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Did Stanley Kubrick Misinterpret A Clockwork Orange?

According to the book’s original author, Anthony Burgess, the answer to that question is a resounding “yes.” He explains:

“The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate: written a quarter of a century ago, a jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me till I die. I should not have written the book because of this danger of misinterpretation.” — Anthony Burgess on A Clockwork Orange (from A Flame Into Being: The Life and Works of D.H. Lawrence)

Wow. I think we can confidently say Anthony Burgess was not a fan of Kubrick’s film. The reason being: Kubrick, and the original American publisher who published A Clockwork Orange, missed the entire point of the novel: redemption.

As I’ve mentioned before, Burgess’ original American publisher didn’t include the final chapter of the book, despite Burgess’ protests. Burgess admits that he needed the money and eventually caved to the publisher’s wishes. All other original editions of the book included the final chapter, but Kubrick based his film on the American version.

So what Kubrick released to the public was a depressing story of violence with a bitter, cynical ending. Essentially, the film said humans can’t change.  I don’t want to spoil the ending, and I’ll expand on this in my upcoming review, but in Burgess’ version, Alex’s story ends on a positive note.

To not include that key chapter—only 11 pages—is kind of like telling the story of Jesus without including the resurrection. That’s no minor piece of information, right? Kubrick said he wasn’t aware of the final chapter until he was late into screenplay development, but he thought the final chapter was unconvincing and unrealistic.

In 1986, an updated version of A Clockwork Orange was released, presumably one Burgess was satisfied with, that featured an introduction from Burgess explaining the final chapter’s original omission. He says:

The twenty-first chapter gives the novel the quality of genuine fiction, an art founded on the principle that human beings change. There is, in fact, not much point in writing a novel unless you can show the possibility of moral transformation, or an increase in wisdom, operating in your chief character or characters. Even trashy bestsellers show people changing. When a fictional work fails to show change, when it merely indicates that human character is set, stony, unregenerable, then you are out of the field of the novel and into that of the fable or the allegory. The American or Kubrickian Orange is a fable; the British or world one is a novel.

Book publishers and screenwriters do this type of thing all the time—whether it’s because of potential dollar signs, ego, creative freedom, contractual obligation, etc.—they change the original story in one way or another.

But where do you draw the line? The publisher and, subsequently, Stanley Kubrick totally changed the original intent of this story by excluding the final chapter. The entire purpose of A Clockwork Orange–free will, redemption, transformation–was ignored.

Did they go too far?

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36 Comments Post a comment
  1. (This will have spoilers for the book, you’ve been warned).

    The final chapter of the book completely invalidates all of the struggles that Alex went through in the earlier parts of the book. To me the final chapter showed that he was just unlucky in getting sent to jail, and if he hadn’t gotten in that much trouble, he would have simply grown out of his violent ways. If a novel, free will, redemption, and transformation should be a choice of the character based on challenges that they overcome that others don’t go through or decisions others weren’t strong enough to make. Growing up is not a challenge that most of us fail to make.

    The movie version (which as you said did not include the 21st chapter) is a stronger vision of the overall story and themes you find in the book. I’ve seen a couple of examples where the movie is better than the book (for whatever reason), but in most of those cases, I would still suggest that people read the book. Between the heavy dialect in the book and the extra chapter which invalidates everything that Alex went through in the novel, I would just tell people to watch the movie, or skip the 21st chapter if you’re reading the book.

    Like

    September 1, 2011
    • Totally agree. Burgess himself admits he “disparages A Clockwork Orange as a minor work because of that loose limb sticking out as a sore thumb”, the 21st chapter, and leaves it to the reader to decide if the US publisher was right. ‘Course he was right, he did his job of editing out a bit that was simply weakening the whole.

      Like

      December 11, 2012
  2. bba #

    I think taking out the final chapter is Kubrick’s right. He was telling his vision of the story, not Burgess’ (he did the same with The Shining). I’ve always felt the last chapter was rather bogus. It’s like Burgess wanted to let himself off the hook for writing about sex and violence. You revel in that for 220ish pages, then tack on 10 pages at the end to make everything rosy? That’s just weak. When I first read it, I had a much higher opinion of the book until the last chapter.

