A Violent Orange: an Analysis of Violence in Kubrick’s Masterpiece.
A Clockwork Orange, directed by Stanley Kubrick and released in 1971, is a movie based on Anthony Burgess’s dystopian novel of the same title. Kubrick’s movie tells the story of Alex DeLarge, a teenager in love with the so-called “ultra-violence”: he and his friends, the “droogs”, enjoy committing any types of crime from which they get a special pleasure. Alex, during an “ultra-violent” night, finds himself to be involuntary guilty of a murder because of which he is imprisoned. During his incarceration, he gets involved in a new political program aimed to reform criminals thanks to a special brainwashing treatment. The violence he used to practice becomes the weapon used against him by society. The treatment consists of showing him violent scenes on a screen while the doctors inject him with painful drug. Consequently, Alex associates the watching and practicing violence with the sense of malaise he experienced during the treatment. In the end, the treatment results to be completely inhumane and even useless, because at the end of the movie, Alex returns to be as violent as before.
A Clockwork Orange was released in a period when there was a high rate of street-violence in Britain thus the film was at the beginning completely rejected by the British critics. Moreover, since in Britain in 1970s some violent crimes committed by teenagers were linked to A Clockwork Orange’s negative influence on the audience (Travis), both the British press and politics began to blame the movie for inspiring young viewers to the point that they imitated the violence depicted. Kubrick felt the pressure of the wave of political and social criticism on his masterpiece. He also received death threats against his family members and therefore was forced to withdraw the movie from British screens. (Lister). Although politics should usually have no say in the matter of cinema and popular culture in general, in the ‘70s British politicians tended to be really concern themselves with representations of violence as the British society was very violent itself.
Forced withdrawal, ban, censorship, and any other limit to freedom of expression, derive directly from one’s interpretations of popular culture items. The limiting of freedom of expression has always been a prevalent social phenomenon throughout history. For instance, from the 16th to the 20th century, the Vatican censored thousands and thousands of books considered heretical because they had been interpreted as anti-Christianity works. Besides being truly heretical or not, all those books were firstly read and personally interpreted by the Christian Church of Rome, i.e. the Pope himself. Personal interpretations lead to reactions towards texts, and reactions inevitably lead to actions as well. Therefore, after reading and interpreting, the Pope added the “heretical books” to the List of Prohibited Books which included, among the most notable written texts, Charles Darwin’s, Nicolaus Copernicus’s, and Galileo Galilei’s scientific works.
Similarly, since the British Government’s interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s movie led to a negative reaction towards the movie’s subject matter of violence, the movie was censored throughout the country because considered dangerously violent. The actual reason for the banning of A Clockwork Orange in many countries, including Singapore, Ireland, and South Korea, was the certainty that the movie was able to affect viewers and make them emulate the violence depicted in the movie itself. Violence, however, has always been part of human society. Certain types of violence, however, are socially more acceptable than others (Gehrke 280). As Kubrick himself claimed in an interview by Michel Ciment in 1981, representations of violence on the screen cannot really affect people to the point that they turn from good innocent people into the serial killers they saw on the screen (Ciment). Nonetheless, Kubrick’s masterpiece, due to its vivid and strong representations of violent crimes, has given rise to a strong wave of political criticism. Even today, both public and private TV channels are unlikely to include A Clockwork Orange within their show schedules due to governmental policies. Indeed, the Italian Government forbade underage people from watching A Clockwork Orange up until 1998 when the restriction of age was reduced to a minimum of 14 years old. Therefore, it would be difficult if not impossible for Italian television to show A Clockwork Orange especially on national public networks. Furthermore, Italian television has generally been very skeptical about showing the movie since it deals with taboo topics, such as political and social violence on citizens, which are obviously unmentionable on national TV screens. For many years since the movie was released, neither RAI, the public Italian TV network, nor Mediaset, the only private Italian network up until 1987, showed A Clockwork Orange. Only in 1999 did the movie appear for the first time on the Italian TV screens thanks to the private pay network Tele+. Nevertheless, the other national networks did not want to buy the rights of the movie until the 2000s. At that time Italian screens finally started to show A Clockwork Orange during late evening only.
