The Famous Cocks: A Clockwork Orange and The World’s End (SPOILER ALERT)

Hollywood tends to murder books. It’s a tale as old as time: readers have a mental image of what characters, places and events should look like which screenwriters and directors cannot meet. Nobody is ever going to be happy.

Even so, there are good and bad ways of adapting novels, and if you really want to piss off a book-lover, you could do worse than omitting vital sections of the plot. That’s exactly what Stanley Kubrick and his team did to A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick’s film is a classic, of course, but it would be morally wrong of me not to inform you that Anthony Burgess’ groundbreaking novel is better. It’s superior for a number of reasons, but for me the most important is the final chapter.

The book and the film are fairly close for the most part. Ultra-violent gang leader Alex is imprisoned and subjected to horrendous aversion therapy until he is incapable of committing criminal acts. He’s kicked around as a political football, tortured, beaten and punished until, one day, he just recovers. He’s knocked out, wakes up and knows he’s regained his free will.

That’s roughly where Kubrick stops, because that’s where nearly every US edition of the text stopped before 1986. Readers of the UK edition will have been just as disappointed as Burgess with the fact that his final chapter was forgotten: in the end, around the time when he turns 18, Alex is trying to build himself a life. He considers going back to his days of ultra-violence and the “old in-out, in-out” – and then he realises that he’s simply grown out of it. He meets a girl, he wants to settle down, to start a family; the thought of gang rape or a random murder just doesn’t appeal anymore.

Philosophically speaking, the difference this makes is huge. The novel asks whether it is better to choose to be evil than be forced to be good: in the film, we’re left with the impression that Alex will return to the bad old days the minute he has the chance. The book is more complex. Without evil there can be no redemption; young people need time to settle into themselves; some changes won’t take place until the time is right.

Oddly enough, this is what I was thinking about when I walked out of The World’s End.

Shaun of the Dead came out nine years ago. Just take a moment to reflect on that. It’s been nine years since we saw Shaun and Ed flicking through their vinyls deciding which ones deserved to be flung at an oncoming plague of zombies and six – six – since Hot Fuzz hit our screens. The years tell on The World’s End, but in a very positive way – it retains much of the humour of the two earlier films and marries it with the most mature script of the bunch.

Gary King, Pegg’s overgrown man-child who didn’t let the end of the 1990s spoil his fun, is an addict who did a runner from rehab and manipulated all of his old friends into unwittingly acting as enablers. His plan, to finish the infamous 12-pub Golden Mile around his hometown, is a way of recapturing those youthful feelings of invincibility and optimism on which he never capitalised.

That’s quite a brave concept on which to base a comedy, and one on which Pegg and Edgar Wright deliver admirably. When the five friends finally realise that something very sinister is going on in Newton Haven, Gary persuades his companions that finishing the pub crawl is the only way to escape alive. As the survivors eventually reach the eponymous final pub, he comes face to face with the alien intelligence which has been turning people into robots. And there begins a dialogue on the subject of free will.

The Network – the alien race behind the replacement of most of the town’s inhabitants – offers Gary a choice: he can continue with his miserable, disappointing life, or he can let himself be replaced. He could go back to his old youthful self, if he was willing to become a soulless drone.

He chooses the former. Gary is a “fuck-up”, he freely admits. He lied about the death of his mother to get his ex-best friend down the pub. But he has the right to choose that life, even if it stopped being fun a long time ago and he’s scared of finally growing up. And it might take an apocalyptic showdown to get there, but like Alex, he only chooses to change his way of life when he’s good and ready.

On paper, the two couldn’t be more different (well, unless one of them was a Pixar film), but the points of contact are interesting. Gary is given the chance to reclaim the life he wishes he still had, but to do so he’d have to become a clockwork orange – living and breathing, but cold and mechanical inside. In the end, there’s no competition.

That’s what I love about The World’s End, and indeed, the Cornetto trilogy in general. Human beings are massive screw-ups, but for all of their failings, Wright and Pegg paint an affectionate portrait of their flawed characters. People are crap, they seem to say, but we love them anyway.

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2 thoughts on “The Famous Cocks: A Clockwork Orange and The World’s End (SPOILER ALERT)

  1. Interesting perspective on A Clockwork Orange – and one I couldn’t disagree with more.

    I agree with your notion that the original conclusion to the book allows for greater development of the Alex character, that it facilitates the transformation from the evil to the good and thus underpins a more rounded conclusion to the story.

    And that is its greatest failing.

    Narrative does not have to be well rounded, it does not have to cover all areas. Conflict does not necessarily have to be resolved in media and when it does, it has to be with purpose. Stories where the ‘baddie’ gets away with it can be just as exciting as ones where the good guys save the day, providing they’re handled well.

    A Clockwork Orange gives us the character I would deem as being the greatest anti-hero in film – Kubrick handles the tale masterfully and the result is that the audience is on the side of Alex for the conclusion – after seeing his mistreatment, the audience pities a rapist fan of ‘ultra-violence’. And the original ending the book purely (and in rushed form) undercuts this accomplishment.

    The primary thematic element in A Clockwork Orange is very much not one of ‘the freedom to choose your own path’ but of ‘having your path forcibly chosen for you’; the concept of Alex finding redemption clashes with the underlying concept of his treatment. It also has no foreshadowing – he just decides in the final chapter to be nice. It’s almost as if it was a bolt-on, the conclusion required as Burgess was too afraid to end the story with the character of Alex coming out on top – when I first read it it seemed cowardly. A great character should not be wholly undermined at the conclusion of a story.

    In short, in my opinion the film is better than the book, primarily for that reason. But I guess we disagree :p

  2. Interestingly, I don’t think it is as “rounded” a conclusion as you suggest. In fact, the thing I like about the ending of the book is that for me it actually raises more questions than leaving it open-ended.

    The fact that out of the blue, for no ostensible reason, Alex just stops being interested in violence and rape is more disjunctive than allowing Alex to go off and, we assume, reoffend. Does it undermine his character? Does the fact that a person changes over time negate their past? I’d argue that it doesn’t – indeed, I’d say that it makes his decision more meaningful. Losing the right to choose adds more value to what you eventually do with it when you get it back – I would say that the path he takes is made more significant by his having tried two different ways of life and not made the same decision he did when he was younger.

    He doesn’t seem ashamed or guilty about the things he did before he went to prison. It’s just that they belong to a period of his life from which he’s moved on. I think the point is that it is better to allow someone to change of their own volition than to force them to choose a certain path- society sacrifices its soul to bring about a change that would have happened anyway.

    So I prefer the book because ultimately, a coming-of-age story should end with the hero coming of age. The fact that it doesn’t automatically make sense is part of what makes it so very human.

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