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‘A Clockwork Orange’ At 50

We revisit the great and terrifying transgressive novel of Anthony Burgess.

A poster from the 1971 art film adaptation of Anthony Burgess's 1962 novella A Clockwork Orange.

A poster from the 1971 art film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novella A Clockwork Orange.

In 1962, when Leave it to Beaver was still a staple of American television, British novelist Anthony Burgess came out with “A Clockwork Orange.”  It was a terrifying “ultra-violent” romp set in an imagined future of bowler-hatted British dandies – fancy-spoken thugs – slashing and raping and killing their drugged and gleeful way to a jittery soundtrack of Beethoven.

Leering, sneering sociopaths on a tear.  And a brutal state in response.  If you read it, if you saw the Kubrick movie, you didn’t forget.  Now its offspring are all over.

This hour, On Point:  A Clockwork Orange at 50.

-Tom Ashbrook


Andrew Biswelldirector of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, his latest book is A Clockwork Orange (Restored Text).

Andrew Loog Oldham, first manager of the Rolling Stones. He wrote the sleeve notes for the Stones’ 1965 album “The Rolling Stones, Now” in a derivation of Burgess’s “nadsat” dialect.

C-Segment: Looper

Angela Watercutter, cultural reporter and film critic for Wired. Her review of the film “Looper” is here.

From Tom’s Reading List

The New Yorker “The writer first published the book “A Clockwork Orange” in 1962. Nearly ten years after its publication, its title and content became known to millions because of Stanley Kubrick’s very close film interpretation. The writer first heard the expression “as queer as a clockwork orange” in a London pub before the Second World War. It’s an old Cockney slang phrase, implying a queerness or madness so extreme as to subvert nature.”

The Independent “Now a new document obtained by The Independent on Sunday reveals that Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange was almost never published at all because of concerns it might turn out to be an “enormous flop”. The remarkable assessment of Burgess’s most famous work is revealed for the first time in an internal reader’s report for Heinemann, which eventually published the novel.”

The New York Times “The day-to-day business of writing a novel often seems to consist of nothing but decisions — decisions, decisions, decisions. Should this paragraph go here? Or should it go there? Can that chunk of exposition be diversified by dialogue? At what point does this information need to be revealed? Ought I use a different adjective and a different adverb in that sentence? Or no adverb and no adjective? Comma or semicolon? Colon or dash? And so on.”


Check out the trailer for the 1971 Stanley Kubrick film.


Use the navigation bar at the bottom of this frame to reformat the excerpt to best suit your reading experience.


“Title Music” from “A Clockwork Orange”

“The Thieving Magpie” from “A Clockwork Orange”

“Suicide Scherzo” from “A Clockwork Orange”

“Theme Music” from “A Clockwork Orange”

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  • Jasoturner

    I read this book over 35 years ago and still remember it fairly well.  Burgess must have done something right.

    Read an interview with him about a year ago.  What a fascinating guy.

  • 1Brett1

    Good novel. Political. Socio-political…The later movie (Kubrick directed, McDowell starred in lead role) was also good.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

    Tom, have you done two separate shows on movies so inextricably linked by one piece of music as “Singin in the Rain” is also to “A Clockwork Orange”?

  • 1Brett1

    Most English writers write about class distinction in some form, and they’re the best at it. Burgess, especially in his novel here, was brilliant in this regard.

  • TinaWrites

    I saw Clockwork Orange 5 times in order to write a paper about it for a film class.  As dystopic as it was (and it definitely was!), “Leave It To Beaver” has its OWN dystopic connection that has presented itself to us this many decades later in the form of Paul Ryan.  Paul Ryan is none other than Eddie Haskell, back causing the trouble while pointing his finger of blame elsewhere, all the while smiling his disingenuous smile to the innocent housewife, The Beav’s mom!  

    • 1Brett1

      Perfect: Eddie Haskell!! (in a high-pitched tone with a lot of vibrato) Brilliant!!!

  • IsaacWalton

    Oh wow! I saw this when I was in college. It made for some very good viewing while inebriated on various substances. One of my favorites.

  • http://www.facebook.com/arnie.tracey Arnie Tracey

    I would put forth that Anthony was beyond prescient, as  looking at the current TV news in D.C., Detroit, Seattle, NYC, Boston, even Honolulu et al, the randomness and the propensity for violence for fun and/or profit is endemic to society as a whole.

  • WorriedfortheCountry

    Ludvig van will never be the same.

