A Clockwork Orange: The Book, The Movie, The Play

Tonight is the opening night of Theatre ‘d Art’s production of A Clockwork Orangein which I am playing Alex’s mother and the orderly who straps him into the cinny contraption. Aside from the insane story, the insane in-your-face staging (we’re doing it promenade-style), and the insane insanity inherent in the piece itself…this has been a basic, not-insane lesson in storytelling for me.

At this point I have three experiences with the story of Alex DeLarge: book, movie, play.

Basic storyline (for those who may not know): Alex is a Beethoven-loving gang leader in a dystopian world dominated by troubled teenagers. One night his raping and pillaging goes too far and he kills a woman, is betrayed by his droogs, and is carted off to jail. He hears about this new psychological treatment created by this dude, Ludovico, which gets you out of jail faster and decides to participate in the treatment. The catch: he will get sick every time he is confronted with violence. He will be made “good,” but only because the doctors have mind-fucked him. As he tries to sort out his new life, the question becomes:

Is being good at the cost of personal choice bad?

To illustrate his point, Burgess created several scenes of crazed depravity at the opening of the story. And this depravity is what got me thinking about how certain elements in a story are told. The (what I’ll call) visceral-ness of A Clockwork Orange is revealed in a different way for each manifestation of the story. In each of the variations, there is an alteration in how some things are handled.

The reason these situations are handled differently for stage, screen, and page is because different mediums create different levels of visceral-ness. It seems painfully obvious. I’ve heard some people say movies can do some things better than books and vice versa…but I’d argue it’s not a matter of better or worse, just different. Throw in a third medium, like theatre, and there’s and additional round of elements that work differently. (Man, I feel like a need a thesaurus.)

However, adaptations can tell the same story with the same level of visceral-ness. You just have to adjust how the story is shown/told.   

For example:

Sex with the Girls
In the movie version of Clockwork, Alex hits on a couple girls at the music library and they go home and have lots of sex — portrayed in a time lapse. Now, movies have an automatic ‘fourth wall’ built in. There’s some distance created by the screen. So how to make Alex’s Lots-o-Sex scene impactful to the audience?

The visceral element of the scene is inherent in the amount of nudity (totes nude, folks) and the time lapse element itself which indicates hours are passing and they just keep having sex in a variety of positions, attitudes, states of dress, etc. Not to mention how long the time lapse goes on….This scene is one of many used to show how jacked-up young Alex is.

However, Burgess didn’t have a time lapse available to him with just words. If a picture’s worth a thousand words, then a time lapse would probably be worth a gazillion and Clockwork would be more like a Proustian exploration of depravity and the reader would be so bored by the infinite descriptions he wouldn’t get to the hospital scenes until Volume 7. What does Burgess do to show how fucked up Alex is?

In the book, the girls are ten. Ten years old.

See what happened there? It took one sentence and a fragment and I bet you’re thinking: That’s fucked up. The reaction is from your gut. It’s visceral in its visceral-ness

The play doesn’t have that scene at all, and I bet I know why…so to illustrate, I’m going to talk about another scene:

The Rape Scene
I said before that movies have an inherent fourth wall, and generally plays do as well. However, while we understand Malcolm McDowell touched his co-stars and wore a penis mask on his face, we’re still protected by the screen.

In theatre, you’re watching a real live human touch another real live human right in front of you. The only protection is air.

Our production is even more intimate than that. In a promenade-style, you go to the action, it doesn’t come to you. When Alex rapes F.Alexander’s wife, he has her bent over a couch right in front of your face. In the end, the lights go off at the very crux of the moment — and the audience breathes a sigh of relief. The theatre doesn’t have to go as far to create a visceral reaction because it’s right there. If we cut the clothing off of our actress’s breasts and stripped her down like Kubrick’s movie, it would be far too much.

Going back to the Sex with the Girls scene — if a theatre did that, it would be too much. Plus, I think there are laws….

So, the next time you see a movie or a play based on a book and something’s different — just keep in mind that sometimes things get changed so the impact of the story is the most effective.

And here’s the trailer to Theatre ‘d Art’s production. Opens tonight! If you’re in Colorado Springs, we run this weekend, next weekend, and the weekend after.