    Liked by 1 person

    September 1, 2011
    • To me, it’s not a matter of whether Kubrick was right or not…it’s just a matter of respecting the artist’s original intent of the story.

      The original publisher and Kubrick totally twisted Burgess’ entire story. Sure, take the freedom to change some things, that happens all the time, but don’t change the entire meaning of A Clockwork Orange and then call your film A Clockwork Orange, because that’s not what it is. It’s like if someone changed the Mona Lisa’s hair to blonde and called it the Mona Lisa. I think that’s weak.

      And I don’t agree that Alex’s transformation was out of the blue or tacked on at the end. Despite his violence and nastiness, I think he showed glimmers of hope at times. The last chapter was just fulfilling that potential.

      Liked by 1 person

      September 1, 2011
      • Erik #

        When Hollywood filmed Bourne Identity, they took out the book’s point that Jason Bourne was NOT an assassin, but only pretending to be one to smoke out the real bad guy. They didn’t even put the bad guy in the movie, and he was the whole point of the book, practically. More recently, Mr. Popper’s Penguins shared the book title minus the happy marriage and minus the kids who loved him and instead of a small home he was in an urban condo…if I were Richard or Florence Atwater, I don’t know what I would have done.
        I guess sometimes books survive the movie translation (Lord of the Rings comes to mind…and from what I hear, Harry Potter series was true to the book) but more often, it seems that the film does surgery on the book…

        Like

        September 2, 2011
  3. I don’t much like the film, but I agree with Kubrick and the American editors that Burgess’s final chapter shouldn’t have been included. What Burgess shows isn’t “redemption,” it’s simply another form of the Ludovico treatment; that chapter reads very much as though Burgess wanted to show Alex redeem himself but didn’t wish to devote the necessary space to that huge change. Redemption isn’t something that can be shown in a single chapter, and when Alex pulls that baby photo out of his pocket you can see Burgess’s hand through the whole scene, Burgess’s idea that Alex should behave in a way that by the novel’s final chapter felt utterly wrong and unlike the character.

    Authors aren’t always right, and that Burgess still believes that final chapter should’ve been included in the original American publication and should have informed Kubrick’s film is the best proof of that.

    Like

    September 1, 2011
    • I think it’s hard to say the author wasn’t “right.” His mind created that story, so it is what is. Not right or wrong. You can say that Kubrick’s version was better, but that doesn’t make Burgess wrong.

      I think it just goes back to respect to the original author…that’s my thing. Whether or not Kubrick’s version is better isn’t the point…it’s whether he should have totally transformed the meaning of the story in the first place.

      Like

      September 1, 2011
  4. Burgess notes in his introduction (I’m paraphrasing) that an author can throw away the pages and yet never un-write what has been written. Too true.

    Personally I believe the book without the final chapter is as disgusting as the violence and government over-lording portrayed in the story. The “artist” intended something else. This is similar to how I detest the “radio edit” versions of songs.

    Kubrick’s interpretation of the book is just that, an interpretation. Kind of like his addition of the snake or some of the additional dialogue.

    Like

    September 1, 2011
    • Did Kubrick “censor” Burgess? And is there some irony in the fact that his original story was essentially censored because of its rating?

      Like

      September 1, 2011
      • I don’t think Kubrick censored Burgess so much as he was a victim of the original publisher’s act. By censoring the material, Kubrick could not have gotten the story correct in the first place.

        As an aside, I fully support warning the reader of “heavy material” and leaving the consumer some choice. But to materially alter a story is unacceptable.

        …or maybe I just have a problem with authority.

        Like

        September 1, 2011
  5. Teresa #

    Great discussion. Haven’t read the book yet. Did not value the movie glad to know that Burgess thought it glorified sex and violence. I thought so too. Look forward to the review!