  • IsaacWalton

    I wonder if it’s a generational thing concerning the reaction to the rape scene. I was born in the 70′s so ended up watching the scene in the mid 90′s. I felt the scene was disturbing but I wasn’t hit too hard by it. I was shocked more by the nudity. I think it’s sad really what ends up becoming mainstream. Watching movies like Bad Lieutenant, Menace to Society…they all may have worked to desensitize my watchers to the violence.

  • Melissa Traynor

    Happened to watch this film on TV when I was 12 or 13 and have re-watched it many times over the last few years. (I’m 23 now). It’s chilling, yes, and some of the ultraviolent scenes are difficult to watch (the first time, anyways), but I always appreciated the questions the Kubrick film raised, and the new details you can pick up with each new view. It also made me think about my own connection to music, or the soundtrack for certain points on my life.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=41118998 Scott Stroot

    As a teenager in the 70s I ran movies for my hometown theatre, and so got in free.  Not knowing anything about A Clockwork Orange, at age 15 I decided to take my new 14 year old girlfriend to this movie -as our first date!  Wow. Didn’t see that coming!  But, we stayed together though high-school nonetheless, and I started to develop a pretty sophisticated sense of cinema aesthetics.

  • Joseph_Wisconsin

    I have always loved this book—Happy 50th Anniversary—and Kubrick did a great job of adapting it to film. Anyone looking for another great book by Burgess, and another pessimistic view of the future, should check out The Wanting Seed. In the future to manipulate the people and control population growth a perpetual war is orchestrated in which two armies, both from the same country, fight battles to the death without knowing it the true identity of opponents.


  • Jonathan Teller-Elsberg

    Please believe me that I mean no disparagement toward your guest with the following comment. Earlier callers–both women–commented about their overwhelming revulsion at the rape scene in the movie. Your guest commented about “public reaction” to the book and film over the decades, saying that in the earlier years “the public” or “we” reacted primarily to the images of gang violence, and that it was only many years later with the film’s re-release that reaction was oriented toward the sexual violence. His response is itself, I’m sorry to say, and I say without attempting to cast blame, an expression of unrealized male chauvinism. Here we have heard two women report on their reactions to the film back in the same time period that your guest says “we” were most concerned about the images of gang violence. He doesn’t recognize that his conception of “we” from that era clearly excluded female readers and viewers. If women had had prominent positions in book reviewing, movie reviewing, and social commentary generally, the perceived reaction to A Clockwork Orange would clearly have included a strong focus on the rape aspect of the story. It is only because women were largely excluded from the public conversation that your guest encountered a different public reaction. This is a good example that shows just why it matters that women–or those from any traditionally excluded social group–must have full representation in public positions.

    • samuelpepys

      Thank you so much for this crystal-clear response, Mr. Teller-Elsberg.  I just got out of the car and ran upstairs to my computer to make the same point.  I too was a young aficionado of horror films, which I saw at the drive-in, drinking beer with my punk-photographer boyfriend (who later took to beating me up, while I took to giving academic papers about the genre!), and I too couldn’t watch that scene.  Probably still couldn’t, as since then I’ve been kidnapped and gang-raped, as have many friends.  Your guest didn’t talk about the difference art makes.

      Which brings up a good question, one often raised in those days (among the un-public) by, for instance, the films of Brian de Palma.  What was our idea of art then, that we would honor more highly the filmmaker who could more seriously traumatize the un-public, female half of his (I use the word advisedly) audience?  Kubrick was a great artist, and the film was great art.  I’m an artist too, so the question isn’t rhetorical.  It’s important, but the lads side-stepped it tonight.  A missed opportunity.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_XJMNTQ6EKSBKA6SHI3WZNRUKFI ChristyS

    This may be my husband’s favorite movie….he tells me the message of this movie is the importance of free choice.  I view the movie as too violent, and the message of free choice can be shown in other ways.

  • wiredsam

    Wonder what Andrew would make of connection in period and spirit between “Clockwork” and “Performance”, a flick Jagger dominated that came out about same time and reflected some of same fascinating / repulsive gestalt…

