Classics Month III, or, Contentiously Classical?

by TheLitCritGuy


There are times when it seems that things have not moved on in society and especially in the reaction of certain aspects of society to cultural or artistic expression. You know what I’m referring to – here in the UK it usually gets labelled the ‘Daily Mail Handwringing dance’ otherwise known as that charming middle class battle cry – ‘Won’t somebody think of the children!’

To be honest this is not anything new so I should really stop being surprised that we as a species haven’t gotten beyond the point of fearing the art that our own culture produces. This problem is literally thousands of years old; researching this column I remembered that Socrates was effectively murdered by the state because they thought his books would turn people into atheists, and though the government hasn’t forced Richard Dawkins to take poison, things don’t seem like we’ve moved on all that far as books are still condemned today as being corrosive, dangerous and needing to be censored. The twentieth century was rife with instances of censorship, people facing arrest and even imprisonment for selling on the works of authors from DH Lawrence to Bret Easton Ellis and even this week’s book, Anthony Burgess’s novella ‘A Clockwork Orange.’

For those of you who have read all of my blogs thus far it may have become apparent that I have a small fondness for dystopia novels and this definitely falls into this category. Written in just three weeks, Burgess wrote the book in Hove, a few miles away from Brighton which was in the middle of the now infamous mods vs. rockers fighting, and then – as now – the country was in the midst of bemoaning its feral youth.

As usual I’m trying to avoid any major spoilers but the book and, as we’ll see later, the film has become so much a part of the popular consciousness I will be surprised if all of this is completely new. So, the story follows Alex and his friends in a near future dystopia vision of Britain, one under a totalitarian government. Alex and his friends, or ‘droogs’, speak mainly in ‘nadsat which is a dense and Russian influenced slang. The gang of friends wander around looking for sex, drugs and what Alex terms, ‘ultra-violence.’ After an adventure goes wrong Alex is left bloodied and arrested for murder. Whilst in prison he is subjected to the Ludivico Technique, an aversion technique that is designed to make him violently sick whenever he sees or thinks of violence.

A broken man he leaves prison and the novella closes with him considering if he ever had a child, how they would turn out. The story is all first person and thus rests entirely on the characters of Alex as to whether it succeeds, and it is this part of the book that helps cement its reputation as a classic. Simply put, Alex is one of the most interesting and well-drawn teenagers in fiction. He never explains or attempts to justify his behaviour and actions but he is sympathetic -intelligent, articulate and fond of classical music. These little traits not only make him seem more human, but also more terrifying. He isn’t a mythical monster but in the world created here, Alex is just a normal teenager.

The book was successful and the adaptation soon appeared on screen, written, produced and directed by one of the greats of modern cinema –Stanley Kubrick. The film along with the book it now regarded as a classic and it isn’t hard to see why. The cast, particularly Malcolm MacDowell in a star making turn as Alex, all big eyes, broad smiles and complete sociopathic swings in mood. Alex feels both attractive and dangerous. Just as with the book the film attracted a lot of negative attention – especially one memorable and horribly creepy scene that will ensure the song ‘Singing In The Rain’ is forever scarred in your imagination…

Without re-hashing the elements of the plot too much there are a few minor changes that don’t really affect things too much and the ending is left a little differently. One of the things that have made this a film to be considered a classic is the look and the design of the world that the film evokes. Even if you haven’t already seen the film the poster has become a part of cinematography and design history and the rest of the films photography and design fits with this iconic, nightmarish aesthetic that an adaptation of the book would need.

Aside from the look and the execution of the film there is something slightly more abstract, yet more important that the film understands about the source material. The book is wrestling with a fairly large philosophical and theological problem behind the initially simple plot. Namely, is it better to allow someone to choose evil freely, or, through control make them be good? Anyone who reads the book will quickly get on which side of this debate Burgess sides – namely that by controlling Alex the government turns him into a ‘clockwork’ orange, something still beautiful, yet now no longer free.

The film, I feel, really understands the questions that Burgess was trying to explore – the issues of society and youth. On top of this things like control, freedom and power and how these things are used and abused by governments, religion and psychiatry. If you have never seen the film or read the book I really hope that you’ve been persuaded to seek them out and give them a watch or a read. The issues that they raise are still as prescient as ever and whilst the dystopia setting is still thankfully way off these are things that society is still talking about here and now. And if there is a better argument for reading this than that, I can’t think of it…

Think I’m wrong? Think I’m right and want to agree with me? Then join in the conversation in the comments or find me on Twitter.

Next week will be the end of Classics Month so I had better pick something that EVERYONE agrees on…