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Stanley Kubrick explains the meaning of 'A Clockwork Orange’

The landscape of the films of Stanley Kubrick is nothing short of extraordinary. With a commanding control over each of his projects, the influential American filmmaker managed to dominate every genre he sought to partake in, changing the face of science fiction with 2001: A Space Odyssey, whilst contributing to the busy world of horror with The Shining in 1980.

Many of Kubrick’s films exist in a strange space, however, that seems to straddle genre, with Dr. Strangelove being a bizarre tragicomedy set during the Cold War and his iconic adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange being something of a violent coming of age drama. Released 50 years ago in 1971, A Clockwork Orange is celebrating a significant milestone in 2021, with the film being something of a prophetic message in reference to the contemporary influx of fear, violence and misinformation. 

Highly controversial when it was released in the 1970s, Kubrick himself remarkably took the film out of circulation when a copycat attack was reported, with the assailants taking inspiration from A Clockwork Orange. The meaning behind the film’s graphic violence and erratic lead characters has been a source of debate for many years of cinematic and literary study.

Usually tight-lipped about the inspiration behind his films, director Stanley Kubrick talked to the French film critic Michel Ciment upon the release of the film to talk through its contentious themes. Throughout the sprawling interview, the two experts discussed the meaning of various aspects of the film, including the Korova Milkbar, Alex’s love of Beethoven and much more. 

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When asked about his own interpretation of A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick replied, “The central idea of the film has to do with the question of free-will. Do we lose our humanity if we are deprived of the choice between good and evil? Do we become, as the title suggests, ‘A Clockwork Orange’?”. This was explored extensively throughout the 1971 film that looks into ideas of mind control and government manipulation, most clearly in the iconic scene in which Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is restrained in a chair whilst his eyes are prised open and he is subjected to scenes of violence whilst listening to Beethoven. 

As Stanley Kubrick well observed, “Aaron Stern, the former head of the MPAA rating board in America, who is also a practising psychiatrist, has suggested that Alex represents the unconscious: man in his natural state. After he is given the Ludovico ‘cure’ he has been ‘civilized’, and the sickness that follows may be viewed as the neurosis imposed by society”. For Kubrick, his film, and indeed Burgess’ book, is an allegorical tale of the importance of free will in a society that constantly works to oppress the individual. 

Remaining one of the finest projects of Stanley Kubrick’s remarkable filmography, A Clockwork Orange is a timeless analysis of the dystopia of capitalism, taking the torch from George Orwell’s 1984.

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