Adaptations: they’re never as good as the book. Lord of the Rings purists would mostly agree, and though Ang Lee and Emma Thompson did an Oscar-winning number on Sense and Sensibility, there’s no way any of Austen’s six classics are being improved from page to screen. (Love and Friendship doesn’t count; Lady Susan is such a definitive “lesser work” that you may as well go with the publishers and replace it with Whit Stillman‘s adapted-then-retro-adapted version.)
There’s your key, though: film adaptations often are better than the book, but only if the book’s not much up to scratch in the first place (see MASH, The Godfather, Slumdog Millionaire, etc.). One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the rare film that takes a classic, five-star icon of a novel and improves on it in almost every way. Both works are essential, even canonical. But where the 1962 book flew east, and the play a year later flew west, the 1975 screen version truly flies over that cuckoo’s nest. That’s one hell of an achievement. How did they ever manage it?
There is maybe no real answer here. The writers – Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben – and director Miloš Forman certainly streamline the material; but other adaptations (Catch-22, Revolutionary Road, the 2010 Alice in Wonderland) have done the same, and ended up as relative narrative disasters. The cast – including Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Vincent Schiavelli, William Redfield and Brad Dourif, in addition to Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, who each won an Oscar here – are perfect; not only great embodiments of existing characters, but also bringing a level of internalised (and well-workshopped) method realism that knocks most movie ensembles out of the water. But that’s nothing; the same could be said of any Harry Potter film, or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or the most recent adaptation of The Great Gatsby. A faithful cast does not guarantee a great, standalone film.
No, what we’re talking here is pure alchemy. The filmmakers have created such a perfectly-realised adaptation of an ostensibly untouchable book that it’s impossible to pick apart Cuckoo’s Nest the film and draw out a how-to guide. Even the tone and style is absolutely unrecognisable between the two versions: Ken Kesey’s novel is narrated entirely by Chief Bromden, a man whose vivid hallucinations are not even hinted at in Forman’s envisioning. Such an approach, “objectivising” a stream of consciousness, has doomed versions of Ulysses, To the Lighthouse and The Sound and the Fury, but not so One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. All we can do here, as with Randle Patrick McMurphy navigating his new surroundings, is try our darnedest to see what makes this thing tick.
We’ll start with that narration. Ken Kesey’s novel, published in 1962, essentially boils down to the same tropes of countercultural writing that would become more typical throughout the decade. Chief Bromden hallucinates, which of course makes this a great acid novel; more specifically, he hallucinates terrifying, insidious machinery, which makes this something of a great return-to-nature novel. So far, so hippie. It should be said that at no point does the novel become quite as eye-rollingly stereotypical as one might imagine; actually, upon a recent reread I was surprised at how mature it seemed compared to the freewheeling, undisciplined LSD-induced mess I’d remembered. But the hallucinations are nevertheless key to Kesey’s project; he once wrote, elsewhere, “We get our visions through whatever gate we’re granted”, and in showing us the point-of-view of a man whose entire subjectivity is surreal and alien, the author attempts (with much success) to justify and dignify the notion of alternative visions. Bromden is a decidedly unreliable narrator, in classic terms; but rather than becoming a narrative game, for Kesey, the Chief’s unreliability actually gets us closer to the notion of personal truth.
There is a simple problem here: this still doesn’t fully justify the character’s actual actions. Though much time is spent explaining what would later be made merely implicit in the film – that the Chief’s façade of deaf-muteness is a resigned retreat – Kesey can’t quite reconcile this with the fact that his narrator is also genuinely mentally ill. And though care is taken to make sure we understand then-underexplored ideas such as PTSD, the eventual result is the same: victim or not, Chief Bromden is seeing giant smoke machines. He describes people as “bleeding rust” when they get cut. He believes “the Big Nurse” is a robot. This is all well and good on its own, and indeed the Chief – mentally unwell – and Kesey – happily in the throes of acid – provide some beautiful images, profound ideas and simply indelible sentences; but when this hulking psychotic is killing McMurphy at the end, the effect is a darn sight more uncomfortable than in the film.
Miloš Forman, by contrast, directs us through a simple, objectively-presented world. What his film lacks in flights of fancy it more than makes up for in character. Each of the ensemble can be understood a little more when we see them relatively unmediated. Instead of seeing the Chief’s fascination with Mac, and taking the protagonist’s heroic rise through the hospital society as writ, we get to experience it alongside the others. Instead of reading pronouncements on the condescending Harding and his closet homosexuality, we get to witness and observe him in all his neurotic glory. Billy Bibbit and Charlie Cheswick become far more crucial characters, pulled in from the sidelines to actually aid Mac in his freethinking mission, rather than be simply, more passively, influenced.