Third Culture Kids

Writers like Alameddine are interesting because living in more than one culture (he grew up in Lebanon and Kuwait, then moved to England, then to America) gives unique flavors to the writing.  An article I read for my thesis is “Home: Territory and Identity” by J.M. Wise.  It’s an interesting read and I definitely recommend it.  One of the key ideas he talks about is the concept of a “Third Culture Kid”.  Typically, these are the children born in one country of parents of another, so the children belong simultaneously to both their parents’ culture and their own birth culture.  As a result, “they are not truly of the culture of their parents, or of the culture in which they live, but form a third culture” (306).  For our purposes here, just take out “children” and replace it with “books” or “stories.” 

Rabih Alameddine’s The Hakawati is a good example of a “Third Culture Kid” as it combines the culture of origin, in this case, of the Middle East, with American and creates something new in the combination. The form of the novel itself demonstrates the merger as the novel’s format is modeled on oral story telling tradition, blending conventions of the written novel with oral performance. 

The first few lines of the novel make the influence from oral tradition explicit, “Listen. Allow me to be your god. Let me take you on a journey beyond imagining. Let me tell you a story” (1). Oral story telling technique is exemplified not only when the narrator occasionally addresses the reader directly, as in the previous quote, but also in the structure of the book, which is multi-layered and includes stories about telling stories as well as stories within stories. There are points in the novel where there are as many as four layers of stories within stories. 

 None of this is a typical western story telling structure, yet he is writing for a western audience.  The writing is all about combining the two perspectives and, by doing so, creating something that belongs to neither and is a combination of both.

Layers Like Baklava

I have attached a diagram to illustrate the many layers of The Hakawati.  The novel’s structure is kind of like a braid.  There are three main lines of story that intertwine: The present, the past, and the fairy tale.  These main lines then have offshoots, little mini stories, that add even more complexity to the structure. 

You end up getting this beautiful mishmash of reality and fantasy and the two rub up against each other and inform each other.  Mostly, the overlap is in tone, or adding a little bit of context to another part.  The different story lines don’t really talk out loud to each other much.  Rather, they seem to whisper. 

Just like melody and harmonies in music, the layers of the storylines all blend together to make a much bigger sound than one instrument playing alone.  It’s a very cool effect.  And now, without further ado, I give you the rough diagram (this is just for illustration, it’s by no means exact nor comprehensive.)

Modes of Storytelling

This month’s mentor is one I like so much I actually wrote about him for my MA thesis.  Since I don’t want to let all that dense academic jargon go to waste, I’m going to be pulling bits from my thesis to help me talk about Rabih Alameddine.

First, let’s talk a little about The Hakawati (translation: The Storyteller).  It’s a novel that’s not quite a novel.  When we talk about novels, we usually talk about plot structure, arcs, one cohesive line that takes us from the first chapter to the last.  Some authors mix it up and give us something unexpected.  Alameddine is one of them.  In his book, he’s giving us a more literal representation of a traditional oral storyteller by structuring The Hakawati in a different way.

The book Orality and Literacy, by Walter J. Ong focuses on the different characteristics between written and oral culture. Among those differences is the structure of narrative, which he explicates in the chapter titled “Oral Memory, the Story and Characterization.” The inherent difference between “orality” and literacy lies within relying on either memory or text, between listening to the story or reading it:

What made a good epic poet was, among other things of course, first, tacit acceptance of the fact that episodic structure was the only way and the totally natural way of imagining and handling lengthy narrative, and, second, possession of supreme skill in managing flashbacks and other episodic techniques… If we take the climactic linear plot as the paradigm of plot, the epic has no plot. Strict plot for lengthy narrative comes with writing. 141
Alameddine’s book combines the physical text of literary tradition, with the episodic techniques of oral tradition to create a book which belongs to both, thus making it wholly neither, but instead a third form born of the hybridization.

When I read The Hakawati, suddenly 1,001 Arabian Nights made sense.  Based on the layered storytelling structure, I realized how Scheherazade could maintain enough suspense to buy herself another night, and another, and another.  It’s not just that she stopped in the middle of a story at dawn, it’s that she stopped in the middle of a story, which was really part of another story, and even when she finished the story in the story, she was still nowhere finished with the first story.  It’s like the best TV series where in each episode they conclude one complication, just to reveal that Complication A affects Complication B, which triggers Complication C.  For every thread they tie up, they unravel one or two more.  That’s what keeps us eagerly anticipating the next episode.  In a way, we have oral storytelling structure to thank for that.

