige, however, to maintain demand. Although A Clockwork Orange would (much to his irritation) come to be seen as Burgess’s chef d'oeuvre, it initially sold poorly - in Burgess’s words,
The novel was to find more success amongst critics in the US, and developed enough of a cult following to remain in press until almost a decade later when it found its way into Kubrick’s hands. Kubrick described the reasons for which the novel held enough appeal to warrant his making it into a film
In a career of adapting novels into films and substantially altering them, it is remarkable just how closely the film sticks to the novel – not only in terms of narrative, as Kubrick points out here, but also in characterisation, structure, dialogue, and, crucially, style.
Naturally, in reducing a 150-page novel to a 70-page screenplay means that events and characters need to be combined and elided. The to-ings and fro-ings of Alex and his droogs from the Duke of New York in the first few chapters are eliminated. His rape of two ten-year-old girls is necessarily changed to an orgy, the girls considerably older in the film. His attacks on the Tramp, Billyboy and his gang, F. Alexander and his wife and finally, the Cat-lady are essentially distilled from their novelised form. The age of several characters has been changed, Malcolm McDowell and the actors playing his droogs are clearly older than fifteen, the Cat-lady is younger in the film and F. Alexander is considerably older, however, these changes seem to have been made more to accommodate appropriate actors than substantially change the significance of the characters.
Much of the dialogue has been lifted bodily from the novel, often word-for-word. Most interesting is the vocalising of Nadsat, the teen slang that Burgess invented for the novel, ‘a distraction,’ according to Crist ‘in [the] novel, [but] fully comprehensible [in the film]’ (90). Early on in the novel, Burgess occasionally gives the English equivalent alongside various Nadsat words that aren’t immediately apparent according to their context, but the reader is otherwise forced to figure it out. The film has the advantage of being able to literalise the words on the screen, immediately contextualising them. Kubrick, like Burgess, immerses the audience right from the beginning in Nadsat, without explaining it. The more obvious cinematic approach would have been to perhaps subtitle the Nadsat, but Kubrick remains true to Burgess’s linguistic experiment, so integral to the novel, by denying the audience any explanation or translation. The effect in both novel and film is that the audience quickly pieces the language together and builds up the vocabulary in their minds.
Since so much is similar between the book and film, then, it is perhaps more rewarding to consider the major narrative differences. One of Kubrick’s few inventions is the scene in the Prison Check-in Room when Alex first arrives at Staja 84F. The scene isn’t in the novel, and nor does it fuel the narrative in any way, apart, perhaps, from establishing the character of the Chief Guard. It would seem to be an incarnation of Kubrick’s recurring theme of dehumanisation within the context of this story, in detailing the dehumanising processes of this state institution. The scene acts in a way as a trial run for the boot-camp section of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket - Alex, like the recruits in Full Metal Jacket, is stripped of his possessions and clothing, and, implicitly, his identity, his name is replaced by a number, he is forced to suppress his wry intelligence and individuality.
Another important issue to consider about the adaptation of A Clockwork Orange has not only narrative but also thematic implications; namely, the elimination of the final chapter of the novel. In Kubrick’s words:
The truth was in fact quite the opposite. In the first American edition of the novel, the publisher in fact prevailed upon Burgess to eliminate the extra chapter against his better judgement.
