November 20, 2017

A Clockwork Orange Revisited

By Scott Kirwin

In the early 1980s I attended a Jesuit-run high school, and in my junior year was assigned the book “A Clockwork Orange” by Anthony Burgess. After reading the book I saw the movie, directed by Stanley Kubrick in 1971 starring Malcolm McDowell in a role I would always associate him with. For those who aren’t familiar with either the book or the movie, the main character is a teenage thug who kills and rapes with his gang, is subjected to brutal brainwashing by the authorities, then is deprogrammed by them and returns to his thug life.

The novella is deeply disturbing, providing a very nihilistic view of humanity. In it we sympathize with Alex, the main character, as he rapes and murders and later is captured and tortured by the authorities and made to become violently ill at the thought of violence as the victimizer becomes the victim. At the end of the book and movie Alex returns to his raping and murderous ways, a predator returned to the wild unchanged by his experiences.

There’s only one problem with this summary: It’s incomplete. The book I read in the early 1980s matched Kubrick’s film, but both ignored the last chapter. Kubrick ignored the last chapter for the movie, and publishers, aware of the connection to the movie, cut the last chapter from the book in order to keep it in sync with the movie.

I learned this in a rather unusual way. I’ve been binge watching Japanese-language dramas recently, and stumbled across a wonderful drama about an antiquarian bookseller called “Koshodou no Jiken Techou” or Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia’s Case files. The drama revolves around the bookshop’s owner’s uncanny ability to exercise logic to solve mysteries. One of the episodes revolves around “A Clockwork Orange” and the story hinges on the differences between the incomplete book and the date when the complete work was published. I had no idea that over 30 years ago I hadn’t finished the book.

Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange with 21 chapters, a number that matched the age of adulthood. The movie and the book I read stopped at chapter 20. So what happened in chapter 21? Chapter 21 has Alex meeting a former fellow thug who has turned his back on violence, gotten married and had a child. Alex realizes he’s bored with his violent life and imagines settling down, getting married and raising children. In essence in the final chapter, Alex grows up. He changes as does the moral of the whole book.

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When I saw this explained in a Japanese TV drama I was stunned. It was like learning the Mona Lisa was made with crayons, or that Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine in Casablanca worked for the SS.

Writer Matt Melis provides an excellent writeup on A Clockwork Orange and explains what the missing chapter means. He writes, “In the film, we journey so far only to come full circle. Alex is as Alex was, and we are given no reason to suspect he’ll ever cease to be a menace. Even more important, though, is the change in tone that occurs by dropping the novella’s intended ending. Without that final chapter, we’re left with a hopeless, deeply pessimistic story where, as Burgess described it, “evil prances on the page and, up to the very last line, sneers in the face of all inherited beliefs.””

So why did Kubrick skip the last chapter? In an interview published online he claims he wasn’t aware of it and didn’t trust it. Kubrick states in the interview, “There are two different versions of the novel. One has an extra chapter. I had not read this version until I had virtually finished the screenplay. This extra chapter depicts the rehabilitation of Alex. But it is, as far as I am concerned, unconvincing and inconsistent with the style and intent of the book. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the publisher had somehow prevailed upon Burgess to tack on the extra chapter against his better judgment, so the book would end on a more positive note. I certainly never gave any serious consideration to using it.”

Burgess himself disavows Kubrick’s interpretation. From 101 Books, Did Stanley Kubrick Misinterpret A Clockwork Orange, quoting from A Flame Into Being: The Life and Works of D.H. Lawrence. Burgess writes, “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.” 101 Books quoting an introduction to the 1986 complete version, Burgess writes, “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.”

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“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.” Moral transformation. An increase of wisdom. I couldn’t agree more.

I’ve always viewed both the movie and the book A Clockwork Orange as steeped in post-modernist left wing nihilism. In the case of Kubrick’s movie I see no reason to change that opinion. But the missing chapter and Burgesses assertions in the links above and repeated in the Japanese TV drama Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia’s Case files force me to change my view of the novel – for the better.

Photo by Prairiekittin

About William of Ockham 72 Articles
William of Ockham is a husband, a parent, and animal rescuer obsessed with Ancient Rome. He is a gun toting libertarian, and dedicated gentile Zionist who dreams of one day reading the carbonized scrolls in the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum. He's been blogging since Sept 2001 at http://www.therazor.org