‘I should not have written the book,’ said Anthony Burgess in 1985 of his most famous work, A Clockwork Orange
(which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year). Burgess’ disavowal was total. The novel, he said, had been ‘knocked-off for money in three weeks’. The book was overhyped, ‘misinterpreted’.
That alleged misinterpretation owes much to Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation, or at least that is what Burgess claimed. He said that Kubrick’s interpretation was ‘interesting’, which was not a complete compliment. Burgess had offered Kubrick a script based on the British edition of the book, which Kubrick ignored in favour of a screenplay adapted from the American edition, which excluded the positive ending where ‘Alex’ simply out-grows ‘ultraviolence’ and ‘milk-plus’.
Burgess approved the American edition, so it is strange to complain of ‘misinterpretation’. I imagine that disenchantment grew with the reputation of Kubrick’s film and the alternative moral-aesthetic which it presented. (It merits repeating that Kubrick’s film was not immediately reviled. It won the American critics award in 1972, and the Spectator’s film critic, Tony Palmer, crowned it: ‘the most important film I’ve ever seen’.)
Burgess certainly had a moral purpose. The comparison between the droogs and the Mods’n’Rockers is old hat; as is that between Alex’s world and Soviet Russia. ‘Nasdat’, the language of the droogs, is a pun on the Russian suffix for ‘teenager’. And Burgess admitted from the moment of publication that his principle inspiration was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. &”I wish I’d written it, I wish I’d known what Huxley had known [about totalitarianism],” he told a TV interviewer in the early ‘60s.
But Burgess’s mind reached to understand mankind’s basest instincts. In the video above, which was made in 1990 prior to an RSC stage play of the book, he urged viewers to temper their joy at the end of communism because &”we’re still pretty bad fundamentally”.
Burgess identified so-called enlightened liberal governments as a potential enemy of freedom. In 1978, he gave a surprisingly deep interview to Michael Parkinson in which he said:
‘I heard talk in the early 1960s of the possibility of getting these young thugs in order, but not putting them in jail, because jails were needed for more traditional prisoners, but rather to put them through a course of conditioning in effect into clockwork oranges, no longer organisms of sweetness and colour, but into machines. I feared this, so that is why I wrote the novel. I feared the possibility that the state was all too ready to start taking over our brains and turning us into good little citizens.’
That fear persists, and not just in the minds of convinced libertarians — witness the widespread opposition to bans on smoking and proposed minimum alcohol pricing. ‘Nudging’ is a less extreme form of ‘conditioning’.
There is one final subtext: a tragedy from Burgess’s own life. During the war, Burgess’s wife was raped by 4 droog-like GIs while he was stationed abroad. He was denied compassionate leave; he had to carry on being a good little soldier. None are more inhuman than men.Tags: Fiction, Film, Morality, Politics, Society