Catholicism, Contrition and Controlling “Free Will” in A Clockwork Orange

Movies Features Stanley Kubrick
Share Tweet Submit Pin
Catholicism, Contrition and Controlling &#8220;Free Will&#8221; in <i>A Clockwork Orange</i>

Though the inspiration for A Clockwork Orange’s title is oft-contested, it’s agreed that the surrealist juxtaposition of words symbolizes a seemingly organic entity concealing a mechanical make-up within. A troubling paradox, the image is disturbing in its implication of unnecessary scientific interference in the world’s natural order. Of course, the titular clockwork orange is Alex, a sadistic youth who spends his days engaging in drug-induced acts of violence with his droog lackies, with rape and home invasion among his favorite pastimes—that is, until he undergoes the Ludovico technique while two years into a 14-year prison sentence for murder, which successfully conditions him to feel sick at the thought of committing violence. Arguably brought into the mainstream through Stanley Kubrick’s faithful adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel with an immaculate performance from Malcolm McDowell as Alex, A Clockwork Orange is a clearly cautionary tale about the fascism inherent to controlling free will through psychological intervention. Yet upon the film’s release—particularly in England—it was seen as nothing more than an irresponsible glorification of brutish violence, and death threats and copycat crimes eventually convinced Kubrick to self-censor, resulting in Warner Bros. removing the film from theaters and home media in the country until the director’s death in 1999.

Yet for all of the film’s reputation of depicting raunchy sex and despicable violence, it is nearly void of these elements after the 43-minute mark. Sure, Alex and his street gang enjoy brutal acts of senseless, sadistic violence in rapid succession as the film kicks off, but the tables turn on our “faithful narrator” quite quickly. He is reduced to a sniveling, pathetic husk of his former self after undergoing negative psychological conditioning, which bars him on a neurological level from committing violent acts, engaging in sex and even listening to Bethoveen’s Ninth. Though some might wish to revel in this monster’s torturous punishment, a nagging pang of pitying sympathy underscores each vengeful encounter Alex finds himself thrust into after his release from prison. It’s damn near gratifying when the homeless man from the film’s opening moments orchestrates his street-dwelling friends in beating the crap out of Alex after recognizing him from their nasty previous encounter, but the moment immediately sours as the policemen who break up the incident turn out to be a few former droogs who now occupy the favorable side of a power imbalance. Handcuffed, beaten and nearly drowned, it’s clear that Alex’s punishment is far from justice—it’s a state-sanctioned abasement that just so happens to have been performed on an immoral individual. In lieu of addressing societal ills that produce heightened acts of crime and violence, rewiring human synapses seemed the easier option in the eyes of the state.

A Clockwork Orange’s obsession with the merits of “free will”—particularly that it is better to commit an evil act out of choice than unwillingly abide by goodness—has been a divisive topic throughout human history, never more potently debated than within the context of religious practice. A long-lapsed Catholic, Burgess was never outright faithful, yet his unique Catholic upbringing in a largely Protestant England surely influenced his view on this very debate:

“Catholicism rejects a doctrine that seems to send some men arbitrarily to Heaven, others—quite as arbitrarily—to Hell,” Burgess wrote in a 1973 essay. “Your future destination, says Catholic theology, is in your hands. There is nothing to prevent you from sinning, if you wish to sin; at the same time, there is nothing to prevent your approaching the channels of divine grace that will secure your salvation.”

In this sense, the Catholic insistence of human “free will” is diametrically opposed to the Protestant (namely Calvinist) view of predestination, which insists that certain souls are intrinsically fated for sin or salvation. While this outlook might initially seem to influence a laissez-faire attitude to controlling the perceived morality of others, it’s actually much more restrictive in practice. Obviously, no person knows whether they are destined for Heaven or Hell—the only thing to be done is to act in God’s will, meaning to actively devoid oneself of the mere temptation of transgression. “Calvinism is full of negative reinforcements,” Burgess adds.

While few might rush to categorize A Clockwork Orange as a religious film, the presence of biblical fantasy and theological intervention is nonetheless prominent. Namely, there’s the daydream sequence in which Alex envisions himself as a Roman soldier giddily assisting in Jesus’ crucifixion, which occurs during a routine study session with the emphatically Irish prison chaplain (Godfrey Quigley). After experiencing the reverie, Alex asks the chaplain about the Ludovico technique and if he could vouch for him to partake in it. When he warns Alex about the dangers of undergoing such treatment, his only reply is: “I don’t care about the dangers, Father. I just want to be good. I want the rest of my life to be one act of goodness.”

Obviously, Alex doesn’t actually desire to be good. However, his youthful vigor and sociopathic essence have presented themselves as worthy opponents to whatever kind of conditioning old Ludovico might have in store for him. This proves to be completely false, and suddenly Alex is actually living out his fib: He is now incapable of being anything but “good,” just like he proposed. When the ostensible success of this treatment is presented to the prison staff—by way of beating Alex on a public stage, then offering him a topless woman he refuses out of sickness—only the chaplain interrupts the raucous applause to decry the results. “The boy has no real choice, has he?” exclaims the chaplin. “He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He also ceases to be a creature capable of moral choice.”

