It’s Fall, which means one thing for me – it’s Stanley Kubrick season. Almost all of his films would work well on a cool, rainy night. And my go-to around this time of year is A Clockwork Orange. Upon every view my perspectives are challenged. And this year, I would like to present the following hypothesis: Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange is a commentary on a society created by the Beatles and the paradox that is John Lennon.
Before we dive deeper, here are some important facts to know about the book, A Clockwork Orange, written by Anthony Burgess in 1962:
• Burgess was inspired to write the book after returning to Britain to discover a youth uprising spreading across England – notably a spike in gangs, pop music, and violence.
• Burgess referred to the film as a curse to the book. He said:
“The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate: written a quarter of a century ago, a jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me till I die. I should not have written the book because of this danger of misinterpretation.”
• The book takes place in an unknown year in the future.
Here are some important facts to know about Kubrick as a filmmaker and storyteller:
• After 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick was working on a film about Napoleon. But he dropped the project after reading A Clockwork Orange. The film was released in 1972.
• Kubrick was a genius. His IQ was reported upwards of 180+, which puts him in the elite category of Leonardo Da Vinci, Einstein, and Hawking. He was a master chess player and a renowned photographer, and he treated his films as a combo of both: enigmatic, intentional, detail-driven, and methodical. (The documentary Room 237 explores the genius of Kubrick in greater detail through an exploration of The Shining).
• The bulk of his filmography is all loosely adapted from previous works of fiction. Most every Kubrick film used previous works (often a novel) as a foundation and inspiration, to which Kubrick (in my humble opinion) took and made much better. Earlier films – like Paths of Glory, Lolita, and Spartacus – pulled more heavily from its original source material, while later films – like The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut – took tremendous creative liberties. A Clockwork Orange, appropriately in the middle of his filmography career, falls somewhere in the middle of this ‘adaptation’ spectrum.
• Kubrick’s shoots were relentless. Some viewed his excessive number of takes as irrational, but for Kubrick, it was the pursuit of the perfect shot (after shot after shot). Eyes Wide Shut holds the Guinness World Record for the longest continuous film shoot at 400 days. Kubrick was creating so much more than just a film. He was creating an awareness, an experience, a (counter) culture, and a new standard for cinematic excellence. Safe to say, everything in his films are accounted for.
• Despite being born in New York, Kubrick lived in London for the better part of his life.
Setting the Stage
Alex DeLarge, the film’s protagonist and antagonist, was brilliantly played by Malcolm McDowell. But before McDowell was cast, and before Kubrick was signed on to direct, it was rumored that the Rolling Stone’s Mick Jagger wanted to play Alex, and the soundtrack to be created by the Beatles. I understand both why Warner Bros studios would have wanted both of those to happen, and I also understand why when Kubrick entered, this got nixed.
A Clockwork Orange is all about paradoxes, and Alex DeLarge exposes and represents the majority of them. For one, Alex’s morality is backwards. In the same night, he could go from raping an innocent woman to kissing his mother goodnight. In the same night, he could go from beating up a homeless man to listening to Ludwig Van Beethoven – perhaps the most high culture example of music ever. It’s all intentional on Burgess’ end: Alex links violence to romanticism, and from this, he and Alex exploit numerous paradoxes and hypocrisies in society (more about this in the BBC podcast Night Waves).
So both Jagger and the Beatles would have made perfect sense – not only would they create a box office success for Clockwork, it they would also be ironic and intentional choices to expose the paradoxes of the story. After all, these figures were directly and indirectly responsible for that counter-cultural British youth revolution in which Burgess was basing this very story on. So why didn’t this happen? Enter Kubrick…
Kubrick was all about using film as a means of creating a counter-culture of his own. This was the Kubrick model – take a popular or semi-popular story, and completely turn it on its head, challenging audiences to re-think what they know and re-envision what they see. Casting Jagger as Alex and having the Beatles compose the soundtrack would have been a distraction, or an obstacle, in bringing audiences to this intended Kubrick destination. No matter how famous or how good Kubrick was in the late ’60s – even after the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey – both he and his film would have been overshadowed by these two celebrities.
