A Clockwork Orange (1971) is a movie which defies genre. There are people still struggling to label it. Anthony Burgess’ original novel was a dystopian fantasy at its most grim, daringly choosing an antagonistic protagonist – the sadistic “Alex” – to lead readers into some truly intense places. Stanley Kubrick, therefore, was perhaps the most ideal director for the job of bringing the story to the big screen. Whether or not he wanted to, as legend suggests, is another matter.
The film plants us firmly in a world which may or may not come to pass. The main characters, the Droogs, are charismatic and violence-happy thugs – and they live in a society where such behavior is, by and large, treated with intense courses of aversion therapy and literal eye-widening torture. What’s always been intriguing to me about Orange is that it offers horror from all angles.
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The anarchy Alex and his crew create, and how they go about it so gleefully is utterly sickening. However, the manner in which the state rehabilitates Alex (or at least tries to), goes beyond what many people would think to be fair retribution.
Famously, Kubrick himself banned the movie from being seen in the UK – which was only lifted once he passed away. Anyone who dared to screen the film would be met with a fairly nasty legal order to stop with immediate effect. The reason? It’s not so clear.
It had been reported that copycat crimes – those ‘inspired’ by the film – had taken place. Kubrick initially stood by his movie, stating that art alone wasn’t responsible for making people do horrible things. However, the director chose to backtrack on this and removed the movie from all public media. Christiane Kubrick, the director’s widow, would claim that death threats were to blame. We’ll likely never know the real reason why he pulled the reels.
The debate over whether or not art – movies, TV, video games, etc. – is enough to convince people to commit heinous crimes is one worth having another time. A debate worth having now is, have tastes changed to the extent where we’ve become ‘hardened’ to this sort of content?
A Clockwork Orange is complete fantasy. That’s very clear from the off. However, it is a masterpiece of storytelling. If a movie can make you feel genuine dread, grief, panic, and fear in the space of two hours, it may well have done its job.
Orange shouldn’t ever be watched lightly. It’s not a pleasant movie to sit back and enjoy in the background. Like all good art films, and adaptations of boundary-pushing books, it does just enough to get under your skin, and it really demands that you pay attention.
Here’s my opinion – while I understand that it’s a masterpiece on paper (or celluloid), it’s one I’ll never watch again. It’s blisteringly unsettling, and not in the same way that, say, The Thing or The Exorcist might be. The only people you really want to root for in this movie are the Droogs’ victims – unless, of course, you find Alex and his crew particularly charismatic. That’s possible – it’s phenomenally well-acted, and the story is pitched at such an angle that no sides in the battle are cleaner than clean. The criminals are violent and remorseless; the lawmakers are clinical and inhumane. As a viewer, you really don’t know what to do with yourself.
There have been plenty of big movies over the years which have pushed the boundaries of taste even further. TV, too. HBO’s Game of Thrones willingly adapted the sadism, violence, and despair offered up from George RR Martin’s novels and grew to amass a following of millions. These characters have action-figure lines, merchandising, a genuine cult following. It’s fantasy, after all – none of it is real in any sense – but have we become ‘hardened’ to this kind of content? Is it just a case of us having been easier to shock all those years ago?
While horror and science fiction have really upped the stakes over the years, the core of A Clockwork Orange is still intense and disturbing. This is because the story knows how to burrow under your skin, and it doesn’t shy away. You’re never sure whether you should be on Alex’s side or not. His gang is unrepentant in what they do, and yet, he is subjected to the most horrendous of rehabilitation techniques. In a moment where you’re probably normally supposed to feel justice has been done, you start falling down a deeper pit of discomfort.
Regardless of who ‘wins’ in this story, the viewer is left feeling pretty bleak. And that’s the whole point. Orange is a story about morality, and where those lines can be drawn. That’s why so many of us, me included, feel so conflicted, and so lost, when watching it. There isn’t any kind of redemption story. It’s intentionally unpleasant, and as such, it challenges plenty of our core beliefs. We’re forced to side with Alex – a deeply repugnant individual – by the climax of the film.
That’s why I feel A Clockwork Orange is still so unsettling, even to this day. While modern-day horror and fantasy might throw curveballs at us and the odd gory moment here and there, it takes a special kind of storytelling, directing, and level of acting, to create a real sense of dread. Orange is a movie which doesn’t ever celebrate the horrors it shows us. It gives us a glimpse into what people could be capable of – and why the morality line is always shifting.
The best stories hit us hard, and leave us reeling. A Clockwork Orange remains a film worth watching, if only for the discussion. Among all the grisliest horrors and most intense psychological thrillers, it’s still one of the most uncomfortable watches out there.
Photo: Screenshot of Malcolm McDowell, “A Clockwork Orange”