The overtly Catholic chaplain is in the stark minority here. The Minister of the Interior (Anthony Sharp) effortlessly counters his concern: “We’re not concerned with motives, with the higher ethics. We are concerned only with cutting down crime!” Alex grins at this comment, half-heartedly still believing his eminent “freedom” will have been worth the ordeal and his newfound aversion to violence. This quickly proves untrue, as his possessions have been sold in the name of victim recompass, his parents have all but replaced him with a surrogate son and the evils of his past come back to haunt him. Only after a suicide attempt is Alex restored to his old ne’er-do-well self, reverting to his crude Nadsat slang and proclivity for violent thought. The immediate image is a phoenix reborn from its own ashes, which perhaps influences the prevailing read of the film as condoning its protagonist. “I was cured, all right” possesses a sick ring of self-satisfaction, pricking at the initial gut-churning feeling of complacent ickiness the viewer feels during the film’s first act.

Anyone with a general grasp of media literacy understands that depiction does not necessarily equal endorsement, yet A Clockwork Orange was plagued by protests and bad press ahead of its release in England. Though it was ultimately the director’s decision to take the film out of circulation, he never faltered in his position that the film was not responsible for any of the violence it purportedly inspired, and to admit that would essentially go against human autonomy.

“The simplistic notion that films and TV can transform an otherwise innocent and good person into a criminal has strong overtones of the Salem witch trials,” Kubrick said. “Films and TV are also convenient whipping boys for politicians because they allow them to look away from the social and economic causes of crime, about which they are either unwilling or unable to do anything.”

Though the point Kubrick makes is spot-on, it once again highlights the nonsensical Puritan belief that simply approximating oneself to “sinful” stimuli will inevitably lead one to sin. In evoking the image of the repressed Puritan settler, Kubrick also challenges the Protestant leanings of England. The Puritans were distinct in that they felt the Protestant Reformation of England wasn’t executed to its fullest extent and, as such, even more Roman Catholic practices had to be purged from the religion. The hyper-repressed populace the Puritans created are best known for engaging in witch hunts, targeting women who were seen as particularly weak-willed when it came to being courted by the Satanic allure of trespass.

Thus, the reaction to A Clockwork Orange further proves its point. In asserting that individuals are hard-wired to engage in reprehensible acts if even slightly provoked, the ability to act according to one’s existing conscience is all but refutable. Additionally, as Mr. Kubrick pointed out, it also all too easily shifts the blame to individual media consumption as opposed to societal deficits when it comes to income inequality, lack of educational resources and rampant discrimination. It would seem that without a form of the Ludovico technique administered on viewers of A Clockwork Orange, they would merely replicate the actions they see on screen. Though copycat crimes did occur (most notably the gang-rape of a Dutch woman and fatal beating of a homeless man), few would argue that these individuals might not have already possessed a streak of cruelty and hatefulness toward certain vulnerable members of society. If all someone takes away from A Clockwork Orange is that it squarely condones the violence it portrays, they either left the theater after the first 45 minutes or thought of little else during the rest of the film’s runtime. Surely little additional influence was needed for these individuals to carry out their crimes, yet Kubrick and Burgess would still argue that even these heinous actors don’t deserve to have their humanity outright revoked by an uncaring and calculating state.

In the case of Burgess, the reality of having a loved one irrevocably hurt in this manner is not merely a fictional projection. While the author was stationed in Gibraltar during WWII, his first wife Lynne was assaulted and raped by a group of men during the blackout in London, which is believed to have caused her to miscarry. This event certainly influenced his writing of A Clockwork Orange, though it was not published until some 20-odd years after the incident. However, the author distanced himself from the work over time—largely due to the film’s success, which he felt forever warped public opinion of his novel’s ethos. There’s also the fact that Kubrick’s adaptation omits the book’s final chapter, which explores Alex’s redemption after he is released from the hospital, growing “bored” with ultra-violence and wishing to settle down and start a family. The American edition of the book was published without this final chapter, and Kubrick himself was only aware of its existence when he was nearly finished with his script. Ultimately, he felt it didn’t mesh with the rest of the book’s interrogation of free will and psychological conditioning, and had “no intention” of ever working it into the film adaptation.

This is where Burgess’ nagging Catholic sensibility is most present: Redemption cannot be imposed on an individual, but an individual can (and likely will) seek it for themselves one day. This does not necessarily have to manifest as a spiritual purge of past evils, but rather as a concerted effort to be a better human being to atone for the vile mistreatment of others in the past. Everyone has a conscience; more often than not, it requires some form of cleansing. Though Burgess has later admitted this ending was perhaps more didactic than the novel required, his insistence that the film muddled his message remained steadfast: “The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me till I die.”

Having passed away in 1993—six years before the film was again able to be screened in England—it appears this bad-faith reading did indeed follow him to the grave. But more profoundly, the ideological intensity of both the novel and film outweigh any semblance of moral outrage still associated with A Clockwork Orange. Its legacy as an innovative, highly prescient work of art will forever cement it as a necessary testament to the ease with which society can devolve into rogue mayhem—exponentially so in the case of the state as opposed to individual citizens, no matter how harmful their personal actions may be. As Kubrick so eloquently stated in the earlier interview: “No work of art has ever done social harm, though a great deal of social harm has been done by those who have sought to protect society against works of art which they regarded as dangerous.”


Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan