One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) combines the personal and professional experiences of Ken Kesey and reflects the culture in which it was written, yet it stands strong on its own merits. Kesey developed the novel while a graduate student in Stanford University’s Creative Writing Program. The novel was partly inspired by Kesey's part-time job as an orderly in the Palo Alto Menlo Park Veterans' Hospital. Kesey also had begun participating in experiments involving LSD and other substances for Stanford’s Psychology Department. Speaking to patients under the influence of LSD, Kesey began to perceive that society had turned functional people insane instead of allowing them to find their way back to functioning in society. Kesey's use of LSD also prompted him to have hallucinations while working as an orderly. Kesey often imagined seeing a large Indian mopping the floors of the hospital, prompting him to later add the character of Chief Bromden as the novel's narrator.
Kesey published One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to great critical and commercial success. Upon publication, the novel had a tremendous effect on baby boomers just beginning to awaken to stirrings of rebellion, for it mirrored and stirred up their new challenges to authority. Kesey also found himself financially relieved by the success of the novel, which allowed him to move his family to a large estate in La Honda, California, which became the site of his wildest days as a bohemian, partying with the likes of the Hells Angels, Allen Ginsberg, and San Francisco's hippest cultural figures.
The information that he included from his experiences at the veterans' hospital proved problematic; Kesey and his publisher, Viking Press, were sued by a plaintiff who claimed that a minor character in the novel, a Red Cross nurse, was based on her and that she was unfairly portrayed. The case resulted in revisions to subsequent editions of the book. The Red Cross nurse was changed to the nameless character Public Relation. The plaintiff in the case later became a novelist herself (and was later the subject of a defamation lawsuit).
In the context of the changing attitudes at the time, the novel in some sense forms a bridge between the bohemian beatnik movements of the 1950s and the counterculture movements of the 1960s. Kesey was significantly inspired by the beatnik culture around Stanford, and in the novel Kesey deals with a number of themes that would be significant in the counterculture movement, including notions of freedom from repressive authority and a more liberated view of sexuality. Kesey himself became a highly influential counterculture figure as part of a group known as the Merry Pranksters.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest became so famous that it was adapted to become a legendary addition to theater and film as well. Dale Wasserman made the novel into a two-act Broadway play (1974) starring Kirk Douglas, and a 2001 Broadway revival starring Gary Sinise and Amy Morton won the Tony Award for Best Play Revival. In 1975, Milos Forman directed a successful film adaptation of the novel. The film, recently named as one of the twenty greatest films by the American Film Institute, featured Jack Nicholson as R.P. McMurphy and Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched. The film also won the Academy Award for Best Picture and gained awards for Nicholson, Fletcher, and Forman. It remains one of only three films to have swept the top five categories at the Oscars.
Kesey originally was involved at the creative and production levels of the film, but he left two weeks into filming because he disagreed about dropping Chief Bromden's narration, because he objected to the casting of Jack Nicholson in the lead role (he wanted Gene Hackman), and because of a dispute over the $20,000 he was owed for the film rights. Kesey later would claim he never saw the film. Even so, his wife has said he generally supported the film and was pleased that it had been made.