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Kubrick Stanley Adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange

Updated on May 7, 2020

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone, his significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism.

T.S Eliot[1]


  • Intertextuality and faithfulness of literary adaptation

Every literary adaptation involves the problematic of to what extent the film is faithful to the literary work. In fact, many literary figures are against the idea of adaptation including Virginia Woolf who uses “the rhetoric of the cinema as a rapacious animal of prey or parasite devouring ‘its unfortunate victim’, literature” (Woolf quoted by Aragay, p12). Ironically, post-heritage Woolf adaptations are regarded as the best examples of adapted works. A myriad of adaptation theorists warn filmmakers not to work on novels where the form match the content, literary canon. For instance, the Columbian Nobel Prize laureate for literature, Gabriel Garcia Marquez refuses to sell the rights of his boom novel One Hundred Years of Solitude to filmmakers and producers. The writer of Love in the Time of Cholera fears that the adapted film may put the significance of his work at stake as what happened with the 1939 adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights in the sense that it “leaves out a substantial part of the novel, namely its second volume.” (Aragay, p16). Adaptation is like translation. Although the target text will not be the same as the source text, one should interrogate the question of betrayal or faithfulness of the translator.

The study of adaptation is the study of authorship, which is based on literary sources. Thus, one of the most significant problematic in adaptation studies is intertextuality. Some critics claims that it is impossible to have exactly the same work adapted as Roland Barthes puts it “the text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture” (Barthes, p146). In this way, adaptation becomes what Baudrillard calls a “simulacrum”. That is, a copy of a copy. This point of view triggers off the idea of the creativity of the adapter where “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of death of the author”. (Barthes, p148).

The American film director, photographer and screenwriter, Stanley Kubrick was born to be an adapter. Like Hitchcock, Kubrick bases most of his successful movies on literary works including Vladimir’s Nabokov’s Lolita, Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange as well as Arthur C. Clarke’s sci-fi short story, The Sentinel. Later on and after Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey won the Oscar for best visual effect, Clarke adapted the movie into a novel under the same title which is considered one of the greatest attempts of novelizing films (Duncan, p59). Although Burgess shares the same contempt of Virginia Woolf for motion picture industry, he feels satisfied with Kubrick adaptation of his A Clockwork Orange as he asserts in a statement to the press in 1973 “I think it is a remarkable work, and is as truthful an interpretation of my own book as I could ever hope to find”. (Phillips and Hill, p36). Burgess’s statement shows how Kubrick’s interpretation or adaptation of the source text is closer the source text.


  • The Adapter as Auteur


The adaptation of a particular literary work goes throughout different stages. Before the filmmaker begin shooting the film, he or she must turn the text in this case a novella into a screenplay in form of a dialogue. Thus, the easiest literary genre to adapt are plays in the sense there is already a dialogue, characters and acts. At any rate, in their Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick, Gene D. Phillips and Rodney Hill write about the first encounter of Kubrick with Burgess Novella, which was suggested by Terry Southern. After a second reading of A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick was soon interested in bringing the novella into screen. Despite the fact that Terry Southern offered Kubrick to be its screenwriter, Kubrick decided to do it alone. Therefore, A Clockwork Orange was one of the two works of Kubrick where he is the director and the screenwriter simultaneously. (p51). In this way, adapters are translators or rather interpreters and ultimately creators.

In her book, A Theory of Adaptation, Linda Hutcheon devotes a whole chapter to the “who”, the adapter. She asks the question “is the major adapter the often underrated screenwriter who “creates or (creatively adapts) a film’s plot, characters, dialogue, and theme” (Corliss quoted by Hutcheon, p81). This question brings in mind the difference between the story and the plot during the process of screenwriting. The Russian Formalist, Boris Tomachevsky, distinguishes between the story (Russian fabula) and plot (Russian sjuzet). The former is the chronological order of imaginary or real events whereas the latter is the reordering of these events. (Barry, p61). Thus, according to Tomashesky, the plot is a space of creativity where there is the freedom of artistic production of events. Therefore and as Thomas Leitch states “adapters ought logically to be screenwriters” (In fact, this is what adaptation is about. Sometimes, adapters may not keep the same setting of a particular literary work as what Cupola did with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in his film Apocalypse Now. Hutcheon provide us with another example when “the directors make the adaptation very much their own work: Fellini Satyricon (1969) is 80 percent Fellini and 20 percent Petronius, according to the director himself (p84). At any rate, while writing and even shooting A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick almost kept the same chronological events, setting and characters of the novella. Leitch claims that “the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) confirmed his status as one of the most strikingly individualistic auteurs in or out of Hollywood”. However, there might be some differences between the literary source text and the film, which are going to be discussed in the following chapter.


  • A Dystopian World of Sadism and Violence: Differences between the Novel and the Film


Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange is a masterpiece in contemporary literature. Its futuristic and prophetic style of writing makes critics include it in the category of dystopian literature along with Orwell, Atwood and Huxley as Harold Bloom puts it in an introduction to a collection of essays about Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale,

Atwood, in describing her novel as a dystopia, called it a cognate of A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, and Nineteen Eighty Four. All of these are now period pieces. Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, despite its Joycean wordplay, is a much weaker book than his memorable Inside Enderby, or his superb Nothing like the Sun, persuasively spoken by Shakespeare-as-narrator. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World now seems genial but thin to the point of transparency, while George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is just a rather bad fiction. (Bloom, p1).