But that isn’t to say that Kubrick couldn’t capitalize on the successes that were created by the icons and their influences of the time. Specifically with the Beatles, there are too many coincidences to ignore. Let’s dive right in…
In 1969, the Beatles released Abbey Road. Just one year later, Abbey Road became the Beatles’ best selling album in the US. And at the center of this album is the enigmatic “Because.” Take a listen to both the openings of “Because” and the opening of A Clockwork Orange.
There is a ton of tonal overlapping happening here – sounds, pitches, instruments, and pauses between notes. But the most obvious overlap is in both of their source materials: Beethoven.
John Lennon had this to say about his inspiration for “Because”:
“I was lying on the sofa in our house, listening to Yoko play Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ on the piano. Suddenly, I said, ‘Can you play those chords backward?’ She did, and I wrote ‘Because’ around them. The song sounds like ‘Moonlight Sonata,’ too.”
Similarly, Beethoven’s music acts as the source of inspiration for the entire Clockwork soundtrack. Wendy Carlos composed the original scores based on Beethoven’s symphonies, based on Henry Purcell’s “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary,” and based on the works of other classic musicians.
Remember, before Kubrick, the Beatles were in talks to compose the film’s soundtrack. But as soon as he came on as director, he took over and hired Wendy Carlos to create the soundtrack. Walter Carlos (now Wendy Carlos) was almost the antithesis of the Beatles. In 1968, Carlos made a giant splash in the music scene by popularizing electronic music via the Moog synthesizer. In an article titled “The Burden of Faltering Genius,” author Mark S. Tucker writes of the release of Carlos’ groundbreaking album Switched-on Bach,
“For a few moments, the Beatles had a rival: Walter Carlos, who garnered attention not only from the expected rock world, which was as deep as it could then get into the use of synthesizers, but also from stodgy classicalist halls, going gaga over the album.”
Wendy Carlos had so much success with this new style, tone, and album that many bands, including the Beatles, quickly got influence from this style of music, notably George Harrison. Carlos, who was also a Beatles fan, would go on to create this electronic cover of “Eleanor Rigby.”
So why is this all relevant? It wasn’t that one was copying the other – it’s clear that both Carlos and the Beatles pulled inspiration from classical music separately. But, in my opinion, it is about the Beatles creating a reaction in Kubrick. Again, Kubrick was famous for being stubborn and completely set on creating a counter-culture of his own. He could have easily elected to have the Beatles create the soundtrack – after all, the studio wanted them and they had just released a wildly successful album using from inspiration from Beethoven.
In “An Examination of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange” from Creative Arts Television, cinema historian, William Everson, said, “… Kubrick is a man of great autonomy – nobody tells Kubrick what to do. He makes the films the way he wants to.”
Choosing Carlos was intentional. It was a major step in distancing his film from both the celebrity of the Beatles and from the vision of the studio. Additionally, it was another way that Kubrick could comment on the influences of the Beatles further…
A futuristic society?
The book is set in a futuristic British society, so many viewers automatically assume that the movie must be set in the future too. Here’s where the touch of Kubrick comes in; on another viewing, he actually modifies the setting to be taking place in the present – late ’60s/early 70s society. Here are 3 major hints to support this idea:
- The dates on the newspapers read 1970.
It’s difficult to see the dates in the screenshots below, but take my word for it – they’re dated 1970. And this wasn’t an oversight by Kubrick – there are no oversights by Kubrick. He had three newspapers specially created for this scene, with each story and its text written in full. If he wanted, he could have put August 2100, or some other futuristic date. But he intentionally chose to print 1970 on all three newspapers. But why?
