A Clockwork Controversy

Of all of Stanley Kubrick's films, A Clockwork Orange is still the most notorious. 

Released in 1971, Kubrick's film version of Anthony Burgess' dystopian novel represented a radical departure from other films of that era.  Produced, directed and written by Kubrick himself, the finished product stirred controversy from the very beginning.  With Malcolm McDowell as the charismatic lead, the film showed the anti-hero Alex and his life of extreme violence as he led his gang of "droogs" through a spree of violence and murder.  The violence culminated with a graphic rape perpretrated onscreen (along with  McDowell's memorable rendition of "Singin' in the Rain") . The film continued with Alex's arrest, imprisonment, and bizarre brainwashing using the "Ludovico treatment" (a thinly disguised parody of classical and operant conditioning).  In writing his 1962 novel, Anthony Burgess had intended the book as an indictment of attempts at eliminating free will (and partly based on the 1942 attack on his pregnant wife by four army deserters).  Suffice it to say, he and 220px-Clockwork_orangeA[1] Kubrick had radically different ideas of how the book should be adapted to the screen (Kubrick had, in fact, rejected the script that Burgess himself had written).  Despite their differences, Burgess was often drafted by Kubrick to defend the film against later critics.

 By the early 1970s, as Kubrick and other directors began abandoning existing conventions against extreme filmmaking, scenes of graphic violence were becoming more common (Dirty Harry and Straw Dogs premiered that same year).   Although critics were polarized on the film (Roger Ebert called it an "ideological mess" while Pauline Kael dismissed the film as pornographic), it still garnered numerous honors including an Academy Award nomination for best picture.  To avoid an X rating in the United States, Kubrick removed several scenes to earn it a more acceptable R rating although the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office For Film and Broadcasting still gave it a C rating (Condemned) due to the extreme sex and violence.

Given that A Clockwork Orange was a film about British society (albeit a highly satirical one) , it hardly seems surprising that the most strenuous opposition to the film was in Britain itself.   Even before the movie came out, media sources and British politicians predicted copycat violence.  One article in the Evening News published in early 1972 and titled "Clockwork Oranges are Ticking Time Bombs" was characteristic of the media frenzy.  British MP Maurice Edelman predicted that "When Clockwork Orange is released, it will lead to a "Clockwork cult" which will magnify teenage violence".  Even soon after its premiere, legal claims began trickling in about supposed copycat violence based on events in the film.   Although a direct causal link could not be established,  Stanley Kubrick withdrew the film from British theatres and banned it from ever being shown during his lifetime.  Despite allegations that Kubrick had withdrawn the film due to fears of copycat violence, his widow would later confirm that he had done it on police advice due to death threats directed against him and his family.   While Kubrick had made other films in the United Kingdom (including 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lolita), it was A Clockwork Orange that effectively ended his film career there.  The ban would continue until 2000 when it was re-released in Great Britain to critical acclaim.

Did A Clockwork Orange actually inspire copycat violence?   Despite media reports surrounding alleged crimes by teenagers copying events seen in the movie, actual evidence is scarce.  Virtually every act of teenage violence occurring in the United Kingdom that year was linked to the movie in some way although the connection was tenuous at best (and often anecdotal).  The most well documented case involved sixteen-year old Richard Palmer who went on trial for othe murder of a tramp in Bletchley, England.  A consultant psychiatrist called in by the defense attorneys testified that Palmer was "acting a part very similar to the characterizations given by A Clockwork Orange".   Reporters seized on this testimony and the Daily Mail publicized the case in a headline that read "Why "Clockwork Orange" Boy Murdered a Tramp".  The fact that Palmer had only read the Burgess book and had not actually seen the movie (he was underage) was largely overlooked.  Despite the actual lack of evidence, the role that the movie supposedly played in inspiring copycat violence took on a life of its own and is still being cited decades after the film's release.

Questions surrounding the harmful effects of violence and sex in the media on children and adolescents are hardly new. Movie censorship dates back to the dawn of film (although it typically focused on sexual content) and there have been frequent moral panics involving comic books and television.  Media psychology researchers have noted that children are frequently subjected to violence (one study has estimated that the average child has witnessed 18,000 murders on television by the age of eighteen) although a clear causal link between media and violence has never been consistently demonstrated.   Epidemiologist Brandon Centerwall has observed that as many as 25 per cent of  inmates in U.S. prisons have committed offenses patterned after similar crimes seen on television and that several high-profile juvenile murders reflect media influences.  Later critics have noted however that homicide rates have dropped in recent years despite media representations of violence continuing unchanged.   

In spite of the lack of a clear causal link being found,  surveys have consistently shown that most television watchers believe that a link exists.  A 1996 nationwide survey of U.S. television watchers has found that 92 percent of respondents agree that violence in television programs impacts real-life violence (74 per cent felt that it has a "large impact").   Similar attitudes exist concerning copycat suicides as well.  Ultimately however, the final decision on whether to commit violence rests with the perpetrator directly and that is where the final responsibility should lie.   Would the violent crime have happened if the offender had never seen the movie or television program that supposedly inspired  it?  That is a question that will likely continue to be asked whenever new high-profile crimes occur. 

Just stay tuned...



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