    Like

    September 1, 2011
  6. Great discussion!
    I saw the movie and immediately decided I wouldn’t bother to put myself through the book. It’s been about 10 years, but I remember thinking that it was a waste if the character was essentially unchanged. Why would I put in the time for no real character development? I don’t think I can fully blame Kubrick, though, considering he was basing his movie off the book he was familiar with. It’s just unfortunate that Burgess had to cave and end up putting out a story he wasn’t behind anymore. In general, it bothers me much less when a movie loosely interprets a book, and then indicates that it was inspired by the book rather than “based on.” Using that language, or even the same title, should mean that the view is going to be pretty much watching the book, not what someone else wanted the book to be. End of rant.

    Like

    September 1, 2011
    • It’s not totally Kubrick’s fault, right. I’m not sure if Kubrick has any original screenplays, but, if he does, I wonder how he would have felt had someone came along and totally changed the meaning.

      Like

      September 1, 2011
  7. B Day #

    I really struggled with this after finishing the book. I totally agree with Burgess’ words above, however, I also think that Kubrick had a valid point – the ending does seem to ring false. Not being a Kubrick fan, I am inclined to side with Burgess.

    Like

    September 1, 2011
    • You can probably tell that I’m with you. I think Burgess could have possibly developed that transformation better. As Ellen says above, it seemed rushed. But I still don’t think that makes Kubrick’s changes justifiable.

      Like

      September 1, 2011
  8. Charazard #

    I think Kubrick’s was up to something else. Look at this website http://kubrickfilms.tripod.com/id3.html

    BTW my favourite Kubrick is Eyes Wide Shut, such an underrated film.

    Like

    September 1, 2011
  9. This comes down to an eternal argument in literary academia: does the work and it’s correct interpretation belong to the writer, or is the work a seperate entity entirely which is open to any viable, defensable interpretation?
    While I believe that the author’s own viewpoint is invaluable and should be considered when assessing a novel, once it has been “born” it does acquire a life of its own. To tie a book only to the intent of the writer in effect is to lessen it’s potential.
    The more ambiguities, allusions and imagery that are percieved in a work, the richer it becomes.
    That being said, in the case of The Clockwork Orange, the public should have the benefit of the final chapter to consider, since it exists and the author felt that it was crucial to his novel, but it;s existence does not necessarily make for a stronger book, simply a more complex one (as we can see based on the comments here).
    Jodi

    Like

    September 2, 2011
  10. The movie and the book wasn’t about change or redemption – the last chapter in the book was tacked on as a last thought and change that dramatic shouldn’t be written in 11 pages of a book full of such violence. Clockwork Orange is about society’s attempt at changing man, and the morality that goes into place. In making Alex a good boy they have effectively turned him into a ‘clockwork orange’, something that is both mechanical and organic at the same time, and therefore unnatural. It is a commentary on violence and our reaction to it, not a glorification. I’m not saying Burgess was wrong in writing the last chapter, it was his book and it was a very good book at that. But I am defending Kubrick as he was directing a movie that was essentially ‘his’ vision of the book, and a vision that he stayed very true to considering he had first read the book which omitted the final chapter and later realised that it was better off without it. Also the film ‘adaptation’ brought a whole new audience to the book and made it a cult classic, also Burgess blamed the publisher, not Kubrick, so why should you?

    Like

    January 22, 2012
    • Aubergine #

      I totally agree with you, pretty much everyone seems to be missing a lot of points in the book here.
      It’s about how society can change a man, and how society choose what’s good and bad without making anysense, leading to him becoming a clockwork orange, as you said. An organic persons having a completly mechanical moral sense. How moral is that?
      I saw the last chapter as a way to show the Ludovico technique wasn’t only the harcore thing they do on Alex, but is something that everyone lives everyday. I’m not really mad at Kubrick for not putting it in the film, it wouldn’t have fit with the rest of the movie as the way it was shot.

      Like

      April 22, 2015
  11. “…like telling the story of Jesus without including the resurrection.”

    Now THAT is funny!

    Like

    January 13, 2015
  12. Jenniffer Schultze #

    Without them Bar

    Like

    January 14, 2015

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