2. If it was set in the future, why wouldn’t there be updated technology?
It’s not as if Kubrick didn’t know how to create technology in his films. After all, he just came off the groundbreaking 2001: A Space Odyssey. But present throughout the film are reminders of the modern day – the showcasing of vinyl records and the use of typewriters for starters. But why?
3. World War II
Alex’s internal and external worlds frequently reference World War II. In a video essay by Rob Ager, he provides a number of connections Kubrick makes to the European Union of the mid-20th century. Here are just a few examples, some of which are credited to Ager.
• Nazism. Kubrick drew parallels from the way he staged his scenes. I’ll let the imagery do the talking…
• The Holocaust. Before the 1970s, Holocaust education hadn’t entered the mainstream like today. Not many were talking about the Holocaust before the ’70s because so many didn’t know how. But in the early ’70s, it began to re-emerge in the collective psyche. There are some theories, again explored in the documentary Room 237, that suggest The Shining is about the Holocaust. I see many similarities with Clockwork as well.
• Fascism. Fascism was, in many ways, defeated when the Axis of Evil was defeated and WWII came to an end. Where at one point Alex was likened to a Nazi, here we see his evil being reformed through imagery of Nazism via the corrective treatment (called the Ludovico technique) – the amazing paradox of combating fire with fire. This is such an important motif, in fact, that early designers of the film’s poster considered including it in the promotional materials. But why?
When film critic Fred M. Hechinger actually criticized Kubrick for making a film that was a promotion of fascism, Kubrick responded with this statement:
“[The film] warrants against the new psychedelic fascism– the eye-popping, multimedia, quadrasonic, drug-orientated, conditioning of human beings by other beings, which many believe will usher in the forfeiture of human citizenship and the beginning of zombiedom.”
And with this, I believe we can answer our previously posed but whys. Kubrick set the film to the present day as a way of commenting on this new form of “fascism” that was sweeping the UK and US – one categorized by the eye-popping, multimedia, quadrasonic, drug-orientated conditioning of human beings. And the source of this all? The Beatles. The foursome of all foursomes that was causing young girls to lose their vocal chords and faint spontaneously. The foursome preaching free love, drugs, and rock & roll. The foursome that inspired adolescence to follow their passions, stand up to authority, and spark a revolution. The foursome that writer Anthony Burgess came home to, and the group that inspired the Clockwork story to unfold. Most of all, the foursome that was shaped, in the opinion of many, by the ultimate paradox of them all: Hypocrisy. And at the forefront of this hypocrisy was its fearless and powerful leader, John Lennon.
Hypocrisy As A Catalyst
Before we go any further, I’m not personally calling Lennon a hypocrite. I’m a Beatles fan to the core, so it would pain me to even put them in the same league as Alex and his droogs. I’m just posing relevant facts and occurrences to support a theory. What I hope to prove here are the large number of similarities between Alex DeLarge and John Lennon, and knowing this, Kubrick may have altered Alex’s character and leveraged the persona of Lennon to better relate both Alex and the film to audiences of the time.
“A Christian sermon” was how Malcolm McDowell categorized the film, and I think it’s a fitting quote to explore the first way Alex and Lennon parallel one another.
1) “The Beatles are more popular than Jesus.”
The ‘hypocrisy,’ in many people’s eyes, started here. In 1966, John Lennon made this infamous comment, which sparked outrage by many. Anti-Beatles demonstrations were sprouting up around the world, and it’s one of the main reasons the Beatles stopped performing live shows. In 1969, Lennon released the song, “The Ballad of John and Yoko” which featured the line, “Christ, you know it ain’t easy, You know how hard it can be, The way things are going, They’re gonna crucify me.”
In an interview in 1969, he doubled down on his Jesus comments when he called anti-Beatle protestors, “fascist Christians.”