It is Cheswick’s fate, in fact, that really demonstrates the film’s streamlined strengths. In both novel and film, Mac becomes distressed to discover that as he is now committed, rather than simply imprisoned, Nurse Ratched may choose to set him loose whenever she decides, not when his criminal sentence runs out. The book takes this twist as the driving force of its Part II: Mac will no longer rebel, which in turn causes the invigorated ward to slide back into inertia. Kesey illustrates quite neatly, if obviously, just how important McMurphy is as a manifestation of freedom. This reaches a poignant climax as Cheswick tries to rebel for the sake of his cigarettes – when he is not backed up by McMurphy, his protest fails; ultimately a disheartened Cheswick drowns in the asylum swimming pool, in what many believe is an act of suicide.
The better version of this midsection, though, is what we have on film – because Goldman, Hauben and Forman jettison this entirely. In so doing, the story is improved both in structure and message. Cheswick’s survival, aside from being preferable for fans of Sydney Lassick’s committed, sympathetic performance, preserves Cuckoo’s Nest‘s narrative motion as that of evolving madness. With McMurphy’s arrival, everything has to get better before one effective, definitive moment of climactic tragedy (which is the same across the versions, right down to the doomed Billy briefly losing his stutter). That’s how this works. One can relish Kesey’s plotting and style, and indeed it is very good for the book, but logically the more potent version sees nothing as awful as a key character’s suicide happen until a much later breaking-point. It is not, after all, a real-time story about the human cost of struggle for liberty; taking more cues from Kafka, Cuckoo’s Nest is a story about how, when we begin to taste real freedom, the “machine”, the “man”, the system, whatever, will find a way to bring it all down. So it is that a tragedy exactly halfway through simply wouldn’t do.
This progression isn’t made more effective just by keeping Cheswick in action, though. It is also about Nicholson’s performance, and the way McMurphy is presented throughout. Instead of an act-two slide into despair, our onscreen Mac remains resolute and optimistic. This makes his displays of more negative emotions about ten times more effective. Again, instead of pulling us down into dread halfway through, then pulling us back to rebellion again – which is what Kesey does – Forman and Nicholson keep the audience’s spirits up throughout. So it is that when things get really bad, we really feel it. The structure and the message are improved, sure, but importantly our emotional responses are acutely sharpened.
The best scene of the film is where all of this comes together – as, appropriately, everyone on the ward begins to fall apart. The screenwriters have combined several scenes from the book and in so doing given them great collective power. First, Mac makes this important discovery, that all the others – besides Taber and the Chief – are voluntary patients. But though this gobsmacks him, it’s almost beside the point: he gives a speech, with clear amazement, about how none of these men are any crazier than “the average asshole out on the street.” It’s inspirational and meaningful, but is soon undercut when everything breaks down. Cheswick screams for his cigarettes; Harding, crawling about to find his stolen smoke, is berated by Ratched and becomes quite disturbingly cowed and infantile: “I’m- I’m sorry. I forgot. I’m sorry. … I just forgot.” The missing cigarette in question burns through Taber’s trouser hem and sends him screaming and diving across the room; Nicholson’s horrified reactions here, cut in at such clever moments by Forman and his editors, are a stark contrast to his earlier smirks and chuckles. To McMurphy, of course, unaware of the cigarette, Taber has simply gone crazy.
And it doesn’t even stop there. Forman uses the rhythm of comedy to bring us to Taber’s breakdown – the butt continues smoldering, no one notices, the smoke keeps going, Taber finally twigs – but at this crazy explosion, we’re suddenly put on edge. Mac’s not laughing; Ratched remains stone-faced; and Taber himself is legitimately, not comedically, freaked out. Almost immediately, it descends into emotional hell for characters and viewer. Cheswick has a major screaming breakdown, Mac smashes a window with his bare hand, there’s a big fight, and even the Chief gets involved. And we’re still hearing Taber’s panicked roars.
What we see here is how Forman’s objectivity overtakes Kesey’s surrealist subjectivity. There’s no shortage of tightly-controlled mediation in the way Forman chooses his shots, but they each offer us an unadorned insight into how each character is feeling at a given moment – which makes things much clearer than the Chief’s narrational speculation. Truthful, but in a different way. An already complicated approach to reality is compromised further, as Mac’s pronouncements on madness are so immediately undercut.
Another essay entirely could be written about Forman’s mastery of form here, but in terms of adaptation the documentary style, with its offbeat shot durations and cheap film stock, is only one part of the puzzle. At the very least, rather than being forced to reckon with an unreliable narrator, and the problems that come with that, we’re fully confronted with a showboating protagonist and the off-kilter world he falls into. In many ways, this approach should sound boring; what it becomes is extraordinarily thrilling. McMurphy fails to adapt to the system and it kills him; the makers of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest refuse to simply adapt the beats of an established classic, and they become transcendent. Crazy, right?