What was once a dystopian novel by Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange, has become much more than just that. It all started when screenplay writer Terry Southern gave Stanley Kubrick a copy of the novel, but, busy with another incumbency, Kubrick put it aside. Although out of sight and out of mind for Kubrick, his wife decided to give the novel a read and insisted Kubrick do the same. It had an immediate impact on him.
Of his enthusiasm for it, Kubrick said, I was excited by everything about it: The plot, the ideas, the characters, and, of course, the language. The story functions, of course, on several levels: Political, sociological, philosophical, and, what’s most important, on a dreamlike psychological-symbolic level. ” Kubrick wrote a screenplay faithful to the novel, saying, “I think whatever Burgess had to say about the story was said in the book, but I did invent a few useful narrative ideas and reshape some of the scenes. (The Clockwork Controversy) Set in a near future English society that has a subculture of extreme youth violence, the novel’s protagonist and main character, Alex DeLarge, narrates his violent exploits and experiences as he rapes and pillages innocence throughout the city with the help of his “droogs” Georgie and Dim. However these escapades would soon come to an end after Alex’s droogs betray him and leave him to the authorities.
After being detained, Alex is convicted of murder and sentenced to 14 years in prison. A couple years later he is chosen by the prison chaplain to undergo an experimental behaviour-modification treatment called the Ludovico Technique in exchange for having the remainder of his sentence commuted. The technique is a form of aversion therapy in which Alex was to receive an injection that made him feel sick while watching graphically violent films, eventually conditioning him to suffer from nausea at the mere thought of violence. And this is where one of the major themes of this story comes into play; free will.
Very hard ethical questions are involved,” he [the prison chaplain] went on. “You are to be made into a good boy, 6655321. Never again will you have the desire to commit acts of violence or to offend in any way whatsoever against the State’s Peace. I hope you take all that in. I hope you are absolutely clear in your own mind about that. ” (A Clockwork Orange) The prison chaplain cautions Alex about how his fundamental nature will be changed by enrolling in the program.
Specifically, his desire to be violent will be abolished altogether, and he will not have the free will to choose actions that spring from a violent nature. A Clockwork Orange is the story of what happens when a person has his or her free will taken away. Alex is a dangerous and wicked criminal, and the idea of treating him so that he is no longer able to commit crime seems pretty reasonable. At the time of Burgess’s writing, operant conditioning was an exciting new idea, presented as a “technology of behavior” that could be used to solve many societal problems, including warfare, crime, and overpopulation. Skinner- Operant Conditioning) A Clockwork Orange warns against the use of such technology.
Not only does it depict Alex’s loss of free will through his inability to enjoy violence, sex, and unfortunately, Beethoven, but it is also made clear by the prison chaplain who accuses the state of stripping Alex of his free will. (A Clockwork Orange) Burgess believed that a person who has been conditioned to behave a certain way loses the God-given right to free will and becomes something like a machine, something as unnatural as a clockwork orange. It is true that after his treatment, the once violent Alex appears “good” to the outward eye. However, since he is not capable of moral choice, his “goodness” is hollow and insincere.
He is like a robot or wind-up toy who functions as his superiors’ desire. Now powerless to defend himself, the tables turn for Alex as he is served the same violence and exploitation he once dished out. Another theme that Kubrick makes very apparent through his characters is the necessity of evil. Kubrick suggests that dark impulses are fundamental in human nature and that human destructiveness and lust don’t go away with proper conditioning, except when that conditioning is so extreme that it makes us inhuman.
Alex is despicable because he gives free rein to his violent impulses, but that sense of freedom is also what makes him human. When the Ludovico Technique eliminates the evil aspects of his personality, he becomes less of a threat to society, but also, less human. He is not truly good because he didn’t choose to be good, and having the choice to be good or bad is part of being a human being. In my opinion Stanley Kubrick did an outstanding job at portraying one very important message: No matter how wicked a criminal may be, even more sinister is a government that can take away the free will of its citizens. Thought or behavior control, even when used seemingly for a good purpose (i.
e. lowering crime) is fundamentally wrong and could have terrible side effects for all parties involved.
A Clockwork Orange. Dir. Stanely Kubrick. Warner Brothers, 1971.
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