For Nicolas Roeg, Stanley Kubrick was more than a contemporary, he was a competitor. The two directors were essential features of the cinematic landscape throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. And yet, they never crossed paths. Instead, they were forced to watch each other’s movements from across the creative gulf of the Atlantic ocean.
The pinnacle of both of their careers coincided during an explosive period for cinema. In 1973, they were both 45-years-old and were about to release films that would cement their enduring legacies. Roeg’s 1973 film Don’t Look Now, for example, stunned audiences for its graphic depictions of sex, with one tabloid paper describing it as containing “one of the frankest love scenes ever to be filmed.”
Kubrick, meanwhile, had already established himself as one of the most influential filmmakers of his generation with 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – a film that would go on to act as a reference point for Roeg’s 1976 sci-fi flick The Man Who Fell To Earth, starring David Bowie. But, despite 2001’s impact, there was another film that had an even greater effect on Roeg. In an interview held back in 2016 – two years before his death – he sat down to talk about it.
“I never met Kubrick. We came very close at one point, and then drifted away again,” Roeg began. “It was around the time of A Clockwork Orange. Si Litvinoff owned the rights to the book and we had planned to do it together. I’d been working on a treatment and I’d even met with Anthony Burgess. We talked about it and decided to take a completely lateral look at the piece. I received a call from Si who said the producer and studio executive John Calley had phoned him from the US and told him he was coming to England to see Stanley. So I said, ‘Stanley who?’ and he said ‘Stanley Kubrick.'”
“He knew we owned the rights to the book and he was interested in getting them for Stanley,” Roeg continued. “Kubrick, obviously, wanted total control, and the studio finally did a deal with him. I must say I did like his attitude towards film and the fact that he was an artist and complete unto himself. He wasn’t under corporate censorship, and he was never trying to make a film that you’d be able to pigeonhole in any particular genre. I think that was the case with all his films.
“One day, sometime later, after they’d done the deal, Si said that he’d offered the book to Stanley when he first picked up the rights. Kubrick later said to him, “Oh yeah, I remember you sent it to me but I didn’t read it. I didn’t like the cover,” the director concluded.
A Clockwork Orange was certainly unrestrained, that’s for sure. On release, the film divided audiences, with some seeing it as a beautifully brave work of art and others regarding it as little more than an extreme example of bad pornography, largely due to the inhumanity and brutality with which Kubrick depicted Alex’s victims. Even today, many of the film’s more explicit scenes are very hard to watch, containing that same seed of nihilism that lies at the heart of Burgess’ book. Indeed, the novel has a controversial history of its own.
The same year Kubrick’s film hit cinemas, a bookseller was arrested for selling the novel. Three years later, in 1976, it was removed from a Colorado high school because of “objectionable language”. A year after that, it was also removed from high school classrooms in Massachusetts for the same reason. Ever since its publication, the book has managed to upset conservative values with its grim depiction of a brutal future in which the young dominate society. Perhaps that’s what made it so difficult for Kubrick to obtain the book rights, especially considering Burggess’ eerie prediction of the countercultural movement that, in 1973, was only just beginning to tail off.