It is hard to understand how a movie would be more dangerous and might make viewers commit more acts of violence than any other form of communication that deals with violence. Kubrick glamorized violence by using art, music, and aesthetic design. And yet, Kubrick did not glamorize fictional violence and acts of violence more than how news glamorize real acts of violence and criminals. For instance, the cover of Rolling Stone August 1, 2013 issue immortalized Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the terrorist who killed three people and injured 280 others by bombing the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013.
Rolling Stone editors glamorized the figure of a criminal by showing him as if he was a rock star. Indeed, the viewer is unlikely to immediately recognize the criminal since he is portrayed as a cool young guy on a popular culture magazine. Similarly, Italian news glamorized the figure of Italian criminal Renato Vallanzasca who was convicted of several robberies and murders from the ‘70s to the ‘90s. Also, since the fame Vallanzasca was given by national news radio and TV channels, he also got the nickname “Il bel René, l’angelo del male” (“The handsome René, angel of evil”). Furthermore, he has been continuously portrayed by media as a hero who stands for a whole historical period when criminals were gentlemen. Moreover, in 2010 the director Michele Placido released the movie Vallanzasca - gli angeli del male based on the autobiographical book written by Renato Vallanzasca. It is useless to say that both book and movie are biased because they are the voice of a criminal telling his own story.
News always glamorizes criminals and their stories in order to appeal to the audience which is the same as the one who watches movies such as A Clockwork Orange. News grabs the attention of people by using the very communication strategies used in fictional movies by directors like Stanley Kubrick. In other words, news makes criminal stories look like fictional chracters of crime series.
And yet, no government censors or bans TV networks and other media for showing glamorized news about violent crimes daily committed worldwide. In fact, true acts of violence might be even stronger than fictionalized acts of violence in movies. TV news channels that freely and legally show real violent crimes are much more effective than cinema at influencing viewers (especially if young) and at making them emulate violence since they watch it every single day. It is so usual to watch real violence mediated by TV news that fictional violence is perceived as shocking, just because it is not real. Providing a movie such as A Clockwork Orange with many violence depictions has absurdly become more disturbing to people’s eyes. As Alex DeLarge says in Nadsat slang, “it is funny how the colors of the real world only seem real when you viddy them on the screen” and perhaps because of that, the cinema screen is considered much crueler than the real world.
Since the wave of criticism A Clockwork Orange has given rise to, the movie unavoidably has influenced popular culture in many different fields. Great movie directors such as Quentin Tarantino quoted Kubrick’s masterpiece in two scenes of Reservoir Dogs. In a slow-motion scene at the beginning of the movie, all the protagonists walk in the street just like Alex’s gang do in some scenes from A Clockwork Orange. Tarantino, in the torture scene from Reservoir Dogs in which Mr. Blonde tortured the cop, clearly referred to the scene from A Clockwork Orange in which Alex beats the writer in his own home. Moreover, actor Heath Ledger confirmed that he considered the character of Alex DeLarge as an inspiration to perform the character of the Joker in the movie The Dark Knight directed by Christopher Nolan in 2008.
In television, Kubrick’s masterpiece was referred to and quoted by many popular shows such as The Simpsons. In this TV show, references to A Clockwork Orange are obvious in the episode “Treehouse of Horror III” in which Bart wears the same clothing as Alex, and the episode “Dog of Death” in which Mr. Burns makes use of the Ludovico Technique treatment from the movie to turn the Simpsons’ good dog into one of his ferocious dogs. In the episode “Squid Plus One - The Executive Treatment” from the TV show SpongeBob SquarePants, the prisoner number given to the character Patrick Star is “665321”, the same number given to Alex when he was imprisoned. In this case, only an adult audience might get and appreciate the quotation which children are unlikely to understand. Also, the TV show South Park quoted A Clockwork Orange many times by using the theme soundtrack, objects, and even entire scenes from the movie. Videogames such as Grand Theft Auto IV and Borderlands 2 cited the “ultra-violence” and the Nadsat slang of Alex’s Droogs.
