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.