Unlike Thomas More’s “Utopia”, the fictional world of A Clockwork Orange is absurd and devoid of life. Burgess writes through the tongue of a drunk old man who was harshly beaten by Alex and his friends “I don’t want to live anyway, not in a stinking world like this one … it’s a stinking world because it lets the young get on the old like you done, and there is no law nor order no more”. As Bloom has stated the Nadsat language, which is quite reminiscent of Joyce’s wordplay gives another bittersweet flavor to the dystopian world of Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange.

Violence is a major theme in A Clockwork Orange and post-war fiction as a whole. The horror of the Second World War had a huge impact on the memory of several writers. This cruelty and horror is imbedded in the postmodern literature including the poetry of Yeats, Plath and works of fiction such as those of Kurt Vonnegut and George Orwell as well as non-fiction like Anne Frank: A Diary of a Young Girl. A myriad of thinkers wrote about violence. Point of views may vary from a thinker to another. While some consider violence a wrongdoing, others defend it. For instance, Srirupa Chatterjee gives the following examples of Hannah Arendt particularly in her 1970 essay On violence. Arendt justifies the use of violence under the pretext of the threat of life. Violence is positive when it does not exceed the maximum. Besides, basing on the notion of Foucault’s notion of power and knowledge, Newton Garver states in his 1975 essay What Violence Is that the act of robbing certain people of the rights by institutions is considered as violence. Furthermore, modern psychoanalyst like James Gilligan claims that violence is like charity. Both of them begin at home. (p118).

Throughout A Clockwork Orange, there are recurrent words, which have connotations of violence such as “horrorshow” and “ultra-violence”. Moreover, one of the character states, “violence is a very horrible thing” (p41). There are many differences between the literary text and the film. Therefore, it becomes hard to single out every single difference. However, it is worth to linger at one of the most sadist scenes throughout the film and the novella as well.


(look at the shot below)


Alexander Walker claims that this the above shot is “one of the most unsettling scenes in modern cinema” (p57). Indeed, this scene or rather this shot is loaded with symbolic meanings as Barthes writes in his Mythologies how concepts and images transcends De Saussure first level of signification and thus they become a myth, Metalanguage. (p113). Thus, in this scene Alex and his young friends or as the “Humble Narrator” puts it his “droogs” epitomize power and male domination of hooliganism which Burgess foretells their danger on the near future. In the above shot, the angle of Kubrick’s camera is low as well as it is a long shot because it captures the whole bodies of different characters. Thus, Kubrick wants his audience to live experience through the eyes of Mr. Alexander whose wife is violated in a sadist manner by Alex and his “droogs”. In the light of this scene, the main differences between the film and the literary is the advent of sound effects in terms of music. Alex enjoys his song “singing in the rain” while ripping Mrs. Alexander’s red jumpsuit, which does not exist in Burgess’ text. The violence in this scene is based on a true incident during the Second World War when Burgess’ first wife was raped.

It was the most painful thing I’ve ever written, that damn book. I was trying to exorcise the memory of what happened to my first, who was savagely attacked in London during the Second World War by four American deserters. She was pregnant at the time and lost our child. This led to a dreadful depression, and her suicide attempt. After that, I had to learn to start loving again. Writing that book—getting it all out—was a way of doing it. I was very drunk when I wrote it. It was he only way I could cope with the violence. I can’t stand the violence. I…. I loathe it! And one feels so responsible… if one can put an act of violence on paper, you’ve…. Why you’ve created the act! You must as well have done it! I detest that damn book now. (Phillips and Hill, p36)

Burgess’ commentary on his traumatic experience shows that reality is stranger than fiction. War is more frightening than the nightmares we have during the night. Besides, it is no coincidence that the character of Mr. Alexander is a writer too. Alex states, “so here was another intelligent type bookman type like that we’d fillied with some hours back, but this one was a writer not a reader …. then I looked at its top sheet, and there was the name— A CLOWORK ORANGE…” (p9-10). Furthermore, there are many allusions to war particularly during Alex’s brainwashing through the silver screen where “there were the prison-camps and the Jews and the grey like foreign streets full of tanks and uniforms and vecks going down withering rifle-fire” (p45). Postmodern writers like Burgess bemoan the cruelties of the Second World War. Thus, Alex, the admirer of Beethoven and Bach is the product of a civilization where violence is displayed in his cookney-like language and actions. Kubrick’s adaptation of Burgess’ book remain one of the masterpiece in modern cinema due to its faithfulness to the original text and its highly cinematic techniques.

  • Work Cited


Bathes, Roland. Image, Text, Music. Trans. Heath, Stephen. Fontana Press. 1977

______________. Mythologies. Trans. Lavers, Annette. The Noonday Press. 1957

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory. 1995

Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. W. W. Norton. 1971

Books in Motion, Introduction. Aragay, Mireia. Rodopi. 2005

Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Margaret Atwood—New ed. Introduction. Bloom, Harold.

Infobase Publishing. 2009

Kubrick, Stanely. A Clockwork Orange. Warner Bros. 1971

Duncan, Paul. Stanley Kubrick. Pocket Essential. 2002

Lietch, Thomas. The Adapter as Auteur: Hitchcock, Kubrick, Disney, Books in Motion. Ed.

Aragay, Mireia. Rodopi. 2005

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Literature. Routledge. 2006

Phillips D., Gene and Hill, Rodney. The Encyclopedia of Kubrick Stanley. Fact on Files,

Inc. 2002

Walker, Alexander. Stanely Kubrick, Director. W. W. Norton. 2001


[1] T. S Eliot. Selected Essays. Harcourt, Brace and Company. 1932. p 9

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