Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an undeniable classic. Based on the book by Ken Kesey, it presents a very candid look at the state of mental institutions in the 1970s. Jack Nicholson does his best to steal every scene he’s in as the devious and perpetually outgoing R.P. McMurphy, a man committed to a mental hospital after he declares insanity to avoid jail time and being sent back to the work farm. Nicholson may be the lead, but the whole cast is filled with notable actors you may not recognize at first glance. A very young Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, and Brad Dourif (in his feature film debut), to name a few, are there as fellow patients in the hospital. Nicholson evolves quickly as the ringleader of this group of misfits as he goes toe-to-toe with Nurse Ratched, now known as one of the most memorable movie characters in history, thanks to Louise Fletcher’s performance.
The film begins on the first day that McMurphy is brought into the institution. We’re introduced to Nurse Ratched before any of the other notable characters come on screen. In her first scene, she walks down a long hallway and into the nurse’s station as she begins to set up for the day. There’s no ominous music or dramatic zoom-ins that suggest just how formidable she will become by the end of the film. It’s this subtlety that feeds her growing intimidating nature. She has no back story, no moments indicating what her life is like outside of the hospital. She is there to serve as a symbol of ultimate unwavering authority, which is what makes her rivalry with McMurphy so captivating to watch.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest never really treats Nurse Ratched as a clear-cut villain. She is strict with her patients because that is her job. She merely becomes McMurphy’s opponent, and he’s not exactly a saint himself. During the film, however, it’s clear that McMurphy’s intentions are well-meaning as he sees his fellow patients’ lives being stifled by this institution. This is especially clear when he discovers that most of them are there on a voluntary basis. These men are allegedly “crazy,” but whose right is it to say that they don’t deserve to experience the joys of life anymore? That’s one of the main reasons why Nurse Ratched is such a despised character: she is so committed to her work that she doesn’t see the patients as people. This is made extremely clear in the scene towards the end when she threatens one of the younger patients, Billy Bibbit, (Brad Dourif) with a call to his mother to explain to her his actions after he sleeps with one of McMurphy’s lady friends whom he snuck into the hospital. It’s insinuated throughout the film that Billy has a tough relationship with his mom, and Nurse Ratched exploits this multiple times, justifying it by saying that she and his mother are old friends. Her threat drives Billy to commit suicide. McMurphy retaliates by attempting to strangle Nurse Ratched, but he’s pulled off of her before he has the chance to finish her off. In the end, McMurphy is lobotomized and Nurse Ratched is alive at work wearing a neck brace.
Nurse Ratched’s lack of empathy and even sympathy make her extremely unlikable and, therefore, memorable. It’s hard to believe someone can be so cruel as to deny human beings the simple pleasures of life, especially those with mental disabilities. This speaks to a larger problem within the medical profession and their views towards the mentally unwell and unstable. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nurse Ratched is the face of that harsh reality. It’s easier to believe that someone is capable of that kind of cruelty without knowing too much about them personally, which is the case with her. If we did, all of the subtle nuances that her character hinges on would mean nothing.
There’s a tendency in popular culture to fascinate over the types of minds that are harder to understand. This explains the countless documentaries, feature films, and television shows dedicated to serial killers and generally sociopathic and psychopathic minds. This has recently bled into the fictional world with writers and filmmakers creating entire movies dedicated to telling the stories of iconic villains. The latest, and most successful case of this is Todd Phillips’ Joker, an origin story based loosely on the infamous Batman villain. While causing immense controversy with its overall bleak and violent message, it was an undeniable hit in every sense of the word. A box office and awards darling, Joker proved that mass audiences want to see what makes the worst kind of people tick, no matter how divisive it ended up being.
Given Joker’s success, it’s no surprise that film and TV studios are looking for the next big villain to give a deep and dark origin story to. What is surprising, however, is the fact that Nurse Ratched herself has just received this treatment, thanks to Glee and American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy. The first season of the TV series Ratched has just recently premiered on Netflix starring Sarah Paulson as the titular character. The trailer alone was a clear indication that Ratched would be far from the world that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest created. It presents itself more as the new season of American Horror Story. The final product is something even more shocking and frustrating.
For some reason, Nurse Ratched has been lumped in with the likes of Norman Bates and Hannibal Lector as one of film’s greatest villains. She even makes AFI’s list of 100 Greatest Screen Villains of all time at number five. This recognition has painted her as some sort of evil mastermind when in fact she is just a woman extremely committed to her profession and has given herself completely to the system. Ratched unfortunately goes the way of evil mastermind, establishing Mildred Ratched as an unhinged character right from the beginning. The subtlety that was so carefully crafted in the movie is nowhere to be found here, which brings into question: why? If no effort is going to be made to stay anywhere near the source material, why go through with it?
In the case of Ratched, it’s clear that the writers and Ryan Murphy are appealing to fans of American Horror Story. Its distinctive style is all over Ratched, with the all-too-prominent color scheme, shocking violence, and sexual themes that permeate the show to an exhausting extent. While it’s sprinkled with esteemed actors and occasionally intriguing storylines, the greatest downfall of this origin story is Nurse Ratched herself. Sarah Paulson, an American Horror Story regular, is not at fault for how wrong the interpretation of this character is. The writers were so determined to put the AHS spin on Ratched that they neglected to make certain that there is any resemblance to how she was written in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Because of this, she is incredibly inconsistent, and the allusiveness that came from her original portrayal is completely lost. It may have the look of a popular show, but it lacks all sense of good character.
Ratched could have worked as an original idea. I’m sure to many fans of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, that’s what it is. On one hand, it’s baffling that movie and television studios still take chances with these types of origin stories. On the other hand, it’s hard for them to ignore what makes the most money and gets the most views. After Joker, all signs point to more villain origin stories. And since Ratched is a high-profile Netflix show, there’s no denying that it’s going to do well, which only perpetuates this point. With all of these remakes, reboots and origin stories, it’s difficult not to be fearful for the loss of originality, especially since Ratched is already approved for a second season. It’s a worrying trend, to be sure, and it wouldn’t sting so much if more care was given to actually producing something well thought out as opposed to solely creating something that attracts the most views. Well-crafted adaptations and interpretations of already established stories and characters are certainly possible, they just need to be made with the right intentions.