A Clockwork Orange by Stanley Kubrick (UK/USA, 1971, 136 min.). Set in a dystopian Britain of the near future, Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s novella focuses on the activities of our teenage antihero and narrator Alex and his gang of ‘droogs’. The action opens in the Korova Milk Bar, where the boys drink ‘moloko plus’ in preparation for “a bit of the old ultraviolence” – a crime-spree that eventually results in Alex’s arrest and imprisonment for murder. While in prison, Alex is offered a revolutionary new treatment that earns him an early release, however, his transformation leaves him ill equipped to deal with the perils of life in the outside world.
During his treatment, Alex sits in a cinema with his ‘gulliver’ strapped to a headrest and ‘like lidlocks’ on his eyes, while violent images are projected onto the screen by the scientists behind. The scene recalls that described in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (The Republic) where chained prisoners, who have been captive since birth in an underground chamber, observe shadows on the back wall of the cave. Unable to move, or even turn their heads, the prisoners cannot see the fire that burns behind them or the objects that pass between them and it and, as such, falsely believe the shadows to be all that there is. For Plato, the prisoners will only be liberated from their state of ignorance by leaving the cave and coming to see reality. In a strange inversion of Plato’s allegory, Alex must enter the cave in order to gain his freedom from imprisonment. Kubrick seems to hint at this reversal when he has Alex comment that “the colours of the real world only look really real when you viddy them on a screen”. However, while he gains his liberty, Alex loses something more valuable. As the prison chaplain states: “Choice! The boy has no real choice, has he? … He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice”.
Plato’s allegory has manifold meanings; in this context it highlights the extent to which we are subject to control and manipulation and accordingly the need for us to question our deeply held beliefs and values. Unlike Alex, we can choose whether to act on our desires or not. However, our desires and the choices we make are the result of a variety of factors – education, religion, family – that are no less effective than Alex’s conditioning. As we too sit in the cinema, transfixed by the images in front of us, we are invited to consider our own position in the cave.
The University of Edinburgh, Scotland