A Clockwork Orange Adaptation

A Clockwork Orange (film)

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This is an academic essay written for the Adaptation unit, one of the first units of the first year. This essay examines Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange and its subsequent adaptation to film by Stanley Kubrick.


Critically evaluate the claim that adaptations pay more attention to the restrictions of their medium than to the requirements of the source text.


Adaptations have been around since the birth of cinema, with film-makers taking influence from popular novels and adapting stories to the visual medium of film. As such there has always been great interest in the relationship between film and novels, with debates about issues of “fidelity” and what constitutes a “successful” adaptation being raised amongst academics, fans of the original texts and film-goers alike. Many ‘fans’ of the original source text may want to see a “faithful” adaptation of their favourite book, but what are the issues raised when a different medium such as film is used, with different restrictions and requirements? Do adaptations and their creators pay more attention to the restrictions of the medium or to the requirements of the source text? This essay explores this debate using Anthony Burgess’ novel ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1962) and Stanley Kubrick’s subsequent film adaptation (1972) of the same name as examples. Firstly, the restrictions of the differing mediums are to be viewed, and to what extent adaptations follow these. Secondly, the different approaches to adaptation are to be explored, linking to how the ‘requirements’ of the source text are viewed and to what extent these requirements are ‘adhered’ to.

The medium of film is far different to that of a novel, and hence has different “restrictions”: A study by Battestin (1967) (cited Friel 1976) states that:

“the rhetoric of the two art forms is fundamentally different: the arrangement of words in sequence is the business of the novelist, but the maker of the film deals in the arrangement of images”

Whilst this may seem self-explanatory, it highlights the fundamental differences between the two mediums and how they can have different restrictions. The novel deals purely in text, using words to create imagery in the reader’s mind and to tell the story, while the medium of film deals in “the arrangement of images” as stated, with the imagery ‘fleshed out’ on a screen rather than being mental imagery. The adapter of the novel utilises the novel for inspiration but must formulate their own way of telling the story by using images and sound that is not present in the novel, adhering to the restrictions of the chosen medium. Film utilises visuals and sound used in conjunction with techniques such as camera-work and editing procedures such as fade-outs to piece together scenes and set moods. Whilst this may not seem a restriction, and indeed great artistic license can be used with these differing techniques and procedures, it is nonetheless a requisite of the medium of film that these techniques are used. Other restrictions of the medium in question include conditions within the film industry:

“Conditions within the film industry… are a major determinant in shaping any film…[conditions] might include the effect of star personae,…or a director’s predilections or genre conventions” (McFarlane 1996, pg21)

This is another example of how films are affected by these restrictions. Time restrictions are a restrictive factor, as an audience can only watch a film for a certain period of time, whilst in comparison a novel can be read at leisure, to be picked up and put down at the reader’s wish. This can be restrictive in that some sections of the novel may be cut from the film adaptation due to running length. The high costs of producing a film also means that a large audience must be met in order to secure a profit. This could lead to certain risqué decisions being cut and the adapter trying to please a large audience at the same time. Whilst trying to remain faithful to the source text, the adapter often must try to appeal to an audience who have never read the original source text, which could have detrimental effects to those who wish to see a faithful rendition of the source text.