The movie has influenced popular culture even in the music field. For example, the artist Lady Gaga borrowed the soundtrack from the movie as the opening music of her concerts in 2010. Previously, in the ‘80s, the punk rock band The Ramones titled a song “Durango 95” after the name of the car stolen by Alex’s gang in the movie. Furthermore, the movie has had so much influence on popular culture that, in Rome in 2005, Italian guy Piero Leufemi opened a pub franchise called “Latte Più” (“Milk Plus”), the name of the drink sold in the Korova Milk Bar. The pub franchise precisely reproduced most of the design and furniture from the Korova Milk Bar. Also, the pubs inside atmosphere easily reminds the customers of the movie. Indeed, the background music is mostly from the movie, and the pub menu only includes milk-based drinks whose names are all quotations of the movie. Only the mescaline in the drinks seems to be the Korova Milk Bar detail missing at “Latte Più”.
Fashion was affected by Kubrick’s masterpiece, too. Fashion designer Sasko Bezovski created the KTZ fall/winter collection 2015 by using some typical patterns from A Clockwork Orange style: the black bowler hat and boots, the white shirt and trousers. Alex had also a stink which Bezovski replaced with a smart black umbrella. While some popular culture objects merely stole some stylistic aspects from the movie, others really took A Clockwork Orange as a model.
The large amount of references to the movie in so many popular culture areas suggests that A Clockwork Orange has been one of the most influential movie ever. The reason for its influence and importance in popular culture is the ability of the movie to narrate a provoking story by making the audience think about eternal topics such as human freedom of choice between good and evil. Basically, Kubrick was able to affect popular culture as he dealt with cultural themes related to human nature. Also, some features of the movie are very artistic which is the main reason for influencing fashion, music, and even pub designs. Indeed, Kubrick always tended to make use of music as an effective communication medium. In terms of soundtrack, he thought that no contemporary musicians would ever be more expressive and capable than a Beethoven or a Rossini (Ciment). Art, futuristic furniture designs, and style are as important as the narration of the story. The atmosphere in which the whole story is set reveals the esthetics Kubrick always wanted to provide his movies with. For example, in Eyes Wide Shut, 1999’s and last Kubrick’s movie, physical beauty and attraction are two important themes that recurred in A Clockwork Orange as well.
Although the variety of themes Kubrick provided his masterpiece with, “‘everyone remembers the first act, with Alex, this violent, aggressive youth who we are obsessed with, identify with, but by whom we are also repulsed. But ultimately, this is about mind control, repression, and freedom of choice’” (Burrows). Watching a movie should mean watching a cinematographic work in its entirety, i.e. paying the same attention to every single part, whether it is the beginning, the middle, or the end of the movie. Instead, according to actor Adam Gardiner, who performed the character of Alex DeLarge in a 2005’s theatrical remake of A Clockwork Orange and was interviewed by the writer Melanya Burrows, everyone just focuses on the first part of the movie which is about Alex and his gang committing violent crimes against society (Burrows). Most people merely judge the movie basing their opinions on a partial view of the whole movie. In fact, the second part, which is the most important one, is an actual overturning of roles between the protagonist and society. Indeed, since Alex involuntarily killed the cat lady, he begins to be the object of political decisions related to the new treatment aimed to reform dangerously violent criminals. Suddenly, society moves to the dark side of morality thus, the audience starts to sympathize with the criminal that society wants to dehumanize. That very criminal’s behavior was previously found repulsive, but then society’s behavior becomes much more repulsive to audience’s eyes.
