Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel, “A Clockwork Orange,” is a shocking and fascinating film. Upon its initial release, it was rated “X” in the United States before it being re-edited to obtain an “R” rating. Beyond its cinematic worth the intense violence and misogyny it embodies and suggests, however, the film reveals much about the then and now contemporary attitudes towards criminal punishment prevailing in western democracies. Law professor Robert Batey claims that the film provides a vehicle “for students to examine fundamental aspects of criminal law.” Taken to the next level, the film also reminds us of the many international and domestic legal questions provoked with respect to human subject experimentation and the creation of the Nuremberg Code following the Nazi atrocities of the Second World War, the Belmont Report in the United States following the notorious Tuskegee experiments, as well as the infamous MKUltra program sanctioned by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The film remains, in some sense, timeless for these reasons. But it is even more significant because the Kafkaesque and dystopian prophecy of the future it portends may be extant in modern day America. The film is consumed by themes of maintaining law and order, reducing criminality, and identifying appropriate forms of punishment for criminal violence and deviant behavior. On a deeper level, the film questions the roles of society and government in creating the social and legal realities in which we live.
“A Clockwork Orange” thus may not only be Kubrick’s quixotic fantasy of violence and brutal misogyny but more the ideological suggestion of a pseudo-fascistic incarcerative police state that may one day arise in America and other Western democracies in response to violent criminal or deviant behavior, or perhaps even with the aim of “brain-washing.” Although mostly the work of English authors such as Anthony Burgess, George Orwell, and Alan Moore, the idea of a reemerging fascist state that dubiously imprisons and variously tortures its citizens is not unimaginable in the eyes of Americans such as Naomi Wolf.
Echoing this possibility, “A Clockwork Orange” is a surreal, often uncomfortable portrayal of a once respectable society in social and legal decay. The film presents a frightening picture of a society where violence has begun to tighten its stranglehold on the populace. While a sturdy police and authoritarian state presence exists to combat the persistent violence, society is on the brink of total chaos as hooligans ruthlessly threaten law and order. The central themes and events of the film illustrate the film’s continued relevance to contemporary issues including the desire to combat youth violence, the desire for social, moral, and legal order, the desire for justice, the desire to prevent cruel and unusual punishment, as the well as the desire to meet the goals of retribution and rehabilitation in criminal punishment.
Produced almost 40 years ago, “A Clockwork Orange,” as an expression of political culture, still resonates in contemporary American society. The themes and events present in the film presciently serve as indicia of the social, political and legal reality the nation may find itself in if the government does not cease to circumvent the rule of law in some cases, does not continue to zealously protect the natural and constitutional rights of citizens, and alter its current practice of incarcerating increasing numbers of prisoners in others.
The paper performs a legal analysis of the film and explore the relevancy it has for modern day America. While some issues may remain unresolved, it adopts a normative view of the law and, mirroring the central events of the film, analyzes the retributivist nature of juvenile punishment, the importance of preventing cruel and unusual punishment, and the legal status of the forced administration of psychotropic drugs to prisoners.
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