This cautionary tale first appeared in 1962, and follows the leader of a gang of young hooligans, Alex, on a violent rampage through a near-future city, to his draconian punishment (through a form of ‘aversion therapy’ known as Ludovico’s Technique) at the hands of the state. Raising questions of criminal rehabilitation and the freedom of the individual, Burgess explained that what he “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.” These dark themes caused a minor stir, leading to the removal of the final chapter from the American edition; however many reviewers bestowed equal attention on the innovative slang, Nadsat, used by the juvenile delinquents. Drawing on his keen interest in linguistics, Burgess created a language primarily based on Russian, which he was learning at the time for a visit to the Soviet Union, but also incorporated elements of Cockney rhyming slang, Romany phrases and Shakespearian English. Terms such as droog (as Alex refers to his fellow gang members, from the Russian for ‘friend’), devotchka and malchick, razrez and tolchock, subsequently entered the fringes of popular culture.
So taken with Burgess’s linguistic invention was Andrew Loog Oldham, manager of the Rolling Stones, that he paid homage in a lengthy sleeve-note for the band’s second album, released at the start of 1965. The influence of A Clockwork Orange was evident from the opening lines: “It is the summer of the night / London’s eyes be tight shut / all but twelve peepers and / six hip malchicks who prance the street.” Oldham also appropriated the novel’s theme of ‘ultra-violence,’ which brought a foretaste of the controversy to come, as he advised prospective buyers of the record “if you don’t have bread, see that blind man knock him on the head, steal his wallet and low and behold you have the loot, if you put in the boot, good, another one sold!” The offending sentiments, discussed in the House of Lords, were first hidden beneath a sticker, then excised completely from later pressings of the record, in possibly the first instance of sleeve-note censorship.
A Clockwork Orange may have remained a curio and a cult novel, had it not been filmed. The American writer Terry Southern first planned an adaptation in the late 1960s, working on a screenplay to be directed by Michael Cooper, and starring Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones as Alex and his droogs. When that project stalled, Stanley Kubrick picked up the option and, featuring Malcolm McDowell in the lead role, his version opened in 1972; its amorality and scenes of explicit violence attracted controversy from the first. A whole series of urban myths grew up around the film on its release, seized upon by the popular press, which accused it of inspiring murder and mayhem, with a series of violent incidents attributed to real-life ‘Clockwork Orange’ gangs. The Leeds University campus was long rumoured to have been a filming location, though it was in fact the underpasses of Brunel University, Middlesex, which were used to depict the urban territory of the delinquents. Whilst Kubrick initially defended the film, it was the director himself who instructed Warner Brothers to withdraw it from British screens a year later. Whether he was prompted by alleged threats against his family, police advice or moral misgivings, Kubrick’s decision ensured its future notoriety – it remained banned in the UK until 2000, after the director’s death. Burgess was reputedly unhappy with Kubrick’s treatment of what he described as a ‘very minor work’, and the sensational coverage of the film, which he felt overshadowed his own career – though he himself freely discussed A Clockwork Orange for the rest of his life, and returned to it in 1987 with a semi-musical theatrical version. His ambivalent attitude was captured in a 1973 interview:
Films help the novels they’re based on, which I both resent and am grateful for. My Clockwork Orange paperback has sold over a million in America, thanks to dear Stanley. But I don’t like being beholden to a mere filmmaker. I want to prevail through pure literature. Impossible, of course.