  • Scott B

    Years ago a female friend called me late at night to come pick her and her girlfriend up at someone’s parent’s house.  They went to the house for a movie night  as kind of a double date, and for some reason the guys though “A Clockwork Orange” would be a good date movie. The girlfriend, as it turned out, had been raped some time before and was having a bad  episode of PTSD, so my friend called me.
    I wondered what the #&% these guys were thinking, picking this movie for a “date movie”, as it’s not exactly a an action flick or Rom-Com? I could almost understand it, as they were teens and not familiar with the book or movie, and it was 20+ years old. Maybe they just made a mistake in thinking what it was, or something?   My friend later told me that these guys had deliberately chosen the film because they thought the rape scene would be a turn on for my friend and her friend.  They didn’t know that her friend had been raped.  They wanted me to come get my friend’s friend and have my friend stay. When I heard that  later I wanted to go knock those guys heads together. It’s disturbing that these guys would think that rape (or the movie in general) would help them get laid. What’s wrong with these guys? Is it society? Family Life? Media? They chased parked trucks? 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1173529020 Allan Nicholls

    It was interesting to hear about A Clockwork Orange this morning as I have so many tangible connections to the film…unfortunately not the book. I called in but was not afforded the opportunity to discuss…too late and heard that woman discussing “Looper” (going on and on) she seemed to have a lot to say and not much room for anyone to get into the conversation, albiet that was not who I called to speak with. I was anxious to talk with Andrew Loog Oldham who I have not seen in some 40 years. He produced a record of mine in 1971(when I was performing in the Broadway production of Hair,  and after the singles’ release we lost touch. I never knew that he was such a fan of the book. I loved the film as a matter of fact it was what made me want to pursue a film career, which I did for the last 40 years…sorry to not have connected…and I do enjoy your show.

    • Former_scribe

      Congratulations on your body of work, Allan. Have seen several of your movies (I was very impressed with your part in the ensembles of Slap Shot and Nashville), and am proud of your work in Hair. You’ve spoken to many of our generation and affected lives probably in no less measure than Clockwork Orange did. You can be proud.

  • Carol_in_NM

    I hated this movie.  I saw it when I about 18, and wish I hadn’t.  It’s a manipulative film, trying to make you sympathize with a violent psychopath.  I still feel sick to my stomach when I think about this film.  In a more civilized society, neither the film nor the novel would be considered something to “celebrate” on its anniversary.

    • 1Brett1

      Well, to each his/her own. As with any art, one either likes something or doesn’t. 

      However, I don’t agree with your view of what should be permitted in art in a “civilized” society. Really, what you’re advocating is censorship in art. This is the antithesis of what art is about, in my opinion. 

      You must not be paying attention if you think the book and movie (or their celebration) were about glorifying violence. 

      If we omitted all art depicting anything uncomfortable; if we banned any art portraying anything bad, and we only permitted art that showed positive characters committing acts of kindness, art itself wouldn’t exist. What we’d have would be something very bland that didn’t express anything about the human condition. 

      • Carol_in_NM

        Try to read a little more carefully, friend.  My comment doesn’t say anything about what is “permitted” — I wrote about what is “celebrated.”  Like you, I do not believe in censorship in art or any other form of speech. 

        The movie A Clockwork Orange, like many movies, likes to have it both ways in its dealing with violence: on the one hand, it professes to have some “thoughtful” message about violence; on the other hand, it hopes to titillate and shock — and thereby sell tickets — by graphically portraying violence.

        In my view, your point that A Clockwork Orange is not as graphic as some movies today is not so much praise for that older movie as it is an indictment of contemporary ones.

        This is not a censorship issue. Trying to make money by shocking and manipulating people is not illegal, nor am I advocating that it should be.  And I, as a media “consumer,” have a choice to try to avoid shockingly violent depictions in the media as much as possible.  (And I do.)

        • 1Brett1

          Most of the time, unfortunately, it takes a little shock to bring about some form of influence. People were shocked at the Impressionists in their first exhibit. While, you and I may not see anything wrong with  Impressionism, if society had out rejected the form (and many considered it to simply shock for the sake of being shocking), it would have been a much sadder reflection on society.

          I certainly understand your not wanting to see such a film, though.

          I do not share your view that the movie depicted violence in a gratuitous way. It, however, was shot from Alex’s point of view in many respects (he was the narrator); otherwise, turning the whole thing to make him sympathetic wouldn’t have worked. He wasn’t transformed or anything (which, in my view, was also brilliant on Burgess’s part, as, historically, bad characters are supposed to be changed toward goodness, in literature, or die) and that wasn’t the point. In a civilized society, even despicable characters such as Alex should be treated within certain parameters of morality and ethics. Should criminals be treated inhumanely by the state because they committed despicable acts? People like Alex do exist, should we only have art that doesn’t show such things?  

          And, your brand of finger waging at “civil society” is a form of censorship. You weren’t simply saying you didn’t like such portrayals in art, you extended your view to a desire for all society to see it your way. You also inferred some type of utopian view toward society in the process. 

