Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange is based on Anthony Burgess' 1962 novel of the same name. The title comes from the Cockney expression "as queer as a clockwork orange", which means "very queer indeed (the meaning can be, but isn't necessarily, sexual)" (Burgess viii). In his essay "Clockwork Oranges", Anthony Burgess wrote, "this title would be appropriate for a story about the application of Pavlovian or mechanical laws to an organism, which, like a fruit, was capable of colour and sweetness". A Clockwork Orange is Kubrick's most controversial film and was actually banned in the UK until after Kubrick's death (although Burgess' novel remained in circulation). Regardless, AFI currently ranks A Clockwork Orange at #4 of the best Science Fiction films of all time, #21 on the Top 100 Thrills list, and Alex DeLarge is #12 on the Top 100 Villains list.
When the novel of A Clockwork Orange was published, screenwriter Terry Southern, who previously collaborated with Stanley Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove, optioned the rights to the novel himself. He shared the novel with Kubrick, who was "initially put off by the strange language" (McDougal 7). The option eventually lapsed, and Southern's lawyer, Si Livintoff, picked up the option and hired Anthony Burgess to write the screenplay himself. Livintoff "attempted to interest the Rolling Stones in the project, with the idea of Mick Jagger playing Alex and the Stones playing his droogs" (7). However, the Stones were too busy and the project fell apart. Kubrick had been busy with other projects throughout the 1960s and was developing a film about Napoleon, but the financiers backed out. Kubrick went back to A Clockwork Orange and, the second time around, decided that he wanted to direct the adaptation.
Kubrick wrote the screenplay for A Clockwork Orange himself, rejecting two existing versions - the first script by Southern and Michael Cooper and the second written by Burgess. Kubrick chose not to include the 21st chapter of the novel in his adaptation, which appeared in the British version of the novel but absent in the American version. The 21st Chapter showed Alex as an adult, settled down and married with children, but Kubrick found it too "blandly optimistic" (Burgess p xx-xxi).
Kubrick was immediately interested in Malcolm McDowell for the part of Alex after seeing him in the film if..... Kubrick compared the character of Alex to Shakespeare's Richard III, calling him "a character whom you should dislike and fear and yet, you find yourself drawn very quickly into his world and find yourself seeing things through his eyes" (Alpert). McDowell speaks warmly about his collaboration with Kubrick, who took many of McDowell's suggestions when formulating the character of Alex, like his iconic costume and the idea of using "Singin' in the Rain" for the attack on the Alexanders.
Production took place in and around London from September 1970 - April 1971. Kubrick used many wide-angle lenses and hand-held shots to achieve the film's surreal quality and show the story from Alex's point of view.
A Clockwork Orange was made for a relatively modest $2.2 million and was a huge hit with American audiences (despite the 'X' rating), grossing $26 million. It was nominated for several awards, including the 1971 Academy Award for Best Picture (awarded to The French Connection). Critics, however, were divided. Roger Ebert famously gave the film 2 stars, calling it an "ideological mess, a paranoid right-wing fantasy masquerading as an Orwellian warning". Conservative groups protested the film because of the explicit representation of violence and sex. "A number of newspapers in America refused to take advertising for the film, prompting Stanley Kubrick to write The Detroit News a letter protesting the action and stating that 'for any newspaper to deliberately attempt to suppress another equally important communications medium seems especially ugly and short-sighted." (McDougal 3).
The British Board of Film Classification also gave the film an X rating (they had advised distributors that they would likely reject the film after seeing Southern and Cooper's screenplay). However, in 1973, copycat crimes from the film started occurring. "A year after its release, a group of young men raped a 17-year old girl in Britain while singing 'Singin' in the Rain' - a re-enactment of one of the film's most famous scenes." (Dalrymple) In addition to these violent occurrences, Stanley Kubrick started receiving threats against his family, and decided to withdraw the film from distribution in the UK in 1974. It was banned until after Kubrick's death.
Meanwhile, Anthony Burgess became increasingly more disillusioned with Kubrick's adaptation and continued to write about his own vision for A Clockwork Orange for years after the film's release. He had previously been a fan of Kubrick's work, especially 2001: A Space Odyssey but found A Clockwork Orange "disappointing", particularly because of Kubrick's choice to eliminate the 21st chapter. He was not happy about the fact that the book's popularity was a result of Kubrick's film. He eventually tried to make a musical out of his novel - on the second attempt, it made it to the stage and received mixed reviews.
Despite the controversy, Kubrick's mastery of his form is thoroughly evident in A Clockwork Orange, and the legacy of the film is still as powerful as it was when the film came out. It has had a lasting impact on the world of contemporary music. Sunday Times journalist Hardeep Phull writes, "One of the reasons that A Clockwork Orange survived those years in the margins [while it was banned in the UK] is because of the way the music world adopted it wholeheartedly. The themes of rebellion, morality and plentiful dark humour in both the film and book still provide a natural lyrical commonality for the world of rock ‘n’ roll." He cites songs from Blur, Rob Zombie, U2, No Doubt, and Echo and the Bunnymen that take their names or thematic content from the film.
The film's lasting impression on filmmaking is immeasurable. When late actor Heath Ledger was preparing to play The Joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Night, he kept a diary of what he imagined the villain's mentality to look like, and it contained several photos of Alex DeLarge. Quentin Tarantino based his torture scene in Reservoir Dogs, which is set to "Stuck in the Middle with You", on the scene where Alex attacks the Alexanders while singing "Singin' in the Rain".