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?