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"A Clockwork Orange": Romanticizing the Violence

Updated on June 4, 2014
"A Clockwork Orange" by Stanley Kubrick (1971)
"A Clockwork Orange" by Stanley Kubrick (1971) | Source

Anthony Burgess' mock-epic story of young Alex DeLarge's jaunts of mischievous mayhem throughout the streets of a futuristic England immediately gripped the excited attention of Stanley Kubrick in 1969. Upon reading A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick felt that "...the narrative invention was magical, the characters bizarre and exiting, the ideas brilliantly developed" (Nelson, 133). The magical and bizarre appeal of Burgess' novella provided Kubrick with just the right basis for his own film rendition. Straying as far as possible from the mainstream conventions of the early 1970s, Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange earned an 'X' rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. However, with some editing and re-modification of some of the more particularly severe material, the film was reissued a not-so-stigmatizing "R" rating. The film, nevertheless, became a landmark cinemagraphic achievement and is heralded, by some, as one of the greatest social analyses of the 20th century.

The Language of Music

Though Kubrick felt that "...the story was of a size and density that could be adapted to film without oversimplifying it or stripping it to the bone" (Nelson, 134), he added his own ingenuity and creative ideas to the visual presentation of Burgess' tale. Because the bluntness of the written word does not always provide a suitable screen translation, Kubrick gave A Clockwork Orange a flair of cinematic appeal that would almost candy-coat it for the audience's enjoyment. Within the novel, Burgess makes an argument for some modicum of civility in Alex through the young "droog's" determined love and appreciation for music. Kubrick, however, turns this characteristic into a pivotal and crucial feature of the film. Through and extensive use of music, Kubrick communicates the emotional fervor that is so appealing in Alex; the almost graceful style of the violent scenes and the choreographed "tolchoking" and "dratsing" make Alex a more 'likable' character by turning him into a type of grotesque song and dance man. Alex's "...acts of violence are like works of art, planned with exquisite care and attention to detail, executed with conscious style" (Tilton, 29), and this is precisely the portrayal for which Kubrick was aiming in his presentation; the audiences of the early 1970s were unaccustomed to such graphic displays of cruelty and violence, but through a playful portrayal of Alex's reality, Kubrick accomplishes a desaturation of Alex's violence, and the audience subconsciously finds itself accepting this delinquent young man and the gruesome scenes the film "viddies".

"Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary", Henry Purcell (1659-1695)

In his novel, Burgess uses the appeal of language to communicate Alex's romanticized view of his own violence. Poetically written and emotionally charged, Burgess' story grips its readers and coaxes them into an understanding of the inner workings of Alex's psyche. The reader almost finds himself on Alex's side because he sees things from the "droog's" point of view. Kubrick, on the other hand, could not rely on Burgess' poetic narrative to produce the same cathartic effect on his film audience. Instead, he uses Alex's love of music and the images and fantasies produced by it to gain the viewer's favor. Kubrick accomplishes through images and sounds what Burgess accomplishes with words.

For Alex, music is the force that gives life to the world; it is the one thing that Alex holds truly sacred, and he feels that his life is worth living because of it. "Alex's love of [music] a convincing manifestation of [his] aesthetic response to life. And that is not a mere passive response to beauty" (Tilton, 28); Alex responds to the emotional strength of the music he loves by creating a choreographed ballet of hits and sharp kicks with his "...real horrorshow bolshy big boots" (Burgess, 181). This talent for creation, which incorporates the emotional and beautiful sounds of the world of music, draws the audience into Alex's world because the violence becomes a work of art, something far surpassing the uncomfortable reality of what the actions truly are.

"His disapproval of the greed of his 'droogs' who want to go after the big money suggests that the pleasure Alex takes in beautifully executed acts of violence is a manifestation of art for art's sake" (Tilton, 29).

Alex's love of art reveals a civility within him hidden deep beneath his overt joy in violence, and it is that trace of normality that entices the audience and gives them hope that there is an inevitably redeemable character buried under the savagery.

