A Clockwork Orange, the novel penned by the late English author Anthony Burgess, celebrates its 50th Anniversary this year. The book, which was rated 65th by the Modern Library on their 100 best English Language novels of the 20th century, deals with a youth experiencing growing pains living in a not too futuristic dystopian society.
The protagonist and antagonist, Alex DeLarge, is a youth gone wild, a madman in the making caught directly in the eye of a world gone anarchistic, where a government and society has splintered moral well-being which is negatively manifested by Alex’s gang, a bunch of rogues who are all disenchanted with their current world and ultimately satisfy their dissensions by their random acts of extreme sex and violence. After he is arrested for a murder, said government uses Alex as their guinea pig for an experiment they are undertaking, which tries to brainwash him to resist his urges for the darkness of his ways. Releasing him back into the world, they realize that it is not so much Alex who needed changing, but the disenfranchised, destroyed society that exists in the world of Burgess’ novel.
The book and its narrative was a source of controversy when released, which continues well into the 21st century. Burgess had since gone on to denounce the tome, exclaiming that for him, penning the book was a three-week lark, written mainly for a payday, and that many of its readers misunderstood the real gist of the story, instead glorifying its penchants for the sex and violence included within.
A theatrical adaptation by famed director Stanley Kubrick in 1971, (which became one of the biggest controversial and cult hits in cinema history) only strengthened the wrongheadedness opinion of the book, as that film too seemed to glorify and celebrate acts of sex and “ultra-violence” (a term used in the book). A little known fact is that Kubrick was not the first to adapt A Clockwork Orange for the big screen; artist Andy Warhol directed a black and white experimental film in 1965 entitled Vinyl, which was the first filmed adaptation of the novel.
The title of the book has also been a source of opinion for all these decades as well. Burgess had differing definitions for its profound moniker through the years, but they all seemed on par with the fact that it was a metaphor for (in Burgess’ words) “…an organic entity, full of juice and sweetness and agreeable odor, being turned into a mechanism.” A lot of the confusion might seem hinged on the fact that most people know of this story only by way of Kubrick’s film, which seems to put the character of Alex in a reversal of the Clockwork Orange definition; he starts off the film as a mechanized killing, violence-driven sex machine and then is attempted to be turned into the organic entity, with drastic results.
The book also contains the language of “Nadsat” which is a derivative of Russian and which the characters in the book often use. At once confusing and slang driven, key terms like “droog” (friend), “gulliver” (head), “malchick” (boy), “khorosho (horrorshow)” (good), “cutter” (money) have since become part of a slang lexicon, in large part due to Kubrick’s adaptation in the film. Other terms like “the old in-out in-out” (sexual intercourse) and of course “ultra-violence” (extreme violence) are a little bit more obvious in their nature and approach. Burgess explained that he used this terminology within the book’s pages so as not to date it. Later editions of the book had a key which gave explicit definitions for the “Nadsat” language. The first edition of the book did not include it, and thus the reader was forced to try and make logical conclusions when one read it. Later editions also included a “final chapter” which was not included in Kubrick’s film, in which the character of Alex grows up and eventually wants to settle down in life, disavowing his dark, sinister past urges within. The response to that final chapter has also been as divided as the controversy of the book itself.
Since its release (and especially Kubrick’s film), A Clockwork Orange has had a noteworthy place in popular culture. Burgess also penned a stage adaptation of his novel which has been performed in various places in the world and during various eras to mixed results. Most notorious was the 1990 production in London by the Royal Shakespeare Company which had a score composed by U2’s, Bono and The Edge, which Burgess was ultimately unhappy with and even led one critic to coin it “A Clockwork Lemon.” Musicians as diverse as The Ramones, David Bowie, Sepultura, Rob Zombie, Green Day, and Motley Crue as well as others, have all either penned original songs, or incorporated elements from Clockwork Orange styles into their musical repertoires.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the novel, a reissue is in the works of the original release. Regardless of opinion, and even Burgess’ eventual dismissal of the work, A Clockwork Orange is essential reading, especially for those who want to widen their perspective about it having only seen the Kubrick film adaptation. It remains a literary classic, one that’s real “horrorshow.”