The subject of much malign from public decency campaigners following its release in 1962, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange retains its ultra-violent impact even in today’s less innocent age. Both the book by Burgess and the 1971 film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick have been criticised for their representations of rape, murder and other extreme anti-social behaviour. While each follows essentially the same narrative structure, a discrepancy exists in the impact of violence and the ages of the characters. In the novel many characters are little more than teenagers, with the protagonist being only 16-years-old, while in Kubrick’s film the characters are in their early twenties.
Particular scenes, such as the violent brawl between Alex’s and Billy Boy’s droogs, appear in both film and novel; however the manner in which they appear differs so as not to run afoul of public sensibilities. But it is other scenes, in particular the rape of a young girl “not more than ten”, which earn A Clockwork Orange its reputation as a book filled with unlikable characters living in an unpleasant world. Both the novel and film were created during the long post-war boom, but they envisaged a semi-dystopic future when the good times were long gone. Little did Kubrick know that in a mere two years there would be a worldwide recession, coupled with stagflation and persistently high unemployment well into the late 1970s.
The issue of what makes appropriate subject matter for works of fiction was raised late last year by literature teacher Christopher Bantick in his The Age opinion piece, ‘Sex with a child is not the stuff of the school curriculum’. After it was included as a VCE literature text, Bantick took issue with the depiction of child sex in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the
Time of Cholera, seeing it as condoning “illegality and values that imply that sex with a child is acceptable.” But as A Clockwork Orange amply demonstrates, the depiction of crime or immorality in a work of fiction does not imply endorsement – Alex’s indulgence in a bit of the old ultra-violence does not make such acts acceptable, and we are never lead to feel that such behaviour is OK. Bantick’s view, taken to an extreme, reflects the views expressed by Wayne LaPierre, the executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association. Speaking in the wake of the school shooting which left 26 dead in Newtown, Connecticut, LaPierre blamed violence in films, video games and music for gun massacres and violence.
This moral panic mirrors that which followed the release of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange in 1971.The film was censored in America, withdrawn in Britain, and blamed for the murder of a homeless man – reminiscent of a scene in both film and book – by a 16-year-old boy in Oxfordshire, England. While Bantick is right to suggest young people are impressionable, Burgess holds that freedom of choice is central to his novel – the freedom to do good or evil that lies in all of us. To say that films or books that contain characters or content expressing anti-social themes should not be read –
or studied – represents a moralism more at home in previous centuries, and denies the freedom of choice central to a modern, secular society.
Image ©Warner Bros. Pictures 1971