Over the course of his illustrious carer, American filmmaker Stanley Kubrick created several seminal masterpieces such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Barry Lyndon, to name a few. With his strikingly original artistic vision, Kubrick inspired countless aspiring directors to follow in his footsteps and continue his cinematic investigations.
One of Kubrick’s most celebrated achievements was his 1971 adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ vastly influential sci-fi novel A Clockwork Orange. The film presents a dystopian world which oscillates between the realms of juvenile delinquency and authoritarian ideas of reformation. Kubrick’s work was criticised at the time of its release for its graphic depiction of violence but is now regarded as a true cult classic.
“The central idea of the film has to do with the question of free will,” Kubrick elaborated. “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? Recent experiments in conditioning and mind control on volunteer prisoners in America have taken this question out of the realm of science-fiction.”
Kubrick always had an affinity for film adaptations, claiming that “there’s one great advantage taking it from literary material, and that is that you have the opportunity of reading the story for the first time.” While this landed him in hot water with authors like Stephen King, who disapproved of his interpretations, that wasn’t always the case.
In Anthony Burgess’ case, the writer did like some of Kubrick’s films like Paths of Glory and 2001 but had doubts about the adaptation because of what Kubrick did while adapting Lolita for the big screen. Burgess thought that it would be a difficult task to depict the novel’s sexual violence because the effect would be too jarring.
“Lolita could not work well,” Burgess wrote, “Because Kubrick had found no cinematic equivalent to Nabokov’s literary extravagance. Nabokov’s script, I knew, had been rejected; all the scripts for A Clockwork Orange, above all my own, had been rejected too, and I feared that the cutting to the narrative bone which harmed the filmed Lolita would turn the filmed A Clockwork Orange into a complimentary pornograph.”
Burgess’ predictions certainly came true as Kubrick’s explicit visualisation generated a lot of controversy. Many copycat crimes were recorded during that period, committed by young teenagers who cited A Clockwork Orange as an influence. Due to these consequences, the film was censored heavily, and Kubrick himself called for a halt on the distribution process after receiving several death threats.
However, he defended his vision by stating: “To try and fasten any responsibility on art as the cause of life seems to me to put the case the wrong way around. Art consists of reshaping life, but it does not create life, nor cause life. Furthermore, to attribute powerful suggestive qualities to a film is at odds with the scientifically accepted view that, even after deep hypnosis in a posthypnotic state, people cannot be made to do things which are at odds with their natures.”
Although Burgess was reportedly disgruntled about not being paid enough for the film, he came to Kubrick’s defence by insisting that the film had great artistic merit: “This is one of the great books that has been made into a great film,” he said. He was often asked about the film’s controversial nature in subsequent interviews but he always maintained that he did not like defending the film adaptation because it was not his artistic creation to defend.
He later reflected: “I was not quite sure what I was defending – the book that had been called ‘a nasty little shock’ or the film about which Kubrick remained silent. I realised, not for the first time, how little impact even a shocking book can make in comparison with a film. Kubrick’s achievement swallowed mine, whole, and yet I was responsible for what some called its malign influence on the young.”