As stated, the adapter has to use differing techniques and procedures in order to tell the story. This can lead to difficulties, for example Burgess’s novel (1962) relies heavily on the use of language as a means of story-telling and scene-setting, with Alex and his companions using a form of futuristic slang-words such as “tolchock” and “droogs”. The novel deals heavily with issues of violence, and the language helps to disguise this but also in some form accentuate it, with Alex describing violence flippantly. As such, transposing to the medium of film could pose problems as it would not be disguised by language but would rather be portrayed through images and sound, with the danger of the film becoming too evidently violent. Clearly a further restriction of film, therefore, is the cultural contexts in which the film is released, having to abide somewhat to accepted cultural norms and values of the time for fear of restriction or censorship. Novels, however, are rarely censored and strong violence can be censored through the use of language. It is evident, therefore, that in adapting Burgess’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’, these restrictions of the medium of film were considered by Kubrick, as the violence in his film adaptation was similarly disguised in some form, for example the fight with Billyboy and his “droogs” was filmed almost theatrically, with comedic classical music playing over the top as the fight ensues with dramatic dives and rolls and breaking of chairs etc. In the novel, Alex and two of his companions have knives, and the violence whilst being masked by the language is still prominent, as Burgess writes: “blood poured in like red curtains”. In Kubrick’s film, however, Alex and his companions have staffs and chains, and no blood is shown during the fight. This shows how Kubrick was very aware of the restrictions of the medium and of cultural context. Too violent a film may not have been accepted, as films are very visual and may have been seen by some as inciting violence amongst viewers. Also, it may have detracted from the film’s moral and artistic aspects if the violence was too unfiltered. Burgess’s novel has many deeper meanings and explores issues morality and choice that would have been lost in the adaptation if the focus was mainly on the violent aspects. This is not to say, however, that Kubrick’s film does not portray the violence and darker aspects of the novel, but Kubrick does this whilst adhering to the restrictions of the medium. For example, his use of camera-work and the film’s pace does a lot to adhere to the novel’s aspects, whilst retaining the individuality of the medium of film- in other words, it is not entirely a straight transposition scene-by-scene. The opening of the film jumps from the Korova Milkbar and Alex’s narration to a scene where Alex and his three “droogs” attack a drunken homeless man with no apparent reason. This scene immediately jumps to the fight scene with Billyboy and his companions in a derelict casino (this is changed from a ‘Municipal Power Plant’ in the novel, possibly due to setting restrictions or ease of filming). The jump from an act of violence to another violent scene featuring attempted rape sets the tone for the whole film, and shows adequately how Alex and his companions commit violent acts with seemingly no remorse, purely for entertainment. In the novel, Alex describes the acts of “ultra-violence” flippantly and Kubrick’s film clearly shows this. Whilst the violence portrayed in the film is not as brutal as in the novel, Kubrick uses techniques to enhance the violence whilst also disguising it slightly. When Alex and his droogs break into the home of the author and his wife, you do not specifically see his wife being raped as the scene cuts to a later scene, but the viewer is clearly made aware of the outcome and is almost as disturbing as if the scene was actually filmed. This is an example of utilising the restrictions of the medium to adhere to the requirements of the source text, but also shows how the restrictions of the medium do not have to be detrimental and can be used effectively. It is through techniques like this that the restrictions of the medium can be explored to become it’s own entity whilst retaining the ‘requirements’ of the source text.

The beginning of Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1972) begins with haunting, almost industrial-style music with classical undertones, which clearly shows the films soundtrack to be influenced by Alex’s love of classical music in Burgess’s novel. An example of Kubrick taking inspiration from the source text. The beginning scene opens immediately with the camera focusing on Alex’s profile as he stares straight into the camera. This gives an impression that Alex is aware of the camera, and is the main focus from the start. As the shot slowly pans out firstly to show his three “droogs”and continues to pan out to show the ‘Korova Milkbar’, Alex begins his narration over the scene. This immediately sets the style for the film itself, with Alex as the main focus and narrator as he describes getting ready “for a bit of the old ultra-violence”. This is keeping with the novel’s opening, which begins with the focus on Alex narrating in the first-person: “There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim”. Kubrick utilises sound and camera-work to set out the scene, first opening with haunting music and then a slow pan away from Alex’s profile to show the bar. The difference, of course, is that with the medium of the novel, information is built up slowly as ‘images’ are layered upon each other in a linear fashion (Cite). The medium of a film is based on immediacy, even in one shot alone there is a multitude of different techniques and information for the viewer to take in at the same time, including music, sound, images, camera-work, voice-overs etc. Kubrick limits this by first introducing the music, then slowly introducing the scene using panning. In this respect he is controlling which information the viewer takes in at one time, but also keeps with the novels opening, which begins with Alex’s first-person narration building mental imagery, first of Alex and his droogs and then subsequently the Milkbar. This is an example of Kubrick following the restrictions of the medium by utilising sound, visuals and editing, whilst also adhering to the ‘requirements’ of the source text by complementing the opening of the novel in a visually-based format.

The issue of the “requirements” of the source text also impacts on adaptations. Readers of a pre-existing novel such as Anthony Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1962) will have their own mental imagery associated with the novel, their own interpretation of the events. Brian McFarlane (1996) writes that readers are “constantly creating their own mental images of the world of a novel and its people”, showing that the text-based novel inspires mental imagery in the individual. While the author lays out descriptive words and imagery in text-form, it is the individual who creates the imagery in their mind. It also shows how the adaptation of a novel into a film is always of interest to the reader, for it can be argued that there is an intrinsic interest on behalf of the reader in seeing their mental imagery ‘fleshed out’ on the screen, as McFarlane (1996) continues: “they are interested in comparing their images with those created by the film-maker”. Evidently it is clear that no film-maker can portray perfectly the unique mental imagery that each individual has formulated from their experience of the novel, and this is where the issue of ‘fidelity’ arises, and that of the discussion of the ‘requirements’ of the source text. The issue is centred on what the interpretations of the ‘requirements’ of the source text are. However, there are multiple directions an adaptation can take, and how strictly the adaptation adheres to the debated ‘requirements’ are a decision to be taken by the adapter. Geoffrey Wagner (1975) (cited Leitch 2007, pg 93) denoted three approaches to the “transition of fiction into film”: transposition, “in which a novel is given directly to the screen, with a minimum of apparent interference”; commentary, “in which an original is taken and either purposely or inadvertently altered in some respect”; and analogy, “a fairly considerable departure for the sake of making another work of art”. The variety of approaches noted above clearly shows the different directions and adaptation can take, therefore showing that whilst adhering to the medium’s restrictions, an adaptation does not necessarily have to follow the source’s requirements completely. They are all based to some degree on the requirements of the source text; the original as inspiration; a ‘faithful’ adaptation cannot be created unless the text’s requirements are duplicated, just as an ‘analogy’ cannot be made unless the fundamental requirements are noted as inspiration or distorted to make a new text. However the requirements, or key aspects of a source text, are decided upon by the individual reader and the adapter; the central themes and subtle nuances of a text are created by the individual experiencing the source text, and as such are subject to debate and interpretation. When adapting, these requirements are decided upon by the adapter, which could be the director or screenplay writer, who decides how strictly these are to be followed or discarded. Kubrick (cited Ciment et al. 2003, pg151) himself stated in an interview that he:

