”Being the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven.”
For a movie marking five decades since its original release in the UK, A Clockwork Orange is perhaps truly notable for the distinction that it has actually been out of official circulation within the country for more than half that period. It took the death of the movie’s director for it to finally re-emerge, with it eventually returning to cinemas over here at the dawn of a new century.
Its path from print to the big screen in the first place, whilst not as torturous, was quite challenging in its own way. What is now seen as an intrinsic part of Stanley Kubrick’s oeuvre may not have even come to pass, had events taken a rather different turn. In fact, Kubrick’s movie was not even the first cinematic adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 work – that honour fell to artist Andy Warhol, who reportedly paid some $3,000 for the film rights (although this claim is disputed), releasing an experimental feature in 1965, under the name of Vinyl.
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Whilst not being 100% faithful to Burgess’ book, it followed the overall shape of the story, with its lead – Victor (instead of Burgess’ Alex) – spending his time being engaged in acts of violence. After being betrayed by one of his gang, Victor is arrested by the Police and given the choice of either going to jail, or undergoing a radical treatment which will enable him to be released back into society. The monochrome art house piece, whilst never intended for mainstream release, helped to demonstrate that Burgess’ tome could be translated into a motion picture.
The first attempt to make the novel into a Hollywood studio picture was down to Terry Southern, a writer who worked on the screenplay for Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove; Southern was later immortalised as one of the photo collage ensemble on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was his fascination with A Clockwork Orange which resulted in Southern paying the sum of $1,000 for an option on the film rights in spring of 1966. Working with British photographer Michael Cooper, a screenplay was completed by that August, with the hope of shooting the following year for Paramount Pictures, and David Hemmings being tipped as Alex.
The efforts to get this version off the ground were, however, to founder after the script by Southern and Cooper was sent to the BBFC in May 1967; based on the content of the script as submitted, the BBFC advised they were unlikely to allow for a finished film to be passed for release; Paramount was to subsequently withdraw from the project. However, a change in attitudes at the BBFC, along with the 1968 introduction of the new MPAA film classification system in America, meant more graphic material could be allowed; as a result, a film of A Clockwork Orange now seemed more likely.
A letter was sent to Southern in 1968, signed by The Beatles, Marianne Faithfull, Peter Blake, and a series of other 1960s pop culture figures, arguing the case that Mick Jagger should be cast as Alex, with a notion his Rolling Stones bandmates would get to play his Droogs. Southern’s business partner, Si Litvinoff, even wrote to director John Schlesinger, trying to get him interested in the project by claiming Jagger would be the lead, and music for the feature was to be provided by The Beatles (who, in other rumours, were in the frame to take on the roles of the Droogs, instead of the Stones).
Litvinoff also reportedly shopped the project to a number of potential directors, which included Roman Polanski, Tinto Brass, John Boorman, Ken Russell, Ted Kotcheff and Richard Lester; Nicolas Roeg was attached as director in 1969, after Litvinoff had engaged Burgess to adapt his own novel for the screen. Roeg’s involvement was to be short-lived, as he was to be informed that Stanley Kubrick had become interested in helming the project; however, Litvinoff went on to act as producer on Roeg’s next feature film – Walkabout – which was made after Roeg’s departure from A Clockwork Orange.
Southern had actually sent Kubrick a copy of Burgess’ novel during the production of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it was when Kubrick’s efforts to make his Napoleon biopic faltered that his interest in the project increased. Kubrick rejected all of the previously proposed screenplays, putting together his own take on Burgess’ work, playing up the elements of dark comedy and satire, as well as leaving enough ambiguity for the audience to come away with their own conclusions about what they had just seen in Kubrick’s hyper-stylised feature, with the heady mixture of sex and violence accompanied by Wendy Carlos’ electronic renditions of classical pieces.
The rest, as they say, is history. Or, perhaps more accurately in the case of A Clockwork Orange, histrionics. The movie’s reputation has largely been enhanced by the furore arising in the UK following its release, which involved the kind of moral panic so beloved of certain parts of society, such as the mass media. Self-appointed arbiter of the public good – and long time professional outrage monger – Mary Whitehouse was mobilising her National Viewers And Listeners Association to speak out against the content of the film, seeing it as part of her crusade against what she felt was a steady decline of the nation’s moral fibre.
Whitehouse had previously attempted to stop production of the BBC’s one-off 1968 play The Year Of The Sex Olympics, which had some similarities with Burgess’ work, including a futuristic society in a downward spiral of declining morality, and a whole new lexicon of its own. The liberalisation seen in society during the course of the 1960s was being reflected in television, cinema, music, and literature; at the beginning of the decade, publication of an unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in Britain resulted in a famous trial under a recent obscenity law.
Lawrence’s work was unavailable in full for more than three decades, and while Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange ended up out of circulation within the UK for almost as long, not even an edited version was available for consumption here. Why this should have happened is a complex matter, with a range of contributory factors coming into play. Timing was one of these elements, as A Clockwork Orange was released hot on the heels of a number of other features which had tested the limits of the brand new motion picture censorship regimes on both sides of the Atlantic.
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1971 had seen more explicit and graphic material released, such as Ken Russell’s The Devils and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, which had courted controversy; it was natural, then, that A Clockwork Orange would find itself in the firing line on similar grounds, along with accusations it was glorifying violence and sexual assault. Debate became more heated in light of claims being made that the movie was inspiring the perpetration of ‘copycat’ crimes around the country, with its name being connected with such acts.
