The International Anthony Burgess Foundation

A Clockwork Orange on Film

In 1965, the artist Andy Warhol filmed an adaptation of A Clockwork Orange that prefigured Stanley Kubrick’s more famous film by seven years, though outside of a cult audience, it is little seen. Warhol’s film Vinyl is such a loose adaptation of the source novel that even people who have seen it should be forgiven for not realising that it is built on Burgess’s literary scaffold. The film is presented as a series of images of brutality, beatings, torture and masochism all performed by a group of men under the gaze of a glamorous woman. In its preoccupations with pornography and violence, it bears many of the oblique hallmarks of Warhol’s work, along with a familiar cast of Factory regulars such as Gerard Malanga, Edie Sedgwick and Ondine. The finished film is disturbing, contains unsimulated violent acts and is not very audience-friendly.

There is a persistent rumour that Warhol bought the film rights of the novel for $3000, yet there is no record of this transaction and Burgess’s later contract with the producers of Kubrick’s version gives them sole and exclusive film rights. It is very likely that A Clockwork Orange was passed around the Factory, and Warhol, along with the writer Ronald Tavel, produced a piratical film adaptation after being inspired by the thematic connections between Burgess’s novel and his own work.

It would take Stanley Kubrick to legitimately bring the novel to the big screen, and a wider audience. However, there were other previous attempts to film the novel. Screenplays were written by novelist Terry Southern and Burgess himself, while both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were slated to appear as droogs at various points in the development. The director Nicolas Roeg (whose films include Performance, The Man Who Fell to Earth and Don’t Look Now) was set to film Burgess’s version of the script, but for unknown reasons this production fell apart and the producers approached Kubrick to make his own version.

Kubrick first got hold of A Clockwork Orange in 1969 from Terry Southern, who had written some dialogue for Doctor Strangelove. After the mid-1960s there was a new fashion for ‘X-rated’ films containing scenes of sex and violence, and films that depicted juvenile, thrill-seeking gangs. The box-office success of films such as Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) reflected a changing public appetite for dark and violent films. By early 1970, Kubrick had filmed Spartacus (1960), Lolita (1962), Dr Strangelove (1964) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In short, when he decided to adapt A Clockwork Orange he was in the middle of a hugely successful period. He began work on a script in 1970, drawing heavily on Burgess’s original Nadsat dialogue. The film was shot on location in and around London, and it cost approximately $2 million to produce. It was released in New York in December 1971 and in London a month later, easily recouping Warner Brothers’ original investment by grossing around $40 million worldwide.

Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is as artful dark comedy of violence, and Malcolm McDowell’s bravura performance as Alex lives large in the collective imagination; but the dazzling colours and fast-paced nature of the film did not appeal to everyone. Pauline Kael of The New Yorker described her unease at the ‘gloating close-ups, bright, hard-edge, third-degree lighting, and abnormally loud voices’, but it is arguably a film designed to disturb its audience. In his film, Kubrick encouraged viewers to imagine the garish effects, fillying and tolchocking, and dizzying camera work as a form of dream — a manifestation of the repressed desires and primitive urges that lurk in the minds of all humans. He observed:

‘There may be an argument in support of saying that any kind of violence in films, in fact, serves a useful social purpose by allowing people a means of vicariously freeing themselves from the pent up, aggressive emotions which are better expressed in dreams, or in the dreamlike state of watching a film’.

Despite Kubrick’s artistic intentions, the film depicts the violent scenes with brutality, and it rapidly attracted controversy, with typical headlines including ‘Coming Shortly, a Film for None of the Family’, ‘What Good Can This Film Possibly Do?’, and ‘Garbage Disguised as Art is Still Garbage’. Tabloid journalists claimed that the film had been responsible for a number of ‘copycat’ crimes including home invasions, rapes, street beatings and murder. Headlines such as ‘Hunt for Clockwork Orange Sex Gang’ began to appear in the press during the 1970s.

Burgess reviewed the film enthusiastically on its release in The Listener, and he established a friendly creative relationship with Kubrick after the film’s release. The director asked Burgess to write the screenplay for a film about the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, a project that was never filmed, although Burgess used this collaborative relationship as a spur to write his novel Napoleon Symphony (1974). However, even all these years later, the project is not wholly dead. In 2013 Steven Spielberg announced plans to convert Kubrick’s work into a mini-series. It is unknown if any of Burgess’s contribution will be used.

While Burgess and Kubrick had a friendly and productive relationship, Burgess was infuriated by the publication of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, an illustrated version of the screenplay. Burgess viewed this as an appropriation of his work and reviewed the book unfavourably in Nadsat. During this time, he also became frustrated at journalists who ignored his other novels and asked him to defend the film in the place of the reclusive Kubrick, who left Burgess and McDowell to do all of the press work.

Because of the media controversy surrounding the film – and allegedly due to death threats made against his family – Kubrick instructed Warner Brothers to ban all screenings of the film in the UK. The film remained out of circulation from 1976 until Kubrick’s death in 1999, further adding to its cult appeal and causing fans to seek out bootleg VHS copies from abroad. Since the films official re-release, no further violent incidents have been reported.