“…tried to find something like a cinematic equivalent of Burgess’s literary style… But the style of any film has to do more with intuition than analysis”

This shows for Kubrick, Burgess’s novel and its requirements were an inspiration but that the film had “more to do with intuition” and of course abiding by the restrictions of the medium. Kubrick was both director and screenplay writer of the film, hence he had creative control over the process. As such he was able to take what, in his opinion, were the main requirements of the novel, and transfer it to film:

“…my principal interest in A Clockwork Orange wasn’t the language, however brilliant it was, but rather, the story, the characters, and the ideas” (Kubrick cited Ciment et. Al p156)

This is a clear example of how, for Kubrick, language was not his “principal interest” and instead he chose to focus on other “requirements” for the adaptation. This shows that adaptations can be successful without transposing a source text’s requirements completely. Clayton (2007) explains how:

“I believe most film-makers consciously or unconsciously draw on a variety of literary,

visual and musical sources beyond the overt source-text” (p129)

As a film is built up using multiple sources as stated above and previously noted, it is clear therefore that outside influences must affect the adaptation when utilising the medium of film. This is in following with the medium’s restrictions and requisites, whilst the source text’s requirements may be utilised at the adapters discretion. This is also due to the fact that these “literary, visual and musical sources” that are a requisite of the medium are “beyond the overt source text”, meaning they must be sought from influences beyond the source.

Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1972) is a very successful adaptation and in many ways follows Burgess’s novel, replicating it’s main themes and settings and dialogue. However, it is also it’s own entity, with Kubrick writing his own script for it and changing ‘A Clockwork Orange’ to adhere to the restrictions of film, for example not using as much of the novel’s fictional language which may have confused those not familiar with the novel, and the toning-down or subtle disguising of the novel’s “ultra-violence”. The restrictions of the medium are followed whilst the requirements were open to Kubrick’s own opinions and decision. In conclusion, it is evident that adaptations must adhere to the inherent restrictions of the medium, but that the requirements of the source text are left open to interpretation. The direction the adaptation takes is left to the adapter, who decides upon the source text’s requirements and chooses how faithfully to transpose the source text to the medium of film. This gives a degree of choice to the adaptation and allows the source text to be used as inspiration, a commentary or a direct transposition (Wagner 1975). Therefore the requirements are a flexible aspect of the source text, constantly open to interpretation. However, the restrictions of the medium must be followed for the adaptation to be a success: cultural contexts, time restraints and high costs, for example, are all restrictive aspects of film-making, and must be followed due to the nature of film-making. Therefore it can be stated that adaptations pay more attention to the restrictions of the medium because of necessity, and the requirements of the source text and how much attention is paid to them is decided upon by the individual adapter.





Burgess, A., 2000. A Clockwork Orange. England: Penguin Classics

Ciment, M., Adair, G, Bononno, R., 2003. Kubrick: The Definitive Edition. New York: Faber and Faber Inc.

Clayton, S., 2007. Visual and performative elements in screen adaptation: A Film-Makers perspective, Journal of Media Practise, 8 (2)

Friel, Joseph C., 1976. Ustinov’s film Billy Budd, a study in the process of Adaptation: Novel to play, to film. Literature Film Quarterly, 4 (3), 271

Leitch, T.M., 2007. Film adaptation and its discontents. Annotated edition. JHU Press .

McFarlane, Brian, 1996. Novel to film: an introduction to the theory of adaptation.


One response to “A Clockwork Orange Adaptation

  1. In 2019, ‘Clockwork Orange’ reads as a screechingly obvious,
    FTM ‘Men are Pigs’ fantasy – – brought to us by INTEL RUN Hollywood.

    Young men ? — in derbys and cod pieces ?

    REALLY ?

    — – NOT

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