At a midnight viewing at the IFC Center in New York, you will find me gaping in awe at the screen as Malcolm McDowell gleefully rapes a woman whilst crooning "Singing in the Rain." Sure, I've seen the film and this particular moment countless times before, but something about seeing it on a mammoth screen makes it stand out to me even more, somehow suffuses it with a level of crudeness and perversity that current filmmakers would be hard-pressed to achieve today, even with their litany of special effects and roster of foley artists.
Aside from this iconic scene, there is something else plaguing me about this viewing. Afterward, I realized it had to have been because I had read the book not too long ago and was subconsciously measuring it against the film. Though, in most cases, I'm prone to championing a book over its film adaptation, I must say that Stanley Kubrick was almost completely faithful to everything that happens in Anthony Burgess' novel.
The elements of the novel that Kubrick strays from are those of an aesthetic nature, primarily the clothing and eyeliner worn by Alex and his droogs, Georgie, Pete, and Dim. As Burgess describes it, the thrill-seeking foursome displays fashion of a more ominous nature than what appears in the film, and nowhere in the book is any mention made of the illustrious bowler hat that Alex flaunts in the opening scene. Book character Alex states,
The four of us were dressed in the heighth of fashion, which in those days was a pair of very black tight tights with the old jelly mould, as we called it, fitting on the crutch underneath the tights, this being to protect and also a sort of a design you could viddy clear enough in a certain light...Then we wore waisty jackets without lapels but with these very big built-up shoulders ('pletchoes' we called them) which were a kind of a mockery of having real shoulders like that. Then, my brothers, we had these off-white cravats which looked like whipped-up kartoffel or spud with a sort of a design made on it with a fork. We wore our hair not too long and we had flip horrorshow boots for kicking.
Kubrick is also surprisingly loyal to the insane jargon of "Your Humble Narrator," an incongrous mix of Russian and British English words called nadsat (the word itself being slang for teenage), that favors words like viddy, meaning "to see," gulliver, meaning "head," bezoomny, meaning "angry," bratchny, meaning "bastard," and so on and so forth.
For Kubrick to remain so allegiant to the novel is a feat rarely, if ever, accomplished in film. Typically, the ending is altered to be more upbeat (the opposite occurs in the case of A Clockwork Orange), secondary characters are cut out or melded into the personality of a primary character, and entire plot points vanish into thin air. So, again, Kubrick was either the luckiest director to have walked the face of the earth or he really had to fight to maintain the plot of the book. The one factor on the novel A Clockwork Orange's side is the time period in which it was written. Being published in 1962 meant that, by the time it went into production in 1971, American audiences were ready for the utterly comfortless ending. The public had already been disillusioned by the Vietnam War and the assassination of three heroes: the brothers Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. They were ready for something with grit, something impudent and real.
Brits and Europeans alike were, at this time, totally unfamiliar with the conclusion of the American novel. And so upon viewing it, many were left wondering why it ends with Alex fantasizing about raping another woman when, from a European reader's standpoint, there is clearly more to the story. The discrepancy lies in the American publisher accepting Burgess' novel without the twenty-first chapter, inclusive of a key denouement in which Alex has a revelation about youth and the associated desire to destroy. He comes to find that now that he is more mature, his appetite for destruction (that's for you G n' R fans) has been regenerated into a desire to create.
In his introduction to the novel, Burgess explains,
If a (human) can only perform good or only perform evil, then he is a clockwork orange--meaning he has the appearance of an organism lovely with color and juice but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil or (since this is increasingly replacing both) the Almighty State. It is as inhuman to be totally good as it is to be totally evil. The important thing is moral choice.
This insight into the message of the book, and the meaning of the phrase "a clockwork orange," is what is missing from the film. But it is the sole thing missing; everything else is markedly intact and results in nothing short of a near irreproachable film.