Like Lennon, Alex DeLarge became a closely followed celebrity. When Alex was undergoing the corrective treatment, the whole world was watching in anticipation (newspaper headlines featured in previous section are about him). Throughout the film, there is this ongoing tension between fate and free will, and in a number of ways, it’s played out through another tension: religion vs. science. After undergoing the corrective treatment, Alex was brought out on a stage and analyzed by doctors. Was he cured of his evil? It surely seems so. And after the doctor’s convincing presentation of the magic of science, the audience arouses in applause, and the doctor says,
“He will be your true Christian… ready to be crucified.”
The public pushed a Christian agenda onto both Alex and Lennon. It was an image created in the minds of the public, upheld by the impossible standards of the public. This, in many ways, is what it means to be a modern celebrity. And Alex doesn’t handle it well (more about this in the next section). The weight leads him to attempt suicide toward the end of the film, and, ironically, the trauma of this attempt is what reverts him back to his pre-treatment ways of thinking.
Like with Alex, the societal tests were amounting for Lennon. And the way to overcome these tests depended on how quickly Lennon could take his own advice:
“Boy, you gotta carry that weight. Carry that weight a long time…” – Abbey Road
2) “Sexy Sadie”
Is there anything more hypocritical than when a hypocrite calls another person a hypocrite? In 1968, Lennon wrote “Sexy Sadie,” which was released on The White Album. The Beatles had returned from India where they experienced, as Kubrick might describe, a psychodelic, eye-popping, multimedia, quadrasonic, drug-orientated time. The Beatles had a spiritual enlightening with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, which went sour by the end of the trip when Lennon called him a fraud and a hypocrite. Much of this was a result of the Maharishi preaching abstinence, but then made an apparent pass at Mia Farrow. In a fit of anger, Lennon wrote “Sexy Sadie,” which originally featured these lyrics before the rest of the group insisted they be changed:
“Maharishi, you little tw-t/Who the f–k do you think you are?/Who the f–k do you think you are?/Oh, you c–t.”
At this point in the Beatles career, there was a lot of documented tension between John and Paul, and the cracks in the band were becoming larger. Additionally, drugs played an active role in their everyday lives, especially John’s, and some side effects, no doubt, were becoming exposed. (For one, 1968 was the year John left his wife, Cynthia, for Yoko Ono following heated domestic disputes which Cynthia credits drug intake).
With this song and these lyrics, John Lennon, the biggest musician in the world, is throwing a fit – and potentially harming the reputation of his entire group – for a claim about Maharashi that might not even be true. In The Love You Make: An Insider’s Story of The Beatles, authors Peter Brown and Steven Gaines reported on the others’ reactions to the incident, and posed a theory about its validity in the first place:
“One widely circulated and believed story incorrectly names Mia Farrow as the Maharashi’s correspondent. Individually the Beatles had predictable reactions to the Maharishi incident. Ringo was benign, Paul was smug in an I-told-you-so sort of way, and George remained a stubborn believer and determined follower. To this day George is one of the many convinced that Alex was lying and trying to slander the Maharashi in order to get John away from him. John had the strongest reaction of all; he felt duped.”
But who is Lennon to criticize anyone about sexual passes? Even after John met Yoko, the supposed love of his life, he had multiple affairs with other women. He was a man driven by strong sexual desires, and in his recently discovered audio diary, he talks about these desires. John said:
“I read somewhere, some guy saying that, you know, about the sexual fantasies and urges that he had over his life, when he was twenty, and then when he was thirty he thought they would cool down a bit. And then when he got in his forties, he thought they’d cool down and they didn’t. And he went on, sixties, seventies, until he was still dribbling on in his mind when he couldn’t possibly do anything about it, apparently. So that rather…not depressed, but I mean, I just thought, Shit. Because I was always waiting for them to lessen. But I suppose it’s going to go on forever.”
