Reading Kubrick’s Lolita and A Clockwork Orange

Aim of the Paper:

The aim of the paper is to study Lolita and A Clockwork Orange alongside each other. It also seeks to understand Kubrick’s unique reading of the texts making him the new ‘auteur’ of these two texts.

Reading Kubrick’s Lolita and A Clockwork Orange

Vladmir Nabokov’s Lolita and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange have different settings and themes and intentions, yet, there is a sense of similarity that comes through when these two texts are brought together. A common point to the two books might be what drew Stanley Kubrick to making a film version of them. A possibly trite statement with relation to this can be that Nabokov is of Russian origin and in A Clockwork Orange, the youth slang that Burgess invents – Nadsat, also drew on Russian.

Both novels (or in the case of A Clockwork Orange, novella) reveal stylistic similarities. The narrators; who directly address the readers – Humbert Humbert addresses them as “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury” (9; ch. 1) while Alex addresses the readers fondly as “O my brothers” (3; ch 1). This is considered a mark of their unreliability since they ‘break the fourth wall’, in fact, they also figure on a popular list of ten unreliable narrators in literature because of their barely veiled insanity. They are also considered to have grandiose notions of themselves because in their address they use language eloquently – in Humbert’s case, it is a complex and artistic rendering of English and Alex prefers to use a “Russo-Anglo-American patois” (xvi; Introduction to A Clockwork Orange, Morrison).

The language used by the two narrators aim at masking the potentially disturbing acts within the texts. It is not that the texts do not disturb the reader but in the case of Lolita where Humbert uses a complex and artistic form of English, veiling everything and still stating everything, one marvels at the beauty of expression and almost, but not entirely, forgets that he is discussing sordid details of their relationship such as “the haggled-over handjobs, the pricing of fancy embraces” (320; Afterword, Raine). That Humbert does play with language is clear from the text when he says, “Oh, my Lolita, I have only words to play with!” (32; ch. 8).

Even Burgess’ Nadsat aids in alienating the reader from the experiences related by Alex, though as mentioned, one is not entirely cut away from the experience.

That Humbert Humbert and Alex are sexual deviants is rather clear. Also, by letting them narrate their own stories; irrespective of how both Nabokov and Burgess felt about the acts, (which they felt called upon to explain) the portrayal is sympathetic. They then move from the space of the perpetrator to the space of the victim with ease. Owing to Humbert’s description of the thwarted romance with Annabel, the reader realises that Lolita’s entry into his life and his sexual satisfaction through her is a balm for his ailing heart. One even hopes that Lolita can love him as much so that both are in a happy place. With Alex, his plight post the Ludovico treatment does put the reader in the uneasy space of sympathising with Alex for what he is being put through despite his earlier actions and obvious relishing of ultra-violence.

The books converge on another interesting aspect – the portrayal of the medical profession; to be precise, the mental health professional. There is a thinly veiled contempt of the psychologist and the related psychobabble. The premise of A Clockwork Orange is that for evil or for good, one must be able to choose for oneself. Burgess uses the prison Charlie to bring out this notion, “He has no real choice, has he? Self-interest, fear of physical pain, drove him to that grotesque act of self-abasement. Its insincerity was clearly to be seen. He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice” (94; ch. 7). The diatribe is motivated by Burgess’ aversion to Skinner’s behaviour psychology experiments.

Nabokov was not fond of the “Viennese medicine man” and may have liberally thrown symbols around for the practising Freudian. Humbert is also shown to take “enjoyment in trifling with psychiatrists: cunningly leading them on; never letting them see that you know all the tricks of the trade; inventing for them elaborate dreams…never allowing them the slightest glimpse of one’s real sexual predicament” (34; ch. 9).

The novels and how they can be studied simultaneously has been discussed, now to move onto the films.

Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita was made in 1962 when the censorship laws were severe and they restricted his depiction of the novel.  While the screenplay was chiefly written by Nabokov himself (something Burgess unfortunately or fortunately was not allowed to do) Kubrick exercised his director’s intuition in the filming. He did away with much of the narrator’s voice except in few places.

By doing away with Humbert’s past and his preoccupation with “nymphets”, the focus is entirely on Lolita having affected him specially. The only tribute to the novel Humbert’s obsession with nymphets and his eloquent descriptions of their “nacreous” limbs is the fetishising of Lolita’s body. However again, the focus is on Lolita because at Camp Climax, Humbert does not look for “nymphets” among the girls there. Therefore, the opening shots or credits of the film show Humbert’s hand reverently taking Lolita’s foot (a common sexual fetish are the feet) and proceeding to apply nail paint on it. This takes about two minutes of the screen time. It is also the only instance of visual dismembering of the female body, unlike A Clockwork Orange wherein the women are only objects where the focus lies either on their bare breasts or their screaming mouth (artistically portrayed in slow motion).

Kubrick even portrays Humbert as an essentially protector figure when he has Lolita ask Humbert to always be around as she would not want to be left in foster care or homes for juvenile delinquents, unlike in the novel where Humbert impresses upon Lolita the need for secrecy because if found out she would be sent away and he would be in jail.