"The Thieving Magpie", Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)

In Kubrick's film, one of the most notable incorporations of music is Alex's use of Gene Kelly's all-American hit "Singin' in the Rain". An aspect not found in Burgess' novel, it draws the audience closer to an understanding and acceptance of the film's actions. Whether or not they had actually seen Kelly's film, the original movie-goers were no doubt familiar with that famous tune. With this comfort in mind, Kubrick choreographs the rape scene in F. Alexander's HOME to Alex's vocal rendition of the playful song. As he sings his merry tune, Alex accentuates each beat with a good hard kick to the "gullivers" of his victims as though he were literally trying to beat his own enjoyment of the song into Mr. and Mrs. Alexander. Here, the audience is introduced to the idea that the "...only salvation is music, to which [Alex] responds emotionally, enthusiastically" (DeVitis, 106) and becomes more accepting of the the teenager's inherent disposition towards violence; Alex must not be too bad of a kid if he loves music as much as he appears to; he just chooses to channel that love in more eclectic ways than anyone else would dare. Through the association between violence and music, Kubrick is creating a visual desensitization to the images presented on the screen and leading the unsuspecting audience into a subconscious acceptance of the violent world in which Alex submerges himself.

Alex must not be too bad of a kid if he loves music as much as he appears to...
Alex must not be too bad of a kid if he loves music as much as he appears to... | Source

Burgess' version of the scene is devoid of any musical quality and is conveyed only through Alex's descriptive vocabulary. The fullness of Alex's description of the rape scene is made eerily beautiful through his poetic language. He creates a song-like quality to the story, and the audience, like "...the writer veck whose horn-rimmed otchkies were cracked but still hanging on" (Burgess, 23), watches this surreal song and dance routine. Alex's gang:

...did the strong-man on the [writer's wife], who was still creech creech creeching away in very horrorshow four-in-a-bar, locking her rookers from the back, while [Alex] ripped away at this and that and the other...while [he] untrussed and got ready for the plunge (Burgess, 23).

The poetry of Alex's narration romanticizes and softens the blow of the victims' suffering, which provides the thrill and enjoyment of the evening for Alex and his friends, as they perform their dance of destruction. The musical and fantastical quality that Kubrick incorporates in his film is just as successful as Burgess' powerful use of language.

"Singin' in the Rain", Gene Kelly (1952)

Burgess' use of first-person narration in the novella presents a viewpoint from which the reader unwillingly finds himself forced to experience the episodes of Alex's life to which he is exposed. However, this form of narration allows the reader direct access to the main character's charming and witty personality which inevitably draws the reader into the frightening world of Alex. With this front-row ticket, the reader is also provided an excellent view of Alex's innermost feelings about the music that he loves so well. After a night of the "old ultraviolence", Alex retires to his bedroom and seeks a "nightcap" of ultimate enjoyment.

"The little speakers of [his] stereo were all arranged round the room, on ceiling, walls, floor, so, lying on [his] bed slooshying the music, [he] was like netted and meshed in the orchestra" (Burgess, 32).


The intensity of the music that surrounds him invokes an equally intense reaction in Alex, but he "...can react only in a physical way to the sounds of the orchestra...[and the] Music arouses Alex sexually" (DeVitis, 106-107) and leads him into a masturbatory experience of this extreme satisfaction. Alex's powerful description provides a vicarious satisfaction for the reader as he invites the audience in to share his:

...bliss, bliss and heaven. I lay there all nagoy to the ceiling slooshying the sluice of lovely sounds. Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh...I was in such bliss, my brothers...and indeed when the music...rose to the top of its big highest tower, then...I broke and spattered and cried aaaaaaah with the bliss of it (Burgess, 32-33).

Within this description, Alex reveals that part of his enjoyment is in the violent fantasies of rape and fighting that the music inspires within him; however, the reader becomes so engrossed in the romance of Alex's poetic language that the visions of violence seem as harmless as sugarplums dancing through his head. Alex's sexual experience becomes climatically satisfying for the reader as well as he feels himself reading with voracity, feeling the pace of the orchestral piece speed toward its and Alex's climax, and once that peak is reached, the reader senses a satisfaction in himself that can only be a result of the completeness of Alex's own orgasmic journey into the world of music.

Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)

Similarly, Kubrick's film version of A Clockwork Orange makes use of the first-person narration of Burgess' novel. The director's

...intention...was to be faithful to the novel and to try to see the violence from Alex's point of view, to show that it was great fun for him, the happiest part of his life, and that it was like some great action ballet. It was necessary to find a way of stylizing the violence, just as Burgess does by his writing style (Nelson, 134).

However, lacking the power of the written word, Kubrick chose to rely on the musical element to enhance this stylization. The cinematic depiction of Alex's orchestral masturbation was carefully accomplished through rapid editing of the images that snap back and forth between the fixed image of Beethoven's glaring visage and the increasing tension in Alex's glare as he absorbs the emotion in the powerful music surrounding him. As in Burgess' scene, the "slooshying" of the beautiful music evokes violent fantasies in Alex's imagination, and they are given form for all to see on Kubrick's screen; "While the stereo played bits of lovely Bach [he] closed [his] glazzies and viddied [himself] helping in and even taking charge of the tolchocking and the nailing in" (Burgess, 79) at the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. But again, the audience is in such awe of Alex's intense emotional experiences through the power of music that these horrific images are easily overlooked. Though Kubrick does incorporate some of the narration from Burgess' novel, the musical score is what carries the scene's actions most. In the thundering orchestra, the cinematic audience can feel the rise to orgasm that Alex necessarily describes so vividly on the pages of the novella. On screen, words become almost frivolous when the strength of both sight and sound can be manipulated to convey the intensity of Alex's experience. With the same fervor as one would read the scene in the novella, the audience is hypnotically drawn to the edge of their seats in anticipation of Alex's climax. And with the same sense of relieved satisfaction evoked in the book, the audience feels a completeness in the experience of music at the powerful close of the scene.

"The Thieving Magpie", Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)

The Conclusion

Through the romanticized experience of Alex's evil and violent tendencies, whether through Kubrick's visual imagery or Burgess' literary designs, A Clockwork Orange "...invites one to celebrate his own worst self" (Tilton, 29). The audience finds itself curiously attracted to Alex even though the brutality of his actions is almost incomprehensible. But the "...nature of the moral defined by the quality of its commitment to good or evil" (Stinson, 23) and through identification with Alex DeLarge, each individual is forced to assess that quality within himself and decide where his own commitment lies. Will the audience commit to good, or does Alex's witty charm create an irresistible beauty and attractiveness in the world of violence? The truth is, there is an

" all of us, which is the point that Burgess most cleverly gets across as he disorients his readers just enough [with] the language to cause them vicariously to share the thrill of cruelty (Stinson, 57)

as does Kubrick in his visual invitation to the audience to share in Alex's joy as he dances his ballet of violence and destruction and lures the audience into the beauty of his musical mayhem.

Works Cited

Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1986.

DeVitis, A.A. Anthony Burgess. Twayne's English Authors Series. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc. 1972.

Nelson, Thomas Allen. Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist's Maze. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.

Stinson, John J. Anthony Burgess Revisited. Twayne's English Authors Series. Boston: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1991.

Tilton, John W. Cosmic Satire in the Contemporary Novel. London: Associated University Presses, 1977.


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    • Jean Bakula profile image

      Jean Bakula 

      4 years ago from New Jersey

      Very well written review. This book was required reading when I was in High School back in the Stone Age, though the reading lists haven't changed much, even though we have so many talented authors now. I had more trouble with the movie, as you say, we were not as used to violent scenes at that time, and the rape scene still haunts me, as it was filmed to Alex's lighthearted version of "Singing in the Rain." I'm not sure I could ever watch it again.


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