Critiquing a Literary Adaptation: A Clockwork Orange


‘Betrayal’, ‘deformation’, ‘violation’ and ‘bastardisation’ are some of the terms which are used when describing film adaptations from the critical point-of-view of ‘fidelity criticism’. ‘Fidelity criticism’ is a traditional stand point of criticism concerned with films adapted from novels and makes the argument that the original source material is always better than the filmic adaptation. This essay will examine Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange, contrasting it with its 1971 film adaptation of the same name, directed by Stanley Kubrick. It will explore to what extent ‘fidelity criticism’ can be applied to A Clockwork Orange and also how far the concept of total ‘fidelity’ in film adaptation is problematic.

Total fidelity in a film adaptation of a book is virtually impossible as a change in media requires mandatory and necessary alterations to be made in order for a film to ‘work’, that is to be coherent, entertaining and its length to be reasonable. To simply attempt a literal adaptation of novel in the vast amount of cases would be logistically difficult and would incur extremely high costs to name but two problems. There is an argument to be made however, as to how closely an adaptation should stay to the intentions of the original source text. At what point does an adaptation actually become almost an original creative endeavour as a director imposes their own artistic license on a novel? The source material becomes hypotext for a film, acting more as a source of inspiration and generalised theme rather than an interpretation of the original novel.

A Clockwork Orange provides a fascinating case study for this debate into the fidelity of film adaptations. Stanley Kubrick made many changes to Anthony Burgess’ novel in his film in-terms of language, content, removed scenes, characters changed and of course the change in mood and style as he put his own stamp on his version of the hypotext.

The language used in the film has been altered from the novel and this is obviously a technique that has been employed to make the film more accessible to a more mainstream and casual audience. Alex and his friends’ use of ‘nadsat’ slang in the novel is widespread and some of this has been toned down or replaced in the film. For example blood is described as ‘krovvy’: ‘Dim looked very surprised, his rot open, wiping the krovvy off of his goober’ (22). In the film this is replaced with ‘vino’, because it was a more recognisable word. There are some other similar alterations throughout the film and this is a simple but useful example of how an adaptation has to be altered to suite not only a new medium but a new audience.

One of the most critical and pertinent changes that Kubrick made to A Clockwork Orange was in the films content, specifically in the alteration of several scenes and the omission of others. At the beginning of the novel, in the opening chapter, there are scenes where Alex and his friends assault a man carrying books and later bribe women in the Duke of New York pub before robbing a newsagent. None of these are present in the film; instead they are replaced with re-working of an attack on a tramp which occurs in chapter two of the novel. It’s probable that this was done as not only a time-saving exercise (according to Kubrick’s original cut of the film was almost four hours long), but also the director felt that this single incident with the tramp was sufficient to demonstrate Alex’s propensity for violence and the additional scenes would be unnecessary (not to mention they may have contributed to further problems with film censors).

There are other scenes from the novel which necessitated alteration in the film simply due to their quite horrific content. In the Novel, when Alex and his ‘Droogs’ encounter their rival ‘Billyboy’ by the Municipal power plant, he and his gang are attempting to rape a ten year-old girl: ‘Billyboy and his Droogs stopped what they were doing, which was just getting ready to perform something on a weepy young devotchka they had there, no more than ten’ (13). Of course in the film this had to be altered and it appears as a young woman being attacked (not graphically) with the setting of this and the ensuing fight between the gangs being a disused theatre, the theatre setting and stylised, choreographed violence taking the edge off a grim scene.

When Alex rapes two ten year-old girls in the novel in chapter four, Kubrick replaces this with an almost comical consensual sex scene between Alex and two similar aged girls.  It is interesting to note that Kubrick uses visual techniques such as this to soften violent and offensive scenes. This mirrors Burgess’ use of nadsat language in the novel which provides similar safe haven to the reader from appalling acts which Alex describes in his narrative.  From this evidence it can be argued that Kubrick has laid his own mark on the source material, whilst remaining as faithful to the source material as possible at this point. Written in 1972 at the time of the films release, Pauline Kael is distinctly unimpressed however, with Kubrick’s playing down of violence and his substitution for Burgess’ narrative:

‘He tries to work up kicky violent scenes, carefully estranging you from the victims so that you can enjoy the rapes and beatings. But, I think one is more likely to feel cold antipathy toward the movie than horror at the violence — or enjoyment of it, either.’

Stanley Kubrick uses several film techniques to compensate for the narrative point-of-view of the novel. As novel is narrated by Alex and he addresses the reader directly (‘O my brothers and only friends’ (89)) as well as the reader being privy to his thoughts and dreams, Kubrick adds some of this narration between scenes to allow some supplementary plot exposition as well as affording some characters extra dialogue for the same reason (Dr Brodsky explains why Alex no longer enjoys Beethoven whilst he is enduring the Ludovico technique, this is all is done in Alex’s mind in the novel). The gaze of the camera is also subtly positioned around Alex’s point-of-view during the film, again substituting for the novels first person perspective. This technique is particularly evident in the scene of the film where Alex is at the police station and he is being harangued by police officers and P.R Deltoid.

The major ways that Stanley Kubrick altered his film but remained faithful to Burgess’ original vision of A Clockwork Orange have been highlighted but there are elements to the film in which it deviates from the core themes that Anthony Burgess set out to explore. The most vital of these is the omission of the final chapter, left out because Kubrick worked from the abridged American version which does not contain this pivotal final chapter in which Alex really does become reformed through his own free will. Although there is legitimate reason for its exclusion, it is rumoured that Kubrick didn’t like the final chapter because it set a different tone to finale of the novel. Theodore Dalrymple however, offers an alternative explanation to the absence of the elusive final chapter:

‘Burgess obviously prefers a reformation that comes spontaneously from within, as it does in the last chapter, to one that comes from without, by application of the Ludovico Method. In the American edition—which Stanley Kubrick used—this last chapter is missing: Alex is not redeemed a second time, but returns, apparently once and for all, to the enjoyment of arbitrary and antisocial violence. In this instance, it is the British who were the optimists and the Americans the pessimists: Burgess’s American publisher, wanting the book to end unhappily, omitted the last chapter.’

Whatever the reasoning behind the alternate ending of the film, doubts must be cast as to how genuine and faithful an adaptation Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange can be of Burgess’ original work when such a gaping hole is left unexplored from his vision. All of the violence and wrong deeds Alex is culpable for during his story are given balance by this epiphany which he has at the end. They give a whole new slant to his character and even allow the reader to sympathise with him. Without it he does not seem such a rounded character in the film. A Clockwork Orange therefore, provides a an intriguing interpretation of ‘fidelity criticism’; on the one hand Stanley Kubrick produced a film which re-created Anthony Burgess’ novel as accurately as the medium of film would allow him, but as a consequence of the creative process that takes place when ever a Director attempts to adapt another piece of work (in this case a novel), changes inevitably happen. Kubrick’s own ostentatious vision and intentions for A Clockwork Orange, combined with the constraints placed upon him provide an excellent example of how a totally ‘faithful’ adaptation is virtually impossible and the very concept of ‘fidelity criticism’ is fundamentally flawed.





Burgess, A. (2000) A Clockwork Orange

London: Penguin


A Clockwork Orange, Dir Stanley Kubrick 197


Dalrymple, T. (2006) A prophetic and violent masterpiece [online]

City Journal. Available from:




Kael, P. Stanley Strangelove [online]

From The New Yorker magazine (January 1972). Available from:



Trivia for A Clockwork Orange [online]

From Available from:

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