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A Clockwork Orange | Study Guide

Anthony Burgess

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A Clockwork Orange | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Anthony Burgess's dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange, published in 1962, addresses themes of societal violence, the corruption of state power, free will, and good versus evil. The novel wasn't particularly popular at first, selling fewer than 4,000 copies by the mid-1960s, but with the release of the 1971 film adaptation, it became a classic.

A Clockwork Orange anticipated the cultures of both the free-wheeling 1960s and the more violent and repressive 1970s. Writers from Martin Amis to J.G. Ballard were influenced by it, as were television shows and musicians.

1. A controversial scene in the novel was inspired by an attack on Burgess's wife.

Burgess's first wife, Lynne, was beaten and robbed in London in 1944, during the wartime blackouts. The perpetrators were four deserting American soldiers. They were so violent in their attempt to steal her wedding ring that they broke her finger and caused her to miscarry. In the novel, a similar, even more violent attack happens to the wife of a writer.

2. Burgess said the central theme of A Clockwork Orange is the idea of free will.

In a 1973 interview with The New Yorker, Burgess stated:

What I was trying to say was that it is better to be bad of one's own free will than to be good through scientific brainwashing. When Alex has the power of choice, he chooses only violence. But, as his love of music shows, there are other areas of choice.

3. A Clockwork Orange's made-up language of Nadsat is a mixture of Cockney slang, Russian, and English.

Anthony Burgess invented the language Nadsat (Russian for "teen") for the droogs in A Clockwork Orange, after traveling to Leningrad in 1961. In addition to Russian influences, the language includes Cockney rhymes, Shakespearean English, underworld slang, soldiers' terms, and Malay, which Burgess learned in the 1950s. Alex uses Nadsat to narrate the film adaptation.

4. The title A Clockwork Orange comes from a Cockney slang expression.

Anthony Burgess claimed he first heard the phrase "queer [strange] as a clockwork orange" after which he named his novel in a pub in the 1940s. He explains that it means something so strange that it approaches madness. To him, it was "the concept of a nightmare."

5. British reviews were generally harsher than American ones.

The Times Literary Supplement, a literary journal published in London, claimed Burgess was "content to use a serious social challenge for frivolous purposes," while the British cultural magazine New Statesman called it "a great strain to read." In the United States, however, The New York Times called it "an inventive primer in total violence, a savage satire on the distortions of the single and collective minds," and Time magazine said it was "a nasty little shocker."

6. The film adaptation was originally rated "X."

While the original film version of A Clockwork Orange garnered an "X" rating, a new version was released in 1973 that was rated "R." The changes included new footage and cuts to two violent sex scenes as well as changes to a scene where the main character is hit with a glass bottle. The new rating allowed the film to be shown to a much larger audience.

As an X-rated film, A Clockwork Orange was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Film Editing, but it didn't win in any of its categories.

7. Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange because he thought he was dying.

When writer Anthony Burgess was misdiagnosed with a brain tumor in 1960, he immediately began a frantic regimen of writing—including A Clockwork Orange—in the hope of leaving enough money behind for his family to survive.

8. The actor Malcolm McDowell's eyes were injured during the filming of one torture scene.

In one scene, the main character Alex, played by Malcolm McDowell, is tortured by having his eyes held open by metal clamps. Despite an on-site doctor and anesthetizing eyedrops, McDowell's corneas were scratched in the filming: "It was like being cut with razor blades," the actor recalled.

9. The film was banned for nearly three decades in Britain.

While British audiences could view A Clockwork Orange in Britain for a few months after its release, by 1973 it was not available. Though the film was never banned in Britain, news articles linked it to street violence in the United Kingdom and blamed the violence on director Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick began receiving death threats, and together he and the film studio agreed to withdraw the film from British theaters. It was not shown there until 2000.

10. Most American editions of the novel do not include the last chapter.

The British edition of A Clockwork Orange included 22 chapters, but when it was published in the United States in 1962, publishers omitted the final chapter. In it, the main character turns away from violence. The book's editor recalls that he found the ending unbelievable, and the shortened book is the version that was filmed. In 1986, however, the missing chapter was restored in a new edition.

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