This ‘21st Chapter’ has proven to be the source of much debate. ‘The truncated ending,’ according to Stinson, ‘which leaves the reader with a stark presentation of unregenerate evil, surely carries more impact. Burgess’s own ending, besides having just a whiff of sentimentality about it, is easily exposed to ridicule’ (59). Conversely, Nelson defends the final chapter:
Either way, the ‘21st Chapter’ issue raises another important question about adaptation, how the values and beliefs of an artist adapting a text will inflect those of the original. Nelson posits that were Kubrick a novelist, ‘[he] very well might compose such a novel, except that his would be less theological and more speculative’ (139) This neatly encapsulates the differences between the two men. A lapsed Catholic, much of Burgess’s fiction was coloured by the duality of good and evil and the idea of a permanent and universal human essence. Kubrick, conversely, was called a pragmatist or agnostic at best, pessimist or misanthropist at worst. What is interesting then, is that even shorn of the redemptive final chapter of the novel, the film remains, by and large, thematically true to the novel - ‘...harrowingly humanistic, magnificently moral and chillingly Christian’ (Fitzgerald 4). Nelson writes:
It is significant that ‘What’s it going to be then?’ – the question of moral choice - is the first thing the Prison Chaplain says in the film, because it is his voice that is ultimately the one of truth. Religious iconography is initially satirised and subverted in the film; the four statues of Christ lined up as though dancing girls, Alex’s fantasies of being a Roman Soldier whipping Christ. The Prison Chaplain is initially presented as a blustering, fire-and-brimstone Preacher (and an alcoholic in the novel) whose message is wasted on his congregation. However, when Alex first raises the issue of the Ludovico treatment with him, he asks the novel’s central question: ‘Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?’ (76). In the same scene in the film, he says: ‘Goodness comes from within. Goodness is chosen. When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.’ That his is the voice of reason is confirmed in the scene in which the new, improved Alex is shown off – tellingly, his words are identical in both novel and film: ‘Choice... He has no real choice, has he? ... He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice’ (99).
Kubrick said that he visualised McDowell as Alex on his first reading of the novel (quoted in Houston 43). Were it not for the skill and power of McDowell’s performance, both as protagonist as well as ‘humble narrator’, it is unlikely that the decision to retain the book’s structure as first-person narrative would have been as successful. In fact, as a first-person narrative, according to Nelson, ‘it far surpasses anything attempted in Lolita, Kubrick’s only other "subjective" film’ (142). With Alex as the storyteller, then most of the stylistic techniques Kubrick uses in the film are designed not only to approximate Burgess’s literary ones but also to evoke Alex’s perceptions.
Nelson then isolates the various techniques used to achieve this:
I would also suggest that the often bizarre mise-en-sc�ne of the film (Alex’s first confrontation with Deltoid, on his parents’ bed comes to mind) similarly achieves this expression of Alex’s inner state.
Furthermore, Nelson also points out that these unusual stylistic motifs are used largely during Alex’s pre-Ludovico state. Once he is in jail, the film shifts to a flatter, more straightforward style with a feel of social-realism or documentary.
One of the strengths of the novel as an art form is that internal, subjective states can be described or depicted with relative ease:
The pleasure Alex takes in his attack is more than evident – the repeated use of the metaphor of dancing makes it amply clear. Such an effect is harder to achieve in a film without resorting to voice-over. However, Kubrick’s use of music, specifically Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie in the Billyboy scene, is an effective cinematic method of achieving a similar effect to Burgess’s prose.
Were the scenes of violence in the novel to be described in a flat, dispassionate style, the equivalent of removing the music, then Alex’s ‘great action ballet’ becomes one thug brutally slashing at the face of another. Devoid of the �sthetic counterpoint of Alex’s poetic narration of events in the novel or the music in the film, Alex’s character becomes completely unsympathetic.
When the film was released, Hollis Alpert contended that ‘It
is doubtful that any novel has ever been adapted for the screen as brilliantly as
this one’ (40). Slightly hyperbolic, perhaps, but all the more baffling that Petix
writes of the film as being the "...barely recognizable... version (call it, rather,
perversion) of the novel’ (85). Oscillating back to the other extreme, Aggeler calls
it a ‘... brilliant and faithful rendering’ (169). The controversy associated
with the film that has derived not only from its subject matter but also from its daring
and still potent style has long distorted serious analysis of both the film and novel.
However, considered objectively it is clear that the film works well as an adaptation
– it is not only true to Burgess’s novel in terms of narrative, character and
theme, but it is also successful on its own terms, using cinematic technique to create a
memorable, funny, at times terrifying film.