“There was me. That is Alex. And my three droogs. That is Pete, Georgie, and Dim. And we sat in the Korova Milk Bar trying to make up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening. The Korova Milk Bar sold milk-plus. Milk plus Vellocet or Synthemesc or Drencro, which is what we were drinking. This would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of the old ultra-violence” – Malcolm McDowell, A Clockwork Orange (1971)
As I am sure many avid readers like myself have encountered, there are some movies based on books that I swore I would never watch because the book was so upsetting. In my case, I ended up watching them all anyway. The first to go on that list a couple of years ago was A Clockwork Orange (1971), based on the 1962 novel by Anthony Burgess. I had attempted to watch it several years before; I ended up turning it off after only a few minutes. Once I endured the rough parts, however, another deeply impactful and inspiring film became a part of my life.
A couple of notes before we begin:
- The slang used in the book and movie (“droogs,” “ultraviolence,” “horrorshow,” “Gulliver,” etc.) is called “Nadsat.” It was invented by the author and is based on Russian language influences and Cockney English culture
- The term “clockwork orange” refers to a state of being where one appears colorful and lively (an orange), but their decisions are based on the way their society has built them (clockwork). It is a metaphor for a lack of free will and/or individuality even when it appears so on the outside
The story follows young miscreant Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) and his gang of fellow young men (referred to as “droogs”) who spend their nights tormenting people in a dystopian England. They wear matching outfits, drink drugged milk, and set out to inflict violence on anyone they encounter. Alex, as their leader, calls the shots and keeps his droogs in line. By day, Alex skips school and lies to his parents and post-corrective advisor about what he does with his time. Alex’s violent ventures remain anonymous, allowing him to expand his host of victims as he pleases.
One night, Alex’s fun takes a turn. Following a tip, the gang target a health farm in the countryside where a woman is alone for the week. Alex attempts his go-to trick for entry where he knocks on the front door, imploring to come inside and use a phone because someone had been in an accident. His target refuses to let him inside. Alex concedes and instead finds an entry point to break in. The woman calls the police to inform them of the interaction and its similarity to the reported attack of the night before (Alex’s last victims). By the time she hangs up, Alex enters her room wearing a rubber mask. She demands that he leave, and he taunts her instead. Grabbing a small statue, she attacks Alex in self-defense. The altercation escalates. Alex retaliates with another statue from the room, striking her in the face with it. He exits the house when the police sirens from the woman’s call sound outside.
Alex rejoins his droogs outside, who attack him and leave him behind for the police to find alone. At the police station, Alex is joined by his post-corrective officer, who had warned him to watch himself earlier in the film because he would not take responsibility for Alex’s criminal actions. He gleefully informs Alex that his victim has died, and he is now at the mercy of the law. After a series of trials and investigations, Alex is sentenced to fourteen years in prison.
Two years into his sentence, Alex is working hard to play a model inmate. He behaves himself, follows orders, and offers to help in prison activities. When he hears about a new inmate rehabilitation program that would help him secure an early release, Alex lets the prison personnel know he is interested. One day, he is selected for the program and relocated to a medical research facility. In the trials, he is injected with a serum and locked in an apparatus that prevents him from moving his body or closing his eyes (look up screenshots at your own risk, I have not included any here). He is shown countless reels of street violence, sexual assault, genocide, and any number of other violent acts in a movie theater. The serum distributed at the beginning of each trial causes him to feel physically ill, eventually causing him to develop a new aversion to violence on a physical and psychological level. The trials end and Alex is set free. He is ready to return to the world, but his reformation has unexpected consequences.
It is no puzzle why this movie has turned off moviegoers for decades. With its gratuitous violence, sexual assault, gang activity, and anything else one might encounter in a dystopian existence, this story shields its consumers from nothing. The book and the movie have both been challenged and/or banned in several countries, including the United States. The film was originally released in Britain, its country of origin, only on the condition that it received an “X” rating. To learn more about A Clockwork Orange‘s history with censorship, check out this blog post by Andrew Biswell.
Something I have come to appreciate after getting more comfortable with watching this film is its art direction and cinematography. The production design, costumes, makeup, music (Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven has a significant presence in Alex’s experience), and Kubrick’s signature filming choices create an atmosphere where we feel a part of this world and gradually understand its nuances. It is a perfect example of the things we fear manipulated into a work of art, which is what I love most about horror and some cult films.
There is a lot happening in this movie that is definitely not for everyone. As controversial as this movie and its preceding book have been, A Clockwork Orange‘s cultural impact cannot be denied. Over fifty years later, it is still being discovered by movie fans and referenced in various contexts around the world. This is a story that makes viewers uncomfortable while also persuading us to think about the overarching themes of the content, especially the subjects of justice and free will. It will undoubtedly remain relevant longer than anyone would like. Alex DeLarge is simultaneously the figure of what a functional society fears and the reality that is hard to accept, and that is not going away anytime soon.
Until next time,