There seems to be something of a ‘chicken and egg’ scenario when it comes to the argument over whether the depiction of sex and violence has any influence upon the audience, or if it makes no real, measurable impact at all. Every generation seems to have its own public outcry over something, such as fears over the effects of rock & roll had upon youth culture; comic books went through scrutiny due to concern over the imagined sway it was felt they supposedly had over young, impressionable minds, as per Dr. Frederic Wertham’s 1954 study, Seduction Of The Innocent.
However, once headlines like “Hunt for Clockwork Orange Sex Gang” started to appear in newspapers, the media started to fuel the fire, sometimes making connections themselves on the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence, all in the interest of increasing their sales through sensationalism. A Clockwork Orange was to become something of a whipping boy, held up as an example of the deleterious effect which movies and TV had on our supposedly civilised society, which in turn stoked public ire, and resulted in consequences for the filmmaker in the firing line.
Kubrick and his family had begun to receive threats of harm, which – on top of the concerns which the director had about whether the movie was having any adverse impact following press reports of crimes citing A Clockwork Orange as being a factor – was to prove the final straw. In 1973, Kubrick asked Warner Brothers to remove A Clockwork Orange from general circulation in the UK (although an industry media report from January 1974 indicates the film was still playing in London as a limited engagement at that time).
When Warner Brothers made plans for a major international re-release of A Clockwork Orange in 1976, Kubrick wrote to the studio in the January of that year, asking for the UK to be excluded from the schedule, a request with which they were to comply. It was not a widely known fact that the movie was no longer to be made available in the country, until in 1979 a print was requested to screen at the National Film Theatre as part of a season showcasing Kubrick’s output, and the studio refused.
Kubrick’s actions do provide an interesting contrast with the views of the novel’s author, as in the same year Kubrick took steps to withdraw the film in the UK, Anthony Burgess went on record to say that he felt the movie adaptation had been “boring in places” and that it “should have been more violent”. However well-intentioned Kubrick – as a resident of the UK – may have been in trying to protect himself and his family, what he ultimately ended up doing was generating increased interest and fascination in the movie; making it unattainable turned it into ‘forbidden fruit’, giving it an allure and cachet it may not have otherwise achieved.
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Although A Clockwork Orange’s withdrawal did mean it was able to avoid the big ‘video nasty’ furore of the 1980s, it was still wrongly believed to be a ‘banned’ film due to its content, despite it having been certified for release, and in circulation at cinemas across the UK for a time. As it was still available in other territories, the huge desire to see A Clockwork Orange was to result in copies on VHS being sneaked back in through Customs illicitly from overseas jaunts; it would certainly add an extra little frisson to that overall experience of being able to finally watch it.
Not all attempts to bring the film to eager and deprived UK audiences were quite so successfully covert, and a case was brought by the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT) for breach of copyright, after a 1992 screening took place as a secret, unbilled feature at the Scala Cinema Club in London. While the action drove the Scala into bankruptcy, reopening later as a live music venue, it took legal advice in 1999 after Kubrick’s death, to see whether it could challenge the long-standing decision to withdraw the film, and be the first place to screen it legally again.
The allure of Kubrick’s production of A Clockwork Orange is perhaps best evidenced in its huge impact and influence on popular culture. For example, the perennial British Saturday teatime favourite Doctor Who was to do its own take on the controversial Ludovico Technique in the story ‘The Mind Of Evil’; although commissioned in mid-1970, and hitting our TV screens almost exactly a year before the movie’s release, there was no doubt one eye on the fact that a film was being made, and efforts taken to steal a march, using the theme of a controversial treatment for stripping prisoners of criminal or evil impulses, and – therefore – free will.
In 1973, an episode of The Goodies – ‘Invasion Of The Moon Creatures’ – included a parody of the feature film, entitled ‘A Transistorized Carrot’. The Glasgow Subway was to gain the nickname ‘Clockwork Orange’, due to the colour of the new trains introduced in 1979, after a modernisation scheme. It was also used as the title of a British security services plot – ‘Operation Clockwork Orange’ – which allegedly involved a series of smear campaigns against high profile Government ministers, including PM Harold Wilson.
The style of the Droogs was reflected in the French fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier’s 2009 autumn collection, and other fashionistas have similarly taken inspiration from the distinctive look featured in the film. Even The Simpsons has referenced the movie, with Bart depressing up as Malcolm McDowell’s Alex as a Halloween costume. Perhaps one of the most unlikely sightings in recent times was that of Alex and the Droogs turning up in 2021’s Space Jam: A New Legacy, a seeming indication of how inured our culture has become to what was once considered so shocking.
With Kubrick’s passing, A Clockwork Orange finally saw its UK re-release in March 2000, with its national TV premiere on Sky Box Office in July 2001. It seems remarkable to think that after being withheld for so long, we can now enjoy the film at our leisure, and in a 4K 50th anniversary set, no less. All of this seems like being such a far cry from when Home Secretary Reginald Maudling requested a private screening of the movie ahead of its 1972 release, prompting concerns about possible state censorship.
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Of course, Home Secretaries are perhaps wise to be wary of A Clockwork Orange, as the theme of the state‘s involvement in crime and punishment is still as potent now as it was then. Life can sometimes imitate art, such as in the 2008 case of a judge in Illinois offering to reduce a fine if the defendant was to listen to Beethoven for 20 hours, perhaps unintentionally echoing the Ludovico treatment for offenders. In that sense, it seems likely A Clockwork Orange will continue to generate discussion and debate about this, as well as the depictions of sexually explicit and violent material in mainstream media, for the next half-century and beyond.
Perhaps the only way to truly see whether all of this is just a load of great bolshy yarblockos is to pour yourself a glass of Moloko Plus and viddy for yourself if A Clockwork Orange is a real horrorshow after 50 years.
A Clockwork Orange was released in the UK on 13th January 1972.