Since Humbert Humbert is portrayed as a sane, restrained man with certain old-world charms, his mental deterioration is solely the result of losing Lolita, unlike the novel which mentions his previous bouts of insanity. Kubrick then makes Humbert a more acceptable character, however, the portrayal owes a lot to the censorship of those times and Kubrick felt quite hemmed in, so it is possible that if reworked he would have changed things considerably. Then again, Humbert would have continued to have a sympathetic portrayal and maybe much of the sexual action would not have been left to the audience’s imagination.

He also made the film in black and white, maybe pointing to a world where a middle-aged man can experience ‘true love’ for a young girl, and it would not be a sham. It might again connect to Humbert’s sophisticated old-world image as though he were a dying breed in this world of crass commercialism.

A Clockwork Orange might represent British popular culture in a dystopic world; Alex however, is not fond of pop music. He is instead a lover of classical music, especially the Ninth Symphony by Beethoven. He associates the music with sharper sensations and a clearer purpose for ultra-violence. In the film, Alex’s conditioning is graphically represented with musical accompaniment, and at first the purpose for the “special films” is not expressed. But once the purpose is understood and we notice that Alex makes an awful retching sound every time he is confronted with the Ninth Symphony, one wonders if Kubrick is not trying to condition his viewers to a particular response. The retching sounds are disgusting enough to inspire bile in the viewer’s stomach to surface, so every time Alex is unable to beat off his assailants or hears the music or is in anyway tormented we are conditioned to feel his torment. It maybe Kubrick’s ways of assuring that his viewers are with him in sympathising with Alex.

As Roger Ebert points out in his review of the film, there may be other ways in which Kubrick tries to alter the viewer’s perception of the character of Alex. Firstly, through the use of wide-angle lens – “Used on objects that are fairly close to the camera, this lens tends to distort the sides of the image. The objects in the center of the screen look normal, but those on the edges tend to slant upward and outward, becoming bizarrely elongated. Kubrick uses the wide-angle lens almost all the time when he is showing events from Alex’s point of view; this encourages us to see the world as Alex does, as a crazy-house of weird people out to get him. When Kubrick shows us Alex, however, he either places him in the center of a wide-angle shot (so Alex alone has normal human dimensions,) or uses a standard lens that does not distort. So a visual impression is built up during the movie that Alex, and only Alex, is normal” Kubrick also shoots Alex “from above, letting Alex look up at us from under a lowered brow” and emphasises on eyes through lighting giving him a “slightly scary, messianic look”(Ebert).

An ongoing controversy with relation to A Clockwork Orange has been the ending. The US versions of the text had omitted the last chapter and Kubrick claimed to have not read it. Hence did not include it in the film. The original ending has Alex grow out of his violent youth stage, but unlike how it is assumed, it is not a hopeful ending because Alex acknowledges that he will have a son who will go ahead and “do all the veshches I had done, yes perhaps even killing some poor starry forella…I would not be able to really stop him. And nor would he be able to stop his own son, brothers” (140; ch. 7). This might tie up with the reading by John Galt, that to begin with Alex has already been conditioned to violence by the society he lives in and hence the conditioning by the state and Dr. Brodsky does not stick and as Alex points out in the end (of the film), “I was cured all right”, when he could listen to the Ninth Symphony and contemplate having violent sex in the snow in front of a crowd of people dressed as though they were at Ascot.

This ending however ties up with the main premise of the story that human autonomy is important even to the extent of making violent decisions. It then becomes Kubrick’s critique of society especially since Alex imagines the so-called civilised members of society being appreciative of his final act. Making the society twisted and government corrupt, shifts the blame from Alex onto the society at large. It results in the viewer’s possible sympathy to the moral dilemma of A Clockwork Orange.

While the two films have drawn on two rather popular works of literature and irrespective of how the two writers respond to the film versions, they can still be considered quintessentially Kubrick. So the film texts can draw on authorship more from Kubrick because he has realised it as he understood it and not necessarily as they intended it – making him the new ‘auteur’ of the texts.

Bibliography:

  1. A Clockwork Orange. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee and Michael Bates. Columbia-Warner, 1971. DVD.
  2. “A Clockwork Orange.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Jan. 2014. Web. 20 Jan. 2014.
  3. Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. London: Penguin Group, 2000. Print.
  4. Ebert, Roger. “A Clockwork Orange.” rogerebert.com. Ebert Digital LLC, 11 Feb. 1972. Web. 16 Jan. 2014.
  5. Galt, John. “A Psychological Analysis of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.” voices.yahoo.com. Yahoo Contributor Network, 5 Aug. 2007. Web. 18 Jan. 2014.
  6. Lolita. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. James Mason, Shelley Winters, Sue Lyons and Peter Sellers. Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1962. DVD.
  7. “Lolita.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 10 Jan. 2014. Web. 20 Jan. 2014.
  8. Nabokov, Vladmir. Lolita. London: Penguin Group, 2000. Print.
  9. Nastasi, Alison. “10 of Literature’s Most Unreliable Narrators.” Flavorwire. N.p., 18 Aug. 2013. Web. 23 Jan. 2014. <http://flavorwire.com/410468/10-of-literatures-most-unreliable-narrators/&gt;.

 

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