The Cynicism of Anthony Burgess

This post might be a little off topic but I couldn’t resist commenting on something I found very interesting in the reading for this week.

In  “Background, Issues, and a New Agenda,” McFarlane discusses audiences’ desires to see their favorite works of literature turned into film, to see if their mental images match those “created by the film-maker” (7).  Even if some people walk into the theater to watch an adaptation of a novel they love, with the preconceived notion that they’ll hate it, there is the attraction, much like watching a car accident, of seeing “somebody else’s phantasy” live on screen (7).  Are modern audiences today clamoring for films to be made of popular novels?  How often do we hear the comment “this would make a GREAT movie!”?

McFarlane continues to mention the theoretical notion that a novel is just one presentation of a narrative and that film is just another means by which this narrative can exist.  Anthony Burgess cynically comments on this idea by stating that “every best-selling novel has to be turned into a film, the assumption being that the book itself whets an appetite for the true fulfillment” (7).

In his 1972 article “Juice from A Clockwork Orange,” Burgess comments further on this issue.  Although very pleased with the film adaptation of his A Clockwork Orange (Burgess was very pleased with the choice of Kubrick to direct the film and called the work a ‘brilliant transference’ from page to screen (1)), Burgess laments the fact that although man’s greatest achievement is language, his greatest linguistic achievements are ‘invariably ignored by all but a few.  Spell a thing to the eye, that most crass and obvious of organs, and behold – a revelation” (1).

Burgess ends this part of his article by confiding in his readers a fear that the ‘film may supersede the novel” (1).  Although very pleased with Kubrick’s adaptation, he calls his novel an essentially “literary experience” (1).  He ends by consoling himself and states that A Clockwork Orange is not his favorite work, and that his favorite works “are so essentially literary that no film could be made out of them” (1).

A few questions arise from reading Burgess’ thoughts:

1.  To what extent is it ‘OK’ for a   film to supersede its source text?

2.  Does this devalue the original work?

3. If an adaptation can be a ‘brilliant transference’ of the original work, is it really so terrible that the adaptation will draw people to the original novel after seeing the film?

4.  How important is it to ‘read the book first, then see the movie?’

Apologies again if this is off topic.  I felt compelled to comment on something that jumped out at me in the reading for this week.

OH, on a sidenote:  Having only seen the film of A Clockwork Orange (I know, I know, shame on me…), I was wondering if anybody that has seen the film AND read the novel can share why they think Burgess calls the film a ‘brilliant transference’?  He articulates his thoughts in “Juice from A Clockwork Orange,” but I was wondering what my colleagues think?  Or if you even agree with the author himself?

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4 Responses to The Cynicism of Anthony Burgess

  1. Laura Callei says:

    Mike- I really love what you have to say here, and I don’t think you went too off topic. I am writing in response to your question about A Clockwork Orange, one of my favorite films of all time. I watched the film before I, ahem, attempted to read the novel. Let me tell you, it is extremely difficult to get through. As you know from the film, the language is extremely difficult to understand but, brilliantly Kubrick transcends this language perfectly onto the film. This is one thing I have noticed from the part of the novel I had actually read in comparison to the novel. I can see why Burgess would say that it is a ‘brilliant transference.’ I could not personally get through the entire novel but I love the film. I think that in this case it’s safe to say that the importance of the films fidelity of the novel is of no importance to me since it is one of my all time favorites!

  2. Marie Mosot says:

    To take your questions in turn

    1. Personally, I think it’s perfectly acceptable, perhaps even preferable, for a film to supersede its source. However, such a question assumes a standard established by the source material, if not at least a certain inviolability of the source material, which I (and I think McFarlane) think is detrimental to considerations of film and adaptations. It opens the door to questions of fidelity, which McFarlane is at pains to abandon, albeit to a certain extent; still, I think it’s an important step to make. Perhaps what you’re really asking is: why would it NOT be okay for a film to supersede its source?

    2. & 3. No. Again, perhaps what you’re really asking is: HOW can an adaptation devalue the original? Is it even possible? I don’t think so. As Bazin points out, for those who know the original, adaptations can do no harm to it; those unfamiliar with the original will either search out the source or benefit to a certain degree from a digested introduction to a piece of cultural currency. No one loses.

    4. It isn’t. In fact, it’s just an arbitrary custom. Precedence does not equal superiority. Furthermore, I would argue that an adaptation’s “success” might be better gauged by those unfamiliar with the original upon viewing; ignorance can allow, in this instance, for a certain critical distance that considers the film on its own merits. In the past, I’ve often watched the film first and then read the short story or novel, usually because I didn’t even know I was watching an adaptation to begin with! The prevalence of adaptations makes the read-first-then-watch imperative moot.

    But here’s a question: why is it “cynical”? Why is Burgess’s ultimately positive review of adaptations cynical? Why is the imperative to make the word into flesh, so to speak, a cynical view? In other words, why are we still allied to the supposed purity of the text?

  3. You are not off-topic. I find the questions that you have raised to be extremely interesting and worth exploring. However, I cannot answer any of your questions because I truly feel there is no answer.

    To what extent is it ‘OK’ for a film to supersede its source text?
    The people who despise adaptations and view films as a means to destroy the value of literature would probably say it is never acceptable for films to supersede their source texts. Someone like myself would ask for careful definitions of key words in your question. What do you mean by supersede? In quality? In expectation? Isn’t that an impossible definition to provide since it depends on each and every independent audience member?

    Does this devalue the original work?
    Again, adaptation-haters (you know what I mean) would claim that films devalue the original work by providing an ‘easy way out’ for audience members to sit back and relax and mindlessly take in some type of entertainment. Personally I would never say it devalues the original work, but it just causes tremendous controversy over what is right, or what is better.

    How important is it to read the book first, then see the movie?
    As a teacher, I have begged my students to read the books before seeing the movies. However, for non-students, I do not think the order in which you experience a story is important. Though some would definitely argue that viewing a film first takes away the necessity to read and explore the novel from which it is based on.

  4. Sara Tener says:

    I watched A Clockwork Orange a couple of times before reading the novel once a number of years later, and I must admit that I prefer the film to the original, British edition that I picked up. In that edition of the novel, Alex is, to an extent, rehabilitated at the conclusion. Though McFarlane would obviously point out that Kubrick’s adaptation is going against a cardinal function of the original source, in my opinion, it felt more realistic for a sociopath to stick to his guns.
    The film is very effective in conveying, above all else, the violence of the novel, and if I recall correctly, it also retains most of the informants and the style of the dialogue. However, some of the catalysers are different. For example, how the writer discovers Alex’s crime and how he gets enlisted in the experiment. Personally, I recall being particularly struck by the ages of the characters in the novel and their depiction on the screen. Though I knew, while I was watching the film, that the characters were supposed to be in high school, the novel did not allow you the illusion of them seeming older.
    After reading McFarlane’s article, I am inclined to disagree with Burgess calling Kubrick’s version a “brilliant transference.” I would label it an excellent adaptation that attempts to be true to particular elements of the letter and the spirit of the novel.

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