Alex DeLarge’s demise in A Clockwork Orange parallels John’s descent. Alex picks up two ladies at the vinyl store and engages in a threesome. Afterward, he’s confronted by his group of droogs for standing them up. He tells them he was sick, but one of the droogs, Dim, calls him out for having sex instead. This eventually leads to a tense interaction between Alex and his right-hand man, Georgie. Georgie refers to a “new way” in which they’re going to go about their business. But this “new way” wasn’t conceived or agreed upon by Alex.
“New way? What’s this about a new way? There’s been some very large talk behind my sleeping back,” Alex says.
In the next scene, Alex reasserts his dominance by clubbing Georgie, knifing Dim, and attacking Pete. A rather small issue that started because of a sexual addiction escalated quickly; a fit of sorts thrown by a man who had the power to just walk away. But, instead, it comes back to burn him.
The others quickly devise a plan to get Alex caught. It works, and he is sent to a correctional facility to undergo a new treatment that will rid him of his evil. The government decides to try their new Ludovico treatment on Alex. And it works. In a Pavlovian way, they train Alex – in the temptation of vices like sex and violence – to become sick and not act on these instincts. But he is stripped of everything. He is no longer attracted to women. He no longer enjoys listening to Beethoven. He is a complete shell of himself. The evil was removed, and so was the human.
At one point, he is at such a low, that upon hearing Beethoven he becomes ill and decides it is time “to blast off forever from this wicked, cruel world.” Alex proceeds to jump out of a window.
Like Alex, Lennon hit a low point in life. Lennon says in his audio diary:
“Well, here we are. Aged thirty-nine, looking out of my hotel window, wondering whether to jump out or get back in bed. So, I got back in bed. (Laughs)”
So why was Lennon driven to ponder suicide?
3) From Beethoven’s 9th to Revolution #9
Kubrick moved to London in 1965. Despite living overseas, he maintained an active interest in American society, culture, and life. When he penned the Clockwork adaptation, the Vietnam War was raging, and John Lennon was as an anti-war activist.
The U.S. vs. John Lennon (2006) documents the rise of Lennon from a musician to public enemy #1.
Using his celebrity, Lennon took an anti-Vietnam stance, calling for a peaceful revolution. He staged “Bed-Ins For Peace” with Yoko. He wanted to do more of these types of demonstrations around the world, but the US refused him entrance for some time. Some, notably the right-wing press, mocked his and Yoko’s efforts, while young idealists gravitated to their mission.
Elliot Mintz, a family friend of Lennon’s, said, “He reduced [his message] to these very fundamental, easy-to-grasp concepts that some people thought were utopian and naive.” At first it started with his music. People were taking songs like “Give Peace a Chance,” “Imagine” and “All You Need is Love,” and adopting them as their rally cries. Lennon used this as a stepping stone to do more.
Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman were two radical political activists high on the Nixon administration’s watch list. As was Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panthers. Through them, Lennon found a way to up his ante.
In The U.S. vs. John Lennon, a former White House correspondent of Nixon’s said, “When he starts financing the people we want to put in jail, that gets serious.”
It was never really Lennon that was the leader – he was somewhat naive and unaware of how to actually create change. But he did stir the pot. And his new allies, Rubin, Hoffman, and Seale, completely exploited and used Lennon’s image and celebrity to get the attention of the nation, notably the White House.
Later in the film, Chris Charlesworth, a journalist said, “I don’t think he realized the strength of the American political establishment, and how much power it could exert onto him with regard to silencing him.”
The government took a series of actions to regulate the threat of Lennon and those he was backing. For one, they revoked Lennon’s visa. They tapped into this phone lines, and followed him in unmarked cars. The FBI dug up old records looking for any grounds to deport him. Lennon quickly became a man caught in the middle; a musician who was trying to do good, but was clearly in over his head.
Nonetheless, Lennon attracted a huge following. He turned the tide of the public, and this made the government scared, especially because the 1972 election was quickly approaching. Lennon’s message was resonating with the younger generation, and Nixon went on to certify the 26th amendment, which allowed 18 year olds to vote.
