There are few directors in the world that can boast to be true “auteurs” than Stanley Kubrick. He’s one of the few genuine masters of the cinematic medium, and his all too slim but substantially important filmography prove that. His 1971 adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel of the same name is as potent today as it was back then.
Telling the story of Alex DeLarge, a young thug who enjoys nothing more than committing acts of violence, drinking milk and listening to Beethoven, Kubrick crafts a tale of free-will, rampant political turmoil and adolescent anger.
The most important question the film asks, is it better to be conditioned or to be a feral but free human, is one people often forget is asked. Much focus is put on the film’s opening – and harrowing – movements. A woman horrifically raped by Alex and his friends is not something an audience can forget easily, especially not when juxtaposed with Gene Kelly’s seminal song Singin’ in the Rain.
For all the shock though, Kubrick then explores morality as Alex is subjected to police brutality and the harsh reality of prison life before agreeing to the Ludovico Technique. Now famous for being a tool of lampooning – The Simpsons riffed on it famously – the technique teaches obedience through essentially torture. The film’s title presents the question; is it better to allow Alex to be a violent, nasty individual or to turn him into nothing more than A Clockwork Orange.
The film is either hampered or improved, depending on your position, by the omission of the final section of the novel. Burgess purposely wrote the book as twenty one chapters, the final one being an exploration of Alex’s desire to grow up and to become a functioning member of society – twenty-one then being the age at which young people in the UK were considered true adults. US editions omitted this, and Kubrick famously preferred a more ambiguous ending.
Even so, Malcolm McDowell’s performance is one for the ages, having endured near torture himself at the hands of Kubrick. His Alex is a violent feral youth at times but what cuts deeply is his eloquence. He’s not just someone to fear, but his intelligence and at times his wit make him someone you would actually want to hang out with – provided he wasn’t going to attack you after.
Kubrick’s adaptation remains a film that is often misunderstood, a litmus test prototype for works like Fight Club or American Psycho decades later. What you bring to it is likely what you will take away and for the intelligent, it’s a sharp, pointed critique of a culture that was rapidly looking to suppress and control a generation it didn’t understand. For the less well-minded it’s a film with cool violence and great Halloween costumes. Kubrick, ever the provocateur, would probably enjoy its enduring legacy, and recoil at the same time. The way good works of art should.
A Clockwork Orange 4K Ultimate Collector’s Edition is available to buy now