          Isn’t your view also a reactionary one (in the true sense of the word), as in, “things were so much better so long ago”? When you made the statement, “…your point that A Clockwork Orange is not as graphic as some movies today is not so much praise for that older movie as it is an indictment of contemporary ones” you were being reactionary in my opinion. What would be the alternative? In the war movies of the ’40s, say, killing seemed more like some cross between slapstick and ballet with a romanticized crescendo of the injured saying something poignant before gently falling off to “sleep.” This was another point to Kubrick’s treatment; he was using a  satirical device in his depiction of violence, something you’ve seemed to miss. Is the Hollywood version of violence from the ’40s better? 

          No, suppressing and repressing certain aspects of the human condition in art to pretend we’re civilized only serves to make us less civilized. If we can’t handle the examination of such horrendous topics as a society, then we aren’t very civilized. 

          In a perfect world, violence wouldn’t exist, neither would politicizing social problems. But not showing such things isn’t the solution, and we will never have a perfectly civil society where those acts do not take place. 

          I also don’t agree with your assessment that celebrating art depicting such things is necessarily an undesirable reflection on society. Besides, the “celebration” wasn’t a celebration of gratuitousness of violence in art.

          Also, while you did see the movie, you probably shouldn’t condemn the book; you haven’t read it. You’re reacting to something you haven’t read.

  • 1Brett1

    This was an important book, to me, when I first read it (probably around ’69). The writing style was very forward, leading the way toward more freedom among literary approaches in many respects…Burgess developed a rhythm and structure in this book that was inventive. In a way, it was as goundbreaking, from a literary standpoint, as Annie Proulx’s ‘The Shipping News.’ 

    It’s the mark of a good writer to take such a despicable character as Alex and make him a sympathetic character on some level.I missed the first half hour of the show, and it’s been probably forty years since I’ve read the book or discussed it with anyone. I did hear the talk about Skinner, though. I have a background in psychology, and I consider myself a behaviorist. (I consider an array of approaches to have value, most important among them are behavioral and cognitive behavioral.) I never bought into the Skinnerian, utopian view, however. Skinner was a control freak who got to the point where he felt every aspect of our external world could and should be controlled. He was wrong on both counts; we can’t and we shouldn’t. I don’t know how true this is–it was just something I remember discussing with a friend while at college–but there was some talk (once upon way back when) about a politician in England during the ’50s who was running for prime minister, or some office; he was advocating use of aversive, chemical-restraint intervention in dealing with criminals/crime. I wonder if this was true and if this influenced Burgess’s ideas at all?

    • 1Brett1

      Of course good old DIQUUS (t) screwed up my paragraph breaks…again!

  • 1Brett1

    As violent as the movie was, it was not even close to the graphic violence seen in movies today. The one scene where Alex killed the elderly fitness instructor didn’t actually show him killing her. It showed a painting of a crazed clown at the moment he killed her. The scene was chilling, and it showed how killing doesn’t need to be explicitly shown on film to effectively communicate the horrors of violence…film makers now could learn a few things from this movie.

  • Kristen O’Keefe

    I read this book when I was thirteen (I’m now 19) and I must say I was not offended at all. I was almost naive going into it (I had just started really getting in literature) I had no background of the book or the author, I had just seen it referenced in culture. I admired Alex, obviously he did treacherous things but he was certainly a likable villain. It was an inexperienced fascination with the darker side of life and choice and I found it enticing. I think the moral issues it raises with good and evil and crime and punishment are outstanding, brilliant, and insightful. I’ll never forget the first time I read or watched the movie A Clockwork Orange. It opened up a whole new world to me;both the film and the book are masterpieces. I see this book as very telling I mean it deals with philosophical questions that have persisted through history and this is bound to be a timeless book. I think Burgess foresaw the future to some extent just like he does in his other wonderful book The Wanting Seed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004349802430 Addam Rae Wolff

    Such a marvelous book, such marvelously crafted language – Burgess is lyricist, and Kubrick’s interpretation is archetypical. Together they are a punk anthem that questions authority as thoroughly as “Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols”, intentionally brash, reckless and discordant. 

    Every few years, Kubrick’s film influences fashion in pop culture, on a runway or a music video or a cover photo. It has been glamorized – not the ultraviolence, but the message behind the shocking image. Even the title exemplifies the horrors of uselessness – “A Clockwork Orange” is a challenge to apathy and continues to prove itself be be a strongly accurate exaggeration of reality for every generation. 

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