In terms of censorship, bans and all-round controversy this film (and book, to a certain extent) has gone to the distance and is still delivering knockabout blows.
There’s so much to discuss about book and film – and many critics have already done that to an obsessive degree – so I can’t really add much to the arguments about whether Kubrick’s film is a masterpiece or why Anthony Burgess’ novel is a dystopian classic. I believe they’re both special in their own way.
What I want to concentrate on is the singular, some would say inspired, decision to give the main characters in the book – Alex and his Droogs – bowler hats. This was Kubrick’s stylistic touch and is a major departure from the novella where the main characters wear masks of famous figures like Elvis Presley, Henry VIII, Disraeli and even, Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Now, you may think Kubrick was bang on in giving the Droogs their ice-cream overalls, canes and bowler hats. I don’t agree. I believe this softens the film to such an extent that it makes most scenes Alex and his Droogs are in verge on the camp, comic and faintly ridiculous. Of course, this might have been Kubrick’s intention all along but this serves to drain and dilute the sinister characterisation from Burgess’s book. All the dark cynicism in Kubrick’s film comes from the music, the sexual innuendo, the suggestive props and many other things – not the characters. It’s like a preening, puppet show with no boundaries. Of course, that can be compelling in its own way – and is.
One of the main sources of frustration Burgess had with the film was that it didn’t allow Alex to change from a violent, unruly teenager to a mature adult. The film cut out his final chapter altogether, which showed Alex dreaming of having a wife and son – and even becoming an old man. This, Burgess felt, was too bleak and pessimistic. There was no sense of transformation. He felt Kubrick had obliterated the sense of hope in his book.
This is a writer’s lot, for better or worse. The imagination up on screen – the painstaking, careful collaboration – will never match the intuitive, white-knuckle ride of the blank page and the hyperactive fingers.
And when Kubrick was involved, this feeling could be multiplied many times over.
But it is ironic that Kubrick, himself, withdrew A Clockwork Orange from circulation for nearly three decades after reports of copycat crimes related to the film. It’s stretching credulity that he couldn’t foresee the problems his film might cause with its soft-porn decor, nazi references (the film is full of them) and violent innuendo. Burgess’s book also has a sexual attack on a 10-year-old. This may not be in the film but a highly skilled and intelligent director like Kubrick must have known his source material was explosive. You may say he’s not responsible which, of course, is right – but you must also stand by your material if you deem it to be value. Perhaps, Kubrick thought it wasn’t valuable enough.
Or simply that any blood spilled over a film is not worth it.
Whatever the reason, Kubrick thought it was a blue line too far and the film was lost to a generation of film viewers. If only he was still around to re-cut the film to see how it would look with a Droog in an Elvis Presley-mask. You might think this is silly. I think it’s frightening – far scarier than the bowler hats.