Writing, Reviewing and Criticism In The Internet Age

Tag: Clockwork Orange

Classics Month III, or, Contentiously Classical?


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…



Punching is manly, or, ‘Imaginary friends often lead to huge explosions.’


After last weeks dose of book/film joy, which was, without too much generalisation,  pretty much universally aimed at women I decided to focus this week on something different. Something slightly more masculine. Something involving violence, punching, madness, explosions, Meatloaf, and Brad Pitt in some jeans. This long list of requirements left me feeling a little desperate, there would be no way I could possible find a film that was a book that met all of these criteria. Oh, wait a second…

Fight Club y’all….

Again, I feel I should hold my hands up and admit my own vested interest. I adore this film. It is far from perfect but David Fincher’s 1999 film has been one of my personal favourites ever since I first watched it and the more I found out about it the more I loved it. It is one of the most talked about, analysed and debated films in a very long time, so here I’m going to way in with my two cents worth.

The film stars Edward Norton as a nameless white-collar worker who is bored out of his mind by the existential malaise of the modern age and suffering from crippling insomnia, he begins by going to support groups for those with terminal illness and he finds that going enables him to sleep. On one of his travels around the country he meets the charismatic Tyler Durden and the two of them found Fight Club – a place for the men of this bored and disconnected generation to beat the hell out of each other.  As the film goes on Norton’s character begins to spiral downwards into Tyler’s world, culminating in the launch of Project Mayhem; Tyler’s project to destroy the modern world.

There is also a sub-plot with Helena Bonham-Carter as Marla, a loner that Norton runs into in one of his support groups, like him she’s also  looking for something and the two of them become closer and closer. Having done some reading into this, I found that Fincher wanted to make a coming of age film; he personally compared Fight Club to The Graduate, and whilst the two couldn’t be more different in terms of style and content the comparison does make a weird kind of sense.

Personally though I think that comparison misses something of Fight Club’s philosophical leanings. The ideology of Fight Club is incredibly bleak, unremittingly nihilistic and utterly contemptuous of modern capitalist society. For many people this is where their own personal dislike of Fight Club comes from, it seems to take away any and all hope of redemption for Edward Norton’s character. what this misses, is of course, that is exactly the point – for in Fight Club, we’re all trapped in one way or another.

Before I get too abstract then, lets focus in on the details of the film. Edward Norton is simply fantastic; all gaunt eyed despair and slowly disintegrating physicality. He manages to convey so well the emotional sterility of modern life and the sheer panic when Tyler’s true plans become clear to him. It may be a little cliché to say so, but I really do struggle to think of a film where he’s been as good, (as much as I love American History X I lean towards his performance here as slightly better in terms of emotional restraint and subtlety) In short, he carries this movie, amidst all the insanity we as viewers can still connect with the film.

Talking about crazy leads me quite nicely onto Mr Brad Pitt. Tyler Durden is possible one of the most charismatic creations in modern cinema; a swaggering ball of testosterone that every man wishes he had the balls to be – someone who truly doesn’t care about things like money, success, the opinion of your peers or your boss at the job you hate. Now, a lot has already been written about how Fight Club ‘touched a nerve in the male psyche that was debated around the world’ and much of the reason why rests on Brad Pitt’s performance – brilliant, violent and compelling to watch, his performance in this film is proof positive that Brad Pitt is a true cinematic star.

Interestingly the critical reception at the time of the film’s release was decidedly mixed – whilst many critics loved it, those that didn’t hated the film. People feared that it would lead to copycat Fight Clubs being set up; in many cases it was compared to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange in the way that it glamorized violent behaviour. Now, whilst I can roll my eyes at the lack of moral intelligence that 30 years of cinema has foisted upon its critics, I do understand the point of view. Why? Because I just finished reading some Chuck Palahniuk….and let me just say that some of it, really isn’t for the faint of heart.

Fight Club is probably one of his more accessible book, and yes, that is saying a lot. Though it is dark and highly disturbing in places, just as the film it is easy and engaging to read. This was the book that pushed him into stratospheric  levels of fame; starting a short story Palahniuk claimed that he wanted to write The Great Gatsby, just updated. A story that was apostolic, one where the surviving apostle tells the story of the dead hero and in a twisted kind of way that really does work. So, enough flirting with the question is this a good adaptation?


But, I’m not sure which is better out of the book or the film and at the moment; I’m sort of leaning towards the film. Let me get the obvious caveats out-of-the-way; I am well aware that comparing two different mediums and trying to come to any sort of objective judgement about which one is better is not really possible to do completely fairly so before you all get all sarcastic with me in the comments section I do have my reasons. Firstly, this isn’t Palahniuk’s first novel – that was the really quite good Invisible Monsters. So, publisher after publisher turned it down as being tom dark and disturbing and so Palahniuk decided to focus on a seven page short story he was writing for a compilation called Pursuit of Happiness. It was published and then expanded to full novel length and then re-published as Fight Club.

Without getting too mean then, this is why I think I prefer the film. In the book, you can’t see the scars. If you read the book, as talented a writer as Palahniuk is, it is possible to see the short story. Chapter six is by far the best bit of the novel, neat, contained just as every good short story should be. The novel feels a little stretched in places, something that has been spun out to fill the space. The film on the other hand, works as a cohesive whole – everything is slick, well designed and faithful to the original source material.  I know its rare for me to side with the film against the book but it isn’t by much, and without one there wouldn’t be the other. Where both succeed though is in the purpose that Palahnuik had for writing it. To quote the man himself…

‘..bookstores were full of books like The Joy Luck Club and The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and How to Make an American Quilt. These were all novels that presented a social model for women to be together. But there was no novel that presented a new social model for men to share their lives…’

One only has to look around at modern culture to see the effect that Fight Club has had. People have been arrested over it, loved it, hated it, read it and watched it. And they always will I think. It’s become part of the societal landscape and made it OK for men to admit they often felt  lost in this world they had forged. So job done Chuck, good work.

I feel a little strange saying a film adaptation is better than its source…Looks like I’m back to splitting hairs again…Ah well..

If you agree, disagree or think I’ve missed the point entirely, don’t worry. The first rule of the great and the good is talk about it. That’s what the comments section is for.