Whew.  I promise the next post will be more concise.  It will also have at least one picture.  Stay tuned!

When Writing Is It

Some people ask, how do you know you’re a writer?

Answers vary: when I’ve finished the first draft of my first novel; when I’ve been accepted by an agent; when I’ve been published; when I’ve sold X amount of books; when I’m an answer on Jeopardy!

I think the answer is more simple and more complex than that.

As I’m sure a great many of you know, Terry Pratchett suffers from Alzheimer’s. He announced his condition in 2007 – notably responding: there’s time for at least a few more books yet.”

Pratchett also has recently become very vocal about assisted suicide and apparently has his own consent papers for Switzerland’s assisted suicide clinic Dignitas. But he hasn’t signed yet…”The only thing stopping me [signing them] is that I have made this film [Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die, a BBC2 documentary] and I have a bloody book to finish.

Nowadays, Pratchett writes via voice recognition software because he can’t type anymore. But he’s still writing. Still telling stories. Still telling people where to go if they don’t like what he does.

And I think that’s what makes you a writer: when the world gives you a sh*t hand and you’re still at it. P.G. Wodehouse died with a pen in his hand. Mark Twain, suffering from horrid arthritis in his right hand, learned to write left-handed. Anne Rice’s daughter died and she created Interview with the Vampire – and a young, immortal character named Claudia. Let’s not forget Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby who freakin’ blinked his booked The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

I think you know you’re a writer, a real writer, when you’re willing to write through anything: cancer, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, losing your job, divorce, or whatever dark, horrible thing you can think of – and you know that writing will make you feel better. It has nothing to do with publishing or money or fame. Just telling stories lifts some of that burden up and off of you.

Sure. Eventually that other stuff might catch up with you…but in the meantime, there’s a bloody book to finish.

Chapters in Which Something Happens

My daughter, who is three, is on her way to being the next Neil Gaiman.

Bronwen likes to tell stories. The other day we were driving somewhere, the destination is unimportant, and she asked me if I wanted to hear a story. Always open to the possibility of stealing my children’s ideas and using them in a story of my own, I said, “Sure.”

She began like she always does: “Okay, here I go.” (Because she’s learned the hard way that we need to know she has started.)

She goes on for a period of time describing a situation with dragons and knights in shining armor and Peter Pan and dinosaurs before she noticeably runs out of steam. But lack of a sequential, logical plot point is not a deterrent to Bronwen, master of the first draft that she is – oh no, she says “And then something happens” and we’re off to the next portion of the story in which Captain Hook saves the day when he turns into a ninja and slays Shredder.

Subject matter is not the only way she is like Gaiman. (Joking. Don’t yell at me.) Note the auspicious use of ye olde literary device: And Then Something Happens.


Now we get to why Gaiman is a really kick-ass storyteller. He has embraced the Something Happens. Which means he is not a boring storyteller. To tell a good story, stuff has to happen. Whether it’s in logical order or believable is beside the point at this moment. With Gaiman, just assume that it does make sense – or, rather, he will make it make sense to you (the key!).

And I knew I was in pretty darn good hands when I picked up Anansi Boys just from the chapter titles. Chapter titles are risky things, as we talked about before with Margaret Atwood – who also gets away with titles – because they can give away too much. But what’s interesting about Anansi’s chapter titles is that they reassure the reader that something does happen.

A sampling:
Chapter One: Which is Mostly About Names and Family Relationships
Chapter Two: Which is Mostly About the Things that Happen After Funerals
Chapter Three: In Which There is a Family Reunion 

From that tiny bit, I can assume that there is a family dynamic heavily at work in the story and that Point A leads to Point B because Something Happens. The first chapter is telling the reader who the family is, the second chapter takes place at a funeral – and I can assume that a family member has died (Something Happened), and that the family reunion after the funeral will not run smoothly because of the Something that Has Happened which will cause Something Else to Happen. It’s all very dramatic.

So here’s a possibly interesting way to apply Gaiman’s storytelling to our own work, if you’re so inclined: title the chapters “In Which __________ Happens.” If nothing actually happens in that chapter, then you need to reevaluate what you want that chapter to say…and if it doesn’t say anything, I think you’ve found some pieces to scrap/think heavily about cutting. (And don’t forget to delete the chapter titles before you submit your book around – you don’t want to give everything away.) Hm, come to think of it, that could be a cool way to help you write a synopsis too….