By Holly Chen

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The Cockney phrase "queer as a clockwork orange" may resonate with those familiar with Anthony Burgess' dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange. Burgess based his novel's title on the East London slang, merging the organic sweetness of an orange and the cold, mechanical nature of clockwork to form the oxymoronic expression. An appropriate choice, given that the novel tackles the conflict between an individual's freedom of choice and state-imposed order. In A Clockwork Orange, Alex, a teenage delinquent, leads a life of ‘ultra-violence’ and regularly prowls the streets alongside his gang as they hunt down unsuspecting victims to rob, rape and murder. After being thrown into prison for murder, Alex is given an inhumane treatment known as the Ludovico Technique, which renders him unable to entertain violent thoughts and effectively robs him of his free will.

Burgess' argument appears to be concisely summed up by the prison chaplain's question: "Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some ways better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?" The implication here is that it is preferable to commit evil by one’s free will than to adopt moral behaviour as a result of external force and a lack of ability to choose. One may then infer that Burgess intends for the reader to sympathise with Alex when he loses his freedom of choice and regard the government, who imposes this treatment upon Alex, as evil and in the wrong. While some readers and critics find themselves inclined to sympathise with the sociopathic anti-hero who, "Is only exercising his freedom to choose," readers such as myself find that, while A Clockwork Orange is undeniably riveting and effectively conveys the devastating loss of free will, Burgess may not have offered the most convincing portrayal of importance of this human right.

To begin with, Alex is portrayed as a heartless, sociopathic criminal and the first part of the novel describes in horrifying detail the violent crimes that he commits with his gang. The gang beats up, rapes and murders people in the streets and their houses, even turning against each other at one point. Their acts are fleshed out in full and unnecessarily blunt detail, an instance of this occurring when Alex, “Slit right down the front of one of Billyboy's droog's platties," after which his victim, “Opened up like a peapod, with his belly bare and his poor old yarbles showing," and, "Went tottering off and howling his heart out." Readers and critics alike find A Clockwork Orange's gory, violent descriptions repulsive and even Burgess himself claimed that the novel's content, "Nauseated," him. Having witnessed Alex's crimes played out in every gruesome detail, I find it difficult to imagine that anyone possessing human emotions could possibly sympathise with this heinous criminal. Readers are likely relieved when Alex is finally imprisoned, and even the shocking cruelty of the Ludovico Technique is unlikely to hypnotise readers into instantly sympathising with him. While Burgess offers a successful portrayal of the Ludovico Technique as unnecessarily inhumane, readers are more likely to walk away condemning both imposed order as well as free will.

The film’s iconic opening

The film’s iconic opening

With regards to this aspect, Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange appears to be more effective. Without straying from Burgess' central message and general plot, Kubrick diminishes Alex's crimes in the film. In the book, Alex brings two young girls to his apartment and, "Gave these ten-year-young devotchkas a real horrorshow Scotchman apiece," until, "They were both very very drunken and could hardly feel very much," as he rapes them. In Kubrick's adaptation, Alex engages in consensual sex with two teenage girls not much younger than himself. In Burgess' novel, Alex attacks an elderly man returning from the library; in Kubrick's version, this victim is a drunken man. While both versions depict Alex as a violent criminal, Kubrick's film adaptation seems to dim down his ‘ultra-violence’, providing the audience with a greater likelihood of sympathising with Alex later along the plot. In contrast, the novel portrays Alex as a rampant killing machine that needs to be forcibly restrained and perhaps even deserves the Ludovico Technique.

The idea that Alex may deserve the Ludovico Technique, which appears to be the only thing that may serve as a form of restraint, is reinforced in the novel, where he willingly volunteers for the treatment, whereas it is assigned to him in Kubrick's film. Despite Alex not having anticipated the treatment's drastic effects, this is a significant instance of comparison. While Alex in the novel ironically chooses to receive the treatment that destroys his freedom of choice in order to leave prison early, in the film he does not have a say in the matter, which makes the Ludovico Technique seem more forced and Alex more helpless with regards to his own fate. Perhaps unintentionally, Burgess suggests that Alex requires and deserves the Ludovico Technique, whereas Kubrick's depiction shows Alex as more mistreated than justly punished.

Perhaps the most sardonic section of the novel is its ending. The final chapter, which is the twenty-first chapter of the novel – Burgess has intended this as a nod to the age of 21, a legal milestone of maturity – shows Alex as turning over a new leaf and leaving his violent behaviour in the past. However, this final chapter was omitted by Burgess' publisher in New York who insisted that the American audience would not accept the twenty-first chapter. Kubrick, not having read the later version that included the final chapter, ends his film with the events of the novel's twentieth chapter, in which Alex finds himself cured of the effects of the Ludovico Technique and gleefully envisions a future of recreational violence. After the dark, ominous note upon which this chapter ends, it is not surprising that many publishers deem Alex turning over a new leaf and entirely changing the course of his life by the twenty-first chapter to be unconvincing and rather inconsistent with the rest of the novel. By depicting Alex as resuming a life of ‘ultra-violence’ after the treatment wears off, Kubrick emphasises the useless and unnecessary nature of the Ludovico Technique. Given Burgess' primary intention to convey the wrongfulness and immorality of imposed goodness through that of the Ludovico Technique, Kubrick may have established this message more convincingly through his film adaptation.

After the effect of the Ludovico Technique wears off, it is heavily foreshadowed that Alex continues to engage in ‘ultra-violence’. While there is undoubtedly a sense of victory and triumph – fittingly accompanied by Beethoven’s majestic Ninth Symphony – when Alex realises that his free will has been restored, there is an accompanying scepticism within the reader as Alex resumes his life of crime. Surely, we should not be celebrating the return of violence, even if it means the restoration of free will?