Geraldo Rivera said,”So Nixon is now facing a new huge electorate that he’s never faced before – these 18 to 21 year demographic; the heart and soul of John’s fans. There was a fear that John could stir, affect, imperil the political existence of Richard Nixon.”
Passing the 26th was a back-door way of Nixon joining forces with Lennon; a (not so subtle) way of tapping into this fan base through a relationship that Lennon never agreed to be in. Lennon was being tested. How would Lennon respond? In a televised statement, Lennon made the following, disillusioned claim:
“We announce the birth of a conceptual country, ‘Newtopia.’ Citizenship of the country could be obtained by declaration of your awareness of ‘Newtopia.’ ‘Newtopia’ has no land, no boundaries, no passports – only people. ‘Newtopia’ has no laws other than cosmic. All people of ‘Newtopia’ are ambassadors of the country. As two ambassadors of ‘Newtopia,’ we ask for diplomatic immunity and recognition in the United Nations for the country and its people.” – John and Yoko
How does Georgie’s “new way” match up with Lennon’s “Newtopia”?
Much of Lennon’s messaging in the eyes of some of the media, in the eyes of some of the non-radical left, and in the eyes some of the government, was Lennon at a peak of hypocrisy.
G. Gordon Liddy, a former Nixon Administration official, articulated what was on the minds of many: “It wasn’t so much that Lennon was being critical of U.S. policy. It was that he was over here, enjoying all the benefits of the success we were giving him, the wealth, and all the rest of it, and bad-mouthing us. Our attitude was: You want to do that? Go back to London.”
And while all of this was happening on the front lines of America, Kubrick was in his house in London, reworking the Clockwork script.
After Alex jumps out of the window, and his suicide attempt fails, he wakes up in a hospital bed in a body cast. His first visitor? A government official named Frederick – a representative from the authority that worked so hard to reform Alex’s nature for political gains. But since Alex was a pop culture celebrity now, and he was driven to madness as a result of the government, it’s no wonder Frederick was the first person to greet Alex upon waking. Frederick said, while feeding Alex food:
“I can tell you with all sincerity that I, and the government in which I’m a member, are deeply sorry. Deeply sorry. We tried to help you. We were wrong. We never wished you harm, but there were some who did, and do. There were certain people who wanted to use you for political ends. They would have been glad to have you dead – for then they would be able to blame it all on the government…”
It’s obvious Alex doesn’t quite understand what’s going on; here’s a nowhere boy being exploited for his persona and used as a pawn in some grander political crossfire. Frederick continues:
“It is no secret that this government has lost a lot of popularity because of you, my boy. The press has tried to take a very unfavorable view of what we do. But public opinion has a way of changing, and you, Alex – if I may call you Alex – can be instrumental in changing the public’s verdict… Do you get what I mean? Do I make myself clear?”
Alex says yes, and the two have a handshake. The movie concludes with Frederick bringing in the press to document their new friendship, “I hear you’re fond of music? I have a gift for you…” he tells Alex. Beethoven plays over the huge speakers, and instead of being transported into a state of sickness, Alex is now greeted with fantasy images of having sex in public. He has been “cured.”
The transformation we, the audience, undergo throughout Clockwork is dramatic. Many will go from hating Alex to sympathizing with him. We might even catch ourselves feeling like hypocrites at moments. The journey we experience through Alex’s eyes challenges our traditional thinking about sex, celebrity, authorities, and pop culture society. This film offers a rare glimpse into the mind of an eccentric maverick, which is also what has turned it into a timeless classic. But the character of Alex and the film’s premise wouldn’t be so resonant with audiences if we couldn’t connect. Whether it be fact or coincidence, there are an overwhelming number of comparisons that can be drawn between the film and the influence of the Beatles on 21st century society. Watching the film again through this lens might, at the very least, challenge a preconceived perspective you may have had. Kubrick films are notorious for this.