The viewer is forced to morally choose between Alex who simply loves violence and a society which wants to change a person’s life by limiting his freedom and even his humanity. Since the choice Kubrick wants the viewers to make is very disturbing, people simply do not do it. And so, the average viewer does not take into account the whole movie but the first part that can be easily criticized and rejected. And yet, the second part is crucial to understanding the ultimate meaning of the movie. It is not about a gang of teenagers committing violent crimes senselessly. The movie is rather about the individual freedom to make moral choices (Slocum 73). The legitimacy of social institutions to limit that freedom by making use of physical and psychological torture on criminals is called into question by Kubrick in order to make people think about that. Kubrick slowly turns the audience’s perception of repulsiveness for violence from the figure of Alex to the amoral social institutions by which Alex is dehumanized. Humans have their own natural inclination towards evil or good, and we see Alex barely following his natural inclination towards evil by choosing to commit violent crimes. Similarly, we see doctors, politicians, and other representative of social institutions consciously choosing to limit Alex’s freedom merely because his behaviors are considered socially wrong. Society uses powerful violent tools to make him physically unable to commit violent crimes. Although the raping and murdering are certainly morally wrong, the limiting freedom of choice is even more wrong. Society should punish crimes without limiting human freedom of choice.
Humans lose their humanity if they are deprived of the choice between good and evil, and they become, as the title of the movie suggests, clockwork oranges (Ciment). Kubrick affirms that freedom of choice is what differentiates humans from mechanical beings with no rational or emotional ability. Although his words explained the meaning of his movie, not only was Kubrick misinterpreted, but was also criticized by many cinematographic journalists. Pauline Kael, who wrote a scornful criticism on A Clockwork Orange in 1972, asserted that Kubrick just shot a pornographic movie without even being that good at it. According to Kael, the audience should be disgusted by watching the movie not just because of its uncertain morality, but rather because of its pornography which is supposed to appeal to the audience, and yet the audience is more likely to find repulsiveness rather than enjoyment (Kael). What Kael here is really discussing is the meaning of the sex and rape scenes Kubrick inserted in his masterpiece. Sex scenes are not meant to make A Clockwork Orange a porn film. And violent crime scenes are not meant to make the movie a senseless representation of rapes or murders. Everything in the movie is a metaphoric detail related to the ultimate and deep meaning of the whole movie in its entirety which includes Alex and his “droogs” committing crimes and the sex scenes, too.
Violence and representation of violence are one of the most common themes in every medium. The violence depicted in A Clockwork Orange cannot affect viewers more than the violence we are used to getting from the real world we live in. Banning movies because of their violence is not the solution to stop violent criminals committing crimes daily our society. Rather, banning a movie like A Clockwork Orange as well as any other forms of media communications might result in inciting a violence as a response to limit of freedom of both expression and knowledge. Moreover, forbidden items are generally the most attractive.
The problem with A Clockwork Orange is all about the misinterpretations of the movie subject matter. It might be wise to safeguard the youngest viewers from watching strong movies such as A Clockwork Orange because they might misinterpreted its meaning. However, adult wisdom should make Kubrick’s movie to be considered as what it is: a philosophical masterpiece related to humanity and freedom. Personal interpretations and reactions to the movie cannot go beyond a reasonable sense of perspective. (Farber 291). Movies are nothing more than representations of fictional stories on a screen. We should always keep in mind the difference between representation of reality and reality itself. Consequently, we should worry less about the movie violence and more about the real world violence which has existed long before cinema was invented.
Ciment, Michel. "Kubrick on A Clockwork Orange." Kubrick. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1983. Print.
Farber, Stephen. “The Old Ultra-Violence.” The Hudson Review 25.2 (1972): 287-294. Print.
Gehrke, Pat. “Deviant Subject in Focault and A Clockwork Orange: Congruent Critiques of Criminological Constructions of Subjectivity.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 18:3 (2001): 270-284. Print.
Kael, Pauline. "Stanley Strangelove." The Kubrick Site: Pauline Kael on 'A Clockwork Orange'. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.
Lister, David. "`Clockwork Orange' Returns to British Screens." The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 5 Oct. 2015. Web. 01 Dec. 2015,
Slocum, David. Violence and American Cinema. New York: Routledge, 2001. Print.
Trevis, Alan. "Retake on Kubrick Film Ban." The Guardian. The Guardian, 11 Sept. 1999. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.