Tuesday, May 15, 2007

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest – the book and the film

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is perhaps the best-known anti-authority book in history (cf. http://www.sparknotes.com/film/cuckoo/context.html). So is the film directed by Milos Forman. Already in the beginning, it can be argued that the film is even more radical in its anti-authority views than the book, because in the book the story is narrated by a mentally sick narrator, Chief. We get the whole story through him. So, automatically, we get a sort of unreliable point of view. Nevertheless, Chief’s identity changes in the end and he becomes more than just an ‘unreliable’ narrator. He is seeing everything in the institution; he is pulling back and gets more perspective. Maybe he is seeing the existential truth of the situation. Yet, one could argue that the whole manipulation of the authority is only an ‘unreal’ result of Chief’s hallucinations. Milos Forman, unlike Kesey, approaches the story in a much more radical way. The story in the film is not narrated from Chief’s point of view. Keeping the spirit and the bottom-line message of the book but giving a more objective look on the manipulation of the Combine, it is more radical in its criticism to the totalitarian system of the society, because we do not have a hallucinating narrator, but a more reliable and objective observer – the camera. The story is not told from Chief’s perspective, but rather from a more objective camera. In addition, Chief doesn’t even seem to be hallucinating in the film. He seems to be a character who observes silently with wisdom, constructing a plan in his mind of how to get away from the manipulation of the Combine. He seems to be removed from the rest of the group until McMurphy fuels his passiveness into action. In other words, Chief is flying over the Cuckoo’s nest, and not into it.

However, as stated above, other than a few differences in the way the story is told, the film follows the spirit and the message of the book faithfully, although as I argue above, the anti-authority approach is conveyed more radically in the film. Seen from the Chief’s eyes in the book, we might doubt the evil manipulation of the Nurse Ratched and put forth questions whether she might be more sympathetic in reality. In the film there is no doubt about her suppressing manipulation.

Hallucinations or subjectivity in the book or the real picture in the film, when it comes to Nurse Ratched, we know that she represents the Combine and that she exerts her power in covert ways. She masks her manipulation so that the patients in the mental institution do not see it. With this masked manipulation, she retains power over them. There are many ways in which she can maintain power in the institution, but mostly with repression. She represses any kind of weakening of her power by the patients. Even if it is something totally innocent she perceives it as breaking of rules and she acts to regain that power even if she hurts the patient. That happens for example when Bibbit gets the opportunity to be with a girl and his damaged soul seems to vanish as if it was never there. The Nurse represses his improvement and his happiness the next morning by threatening him to tell all about it to his mother, which paralyzes Bibbit to such a large degree that Nurses threat resulted in Bibbit’s suicide.

She also blinds her victim’s eyes with strategies such as ‘divide and conquer’. First she rewards those who note any weaknesses or behaviors of their colleagues; then she points out the first weakness, and just sits back and watches as the patients start to attack each other. (cf. http://www.sparknotes.com/film/cuckoo/context.html) That’s what blinds them from seeing what she is really doing. When her manipulation is revealed, as when Mr. Martini insists on getting the cigarettes back and doesn’t let her get away with her manipulation, she wants to divert the attention to another patient and when even that does not work; her manipulation grows into violent force. Patients, who refuse the manipulation, are brain washed, smacked down by the authority and destroyed. In addition, she makes them believe that they are mad, and the power of madness prevents them from seeing how dependant they are.

Of course it is obvious by now that with her style of manipulation, she represents the totalitarian system of the society. Any kind of deviation from the rules results in repression, force and destruction of the opposing. Such is the case with McMurphy, who is opposing control and manipulation. He is not solely a rebel. He is much more than this - a man who loves life and wants to show it to those whose souls are already broken by the Combine. He encourages the patients in the hospital to take risks and to stop submitting themselves to subordination of the Combine; to think for themselves to be responsible for making choices and decisions about their own lives.

McMurphy encourages them to fight the control and totalitarianism of the Combine and he does that with a sense of humor, as when he says: “Which one of you nuts has got any guts?” In opposition with the sneaky rules-loving Combine, both the book and the film present the victims of the society with a bit of humor. So, we have realism mixed with humor. With this technique, the viewer already sympathizes with the victims and on the other hand establishes some sort of hateful feelings towards the Combine, questioning its masked-with-kindness and the ‘good old rules’ manipulation.

McMurphy is sort of a rebel savior in the institution; a character almost larger than life (which doesn’t mean there is no room for criticism for him, but he) does manage to open a window out of the house of manipulation, at least for Chief, who in the end refuses to submit himself to the Combine. On the other hand, Bibbit and McMurphy himself were sacrificed.

McMurphy’s end can be understood as an extremely negative wrap up of the story, or the message. He is destroyed by the Combine in the end, when he is sent to the electroshocks and comes back to the rest of the patients spiritless. A suppression of a protest which carries a very dark and pessimistic message for those who oppose manipulation, because it seems to suggest that opposition to control does not bear any fruit but rather brings to the destruction of the opposing. No matter how damaging for the individual’s soul the Combine, it will always triumph. That seems to be the message at least until Chief kills the now spiritless destroyed one out of mercy and leaves the Combine. He is free. Rebellion and opposition live on (which is a good thing), and yet, the message still cannot be considered positive. The difference between Chief and McMurphy is that Chief did not fight against the Combine. He escaped it. So, the Combine can continue to exert its power because it triumphs over the opposing again. It is interesting that both Kesey and Forman chose a Native American for Chief’s role. I believe their choice must have had a certain function - Chief breaks free, but like the Native Americans in the past could never be free from their ‘Combine’ that took away their freedom and damaged their souls, he can never be free of the Combine in the story, because it is too powerful to fight it and too powerful to escape it.

The identity of the Nurse (the Combine), McMurphy and Chief can be translated across cultures and across time. In this case, it can be culturally specific for the U.S.A., but it also can be transported to anywhere in the world, because the ‘Combine’ exists everywhere. Whether it is multi-national corporations with convincing us we need certain brands in our lives, or the manipulation of politics and church getting us to act in groups, we are manipulated in numerous ways. It comes well masked. Kesey and Forman seem to remind the readers that everyday we are voluntarily giving ourselves to manipulation of the ‘Combine’ and sometimes we don’t even realize it. Not even when a ‘McMurphy’ comes along and refuses to be a part of it. Then, people, blinded by the mask, will believe he is crazy.

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