'A Clockwork Orange' Strikes 40

Stanley Kubrick's adaptation remains influential—but not for all the reasons we expect.

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>Warner Bros

On Saturday, the New York Times ran an opinion piece about the concept of a morality pill, a theoretical-but-apparently-not-implausible panacea for humankind's ethical shortcomings. Think Chicken Soup for the Absent Soul. Of all the possible meditations on free will and human reform, the one cultural allusion the authors made in the article was to A Clockwork Orange, referencing both the novel by Anthony Burgess and the film by Stanley Kubrick.

The article explained that Kubrick's film, which was released in America 40 years ago today, had set off a debate at the time over whether it would ever be virtuous or permissible to use science to deprive someone violent of free will. It's not surprise fact that this debate hasn't gone away, given that A Clockwork Orange has never gone away. The film's legacy has been chewed over plenty, and at 40, it remains many things: a cultural touchstone, a blueprint for artistic emulation and fashionable imitation. Decades later, the diffusion of the film's iconography through pop culture continues unrelentingly; its images have been copped and borrowed by everyone from David Bowie and Led Zeppelin to Madonna, Lady Gaga, The Simpsons, Usher, and Metallica.

Pauline Kael dubbed the film "a porno-violent sci-fi comedy." She was criticizing the movie, but she was, in a way, right.

And yet A Clockwork Orange remains in some ways misunderstood, and some of its innovations still haven't been given enough due: its strength as a genre-less film, its insurgent marketing plan, its stylized violence, and its unprecedented use of music, all of which shaped both film and pop culture as well as influenced society at-large for decades to come.

We can get a glimpse of the film's prismatic legacy in the rankings from American Film Institute, which, while not to be taken too seriously, speak to a broader misrepresentation of the film over time. For example: despite sharing very few traits with many of the action flicks or tense, slow-simmered classics that gum up the AFI Top 100 Thrills list, the film is ranked No. 21 on the list. And despite not being (by any acclamation) a science-fiction film, A Clockwork Orange is ranked No. 4 on the AFI Best Sci-Fi List.

Mike Kaplan, who was Kubrick's aide-de-camp and the film's promotional master—"before 'marketing' had entered the industry vernacular" he explains—takes umbrage at the designation of the film in any category.

"He [Kubrick] was incapable of making a pure genre movie—too smart—though many were mistakenly promoted that way," Kaplan says. " Clockwork doesn't fit into the traditional 'science fiction' or 'violent' category, which was attempted to expand the audience after its successful initial campaign. Everyone wanted to fit Stanley and the film in a pigeonhole."

Well, almost everyone. At the time of its release, critic Pauline Kael scathingly dubbed the film "a porno-violent sci-fi comedy." She was criticizing the movie, but she was right to recognize it belonged to no single genre. Its varying themes and social satire, its portrayal of government, politicians of both the left and right, church, family, friendship, and many other instruments of society as broken or impotent, went beyond the normal bounds of most films of its era. The use of Nadsat, the slang Burgess invented for the novel and Kubrick later adapted, kept the film from being moored to the time period of its release (although many other stylistic cracks allow some light through). The film's violence garnered it an X-rating and, following a surge of protests and copycat crimes, Kubrick withdrew the film in the United Kingdom, a ban that lasted just beyond until his death in 1999, lending it its cultish aura.

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Adam Chandler is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers global news.

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