One of the most iconic films of all time, A Clockwork Orange, has often divided audiences with its ultra-violence with supreme villain Alex DeLarge ruling the roost as the king of this film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel. Here, its creator, Stanley Kubrick, reveals the “merciless vision” behind the 1971 movie.
As part of a classic interview in the New York Times back in 1972 with Bernard Weintraub, Kubrick offers up one of the most complete explanations as to what went into the making of one of Kubrick’s most cherished films.
Released in 1971, Kubrick adapted, produced and directed the dystopian crime thriller. It became one of his most renowned films and saw Kubrick confirm himself as one of cinema’s greatest—but the project wasn’t without controversy, in fact, it thrived on it. Based on Burgess’ 1962 novel, the central character Alex (played by Malcolm McDowell) is the leader of a sexually violent and murderous gang on an increasing crime spree. After being caught, he is forced into a horrifying rehabilitation.
Weintraub notes that Kubrick grew up in the Bronx and spent most of his time frequenting cinema screens across the city. “One of the important things about seeing run-of-the-mill Hollywood films eight times a week was that many of them were so bad,” the iconic filmmaker remembered. “Without even beginning to understand what the problems of making films were, I was taken with the impression that I could not do a film any worse than the ones I was seeing. I also felt I could, in fact, do them a lot better.”
A Clockwork Orange may not have been Kubrick’s ice-breaker – 2001: A Space Odyssey put a serious crack in the glacier – but it certainly saw the director put his vision on the screen succinctly. Kubrick adapted the novel into a screenplay and it caught him from the very beginning: “I was excited by everything about it, the plot, the ideas, the characters and, of course, the language,” he said. “Added to which, the story was of manageable size in terms of adapting it for films.”
The story’s language was flecked with Soviet mischief and saw the gang constantly refer to themselves as “droogs” among other things. While Alex’s rehabilitation does send him into a state of model citizenship, it doesn’t last forever. It’s a merciless turn of events which is all part of Burgess’ master conception: “The story functions, of course, on several levels, political, sociological, philosophical and, what’s most important, on a kind of dreamlike psychological-symbolic level,” Kubrick explains, noting Burgess’ intention.
“Alex is a character who by every logical and rational consideration should be completely unsympathetic, and possibly even abhorrent to the audience,” he continued. “And yet in the same way that Richard III gradually undermines your disapproval of his evil ways, Alex does the same thing and draws the audience into his own vision of life. This is the phenomenon of the story that produces the most enjoyable and surprising artistic illumination in the minds of an audience.” An erudite Kubrick in his element, discussing the power of great art.
“I think an audience watching a film or a play is in a state very similar to dreaming, and that the dramatic experience becomes a kind of controlled dream,” he said. “But the important point here is that the film communicates on a subconscious level, and the audience responds to the basic shape of the story on a subconscious level, as it responds to a dream.”
Kubrick’s vision of Alex, and the almost impossible to resist sympathy you feel for his torturous rehab, is a jarring one. “On this level, Alex symbolises man in his natural state, the way he would be if society did not impose its ‘civilizing’ processes upon him,” the director once noted. “What we respond to subconsciously is Alex’s guiltless sense of freedom to kill and rape, and to be our savage natural selves, and it is in this glimpse of the true nature of man that the power of the story derives.”
During the fascinating interview, Kubrick also shares his views on humanity and they rank as painfully bleak. “One of the most dangerous fallacies which has influenced a great deal of political and philosophical thinking is that man is essentially good, and that it is society which makes him bad,” says the director.
Adding: “Rousseau transferred original sin from man to society, and this view has importantly contributed to what I believe has become a crucially incorrect premise on which to base moral and political philosophy.”
As well as his rather current outlook on humanity, Kubrick also talked about his role as a director offering a more jovial vignette: “In terms of working with actors, a director’s job more closely resembles that of a novelist than of a Svengali,” he commented. “One assumes that one hires actors who are great virtuosos. It is too late to start running an acting class in front of the cameras, and essentially what the director must do is to provide the right ideas for the scene, the right adverb, the right adjective.
“The director must always be the arbiter of esthetic taste,” he continued. “The questions always arise: Is it believable, is it interesting, is it appropriate? Only the director can decide this.”
Having adapted, produced and directed A Clockwork Orange it’s safe to say that Kubrick had all the answers when it came to this film.