Monday, July 27, 2009

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest by ken Kesey

They're out there.

Last week I went to one of my favorite used bookstores, Baybooks, in Concord and overheard one of the clerks say to another, "Why would she read the book first? Won't it just spoil the movie?"

While I've never felt reading a book first spoiled the movie, there are some movies that forever spoil the book. After you've seen Gregory Peck's portrayal of Atticus Finch you will always see him when you read To Kill a Mockingbird. Once you've seen Humphrey Bogart every Dashell Hammet novel you read will summon his image to your mind. I imagine most fans of Harry Potter have a difficult time getting Daniel Radcliffe out of their heads when re-reading their favorite volume. A great performance can forever affect how you read a book.

This was the case with One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey. Not just with the lead character, but with just about all of them. Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Brad Dourif, Danny Devito, Christopher Lloyd and Will Sampson all made such a strong impression in the 1975 film that it's difficult to get them out of your head when you read the book. The fact that the movie follows the book so closely does not help.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey is the story of a group of men living in a psychiatric hospital in the early 1960's. The men live a strictly regimented life, presided over by the head nurse, Nurse Ratched, who controls every aspect of their daily routine. Each man is there for a different reason, but for a clear reason. They all belong there. They all need help. Enter Randle McMurphy, a transfer from a prison work camp, a move he engineered believing that life in a hospital would be an improvement over life on a work farm. McMurphy upsets the routine as soon as he arrives. He gets the other men to gamble, smuggles in wine and women, breaks the rules whenever he can, assuming that he has only six more months to go and then he'll be free.

Nurse Ratched stands in his way. She controls everything on the ward, including the doctors who are all her juniors. Any change McMurphy wants to make must have her approval; any rule he breaks faces her justice. He is determined to break her constant cool demeanor, to get her to react to him with passion, until he finds out that she holds the key to his freedom. Once committed to a psychiatric hospital, a patient stays there until the doctors say he is cured, not until his sentence is up. The doctors will do whatever Nurse Ratched says, so McMurphy must win her approval if he is to win his freedom.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is well worth reading even if you have seen the movie. While it's different from the movie, it is deeper. By spending more time with them in the novel we get to know the characters much more than we do in the movie. The narrator is Chief Bromden, known as Chief Broom, a Native American who is believed to be both deaf and dumb. He is neither, but the fact that everyone thinks he is makes it possible for him to be the fly-on-the-wall with access to all sorts of information a first person narrator would not have otherwise, especially a first person narrator who belongs in a psychiatric hospital. That's one difference the novel has going for it--because we can see inside Chief Broom's head, hear his thoughts through his narration, we know that he does belong in the hospital. He may not be the most reliable of narrators, one of the chief difference between the movie and the book and a fact that makes the ending problematic.

We are always on Jack Nicholson's side when watching the movie. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest features a young Jack Nicholson, the rebel fighting against the system. The audience can't help but root for him. The McMurphy of the novel is always sympathetic, but by the end of the story we begin to see that the other patients may not be getting exactly what they need from his antics, that the system they are in may be what the really need. McMurphy's rebellion is easy to admire in the movie, in the novel it's easier to see the tragedy it leaves in its wake. By no means is it all McMurphy's fault, Nurse Ratched is just as responsible and just as awful in the novel as she was in the movie, but McMurphy is the catalyst that pushes events to their tragic conclusion.

This book counts as title number four in the Classics Challenge.


ds said...

Terrific review! You are so right about the Chief. I love the movie version,but in this case, the book is so much more nuanced. As for Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch.....(sigh)

christina said...

*head bowed in shame*

I have to admit that I've NEVER actually read One Flew over, although I have seen the movie many times.

You're review actually makes me quite curious.

christina said...

Oh, and I wanted to give you props.

clicky here


Michelle said...

I've never seen the film, and yet when I read this last year, all I could see in my head was Jack Nicholson.

Juxtabook said...

Oh, kicking myself now. I had a copy, in stock, but ummed and arghed too long about reading it and decided it would be too predicatable. I sent it to our stall in an antiques centre unread. Your comments about its depth make wish I had actually read it first. Ah well, no doubt another will pass through my hands eventually.

Nymeth said...

I've seen the movie, but I've always meant to read the book anyway. In fact, a friend gave me a copy not too long ago, so I have it on my tbr pile. Must move it up. Thanks for the fantastic review.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I must wholeheartedly agree...movies will kill a book soooo fast, but never the other way around, at least for me. I have never read this book, but have seen and enjoyed the movie so many times. It really is Nicholson at his finest hour (except maybe for Chinatown, and the Shining). But that perspective does put a spin on things. Darn. Wish I would've read it first!!

C. B. James said...

ds, I recall supporting Chief's actions completely in the movie. I wasn't so sure in the book. McMurphy's the same. The book makes one think much more than the movie did. It's less visceral.

christina, If you're a big fan of the movie, you really should check out the book some time. And thanks again for the award. ;-)

Michelle, It's true. Even when the narrator refers to his red hair. Every time he did that I thought, Nicholson doesn't have red hair.

Juxtabook, There are many copies out there. One will come your way again, I'm sure.

Nymeth, You're welcome. Hope you enjoy it.

Sandy, His early stuff is excellent. I think he stopped putting out his best effort as he aged. Read the book sometime, if you get a chance.

J.C. Montgomery said...

I can't believe I have the exact same edition as what you have pictured in your review. Wow.

I have never seen the movie. It is one of my husband's favorites, and he's always wanted me to watch it, but I am more interested in reading the book. I rarely watch a movies that are adapted from a book.

Actually, I rarely go to the movies period. Going to a theater ceased to be a pleasurable experience a long time ago so I no longer do it.

I agree that movies can change the way you read a book, however in the case of something like To Kill A Mockingbird or In Cold Blood, they did not detract significantly from the book. At least for me.

This is a great post C.B. I look forward to reading this soon.

savidgereads said...

I will come back and comment on this when have actually read the book which won't be the too distant future. I havent read your review yet in case of any spoilers but promise i will do!

Trish said...

I have seen the movie and although it makes me a little sad everytime I watch it, I think I would like to read the book someday.

I always thought it was Nurse Ratchett from watching the movie. :)