I have to admit that one of the main reasons I’ve decided to write my Books That Mattered blog is completely selfish: it is a way of forcing myself to revisit books that I might never have gotten around to reading otherwise.
This is especially true for a book such as Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), a book I thought I knew cold. Even though I’d only read the novel once, back in 1973, I didn’t feel the need to re-read it again, it was so locked in my brain. Or so I thought.
You may think, as I did, that you know the story pretty well. It’s all about Randle Patrick McMurphy, the swaggering, larger-than-life hustler, drifter, and iconoclast who is engaged in an epic battle (set in an Oregon psychiatric hospital) with Nurse Ratched, hard-as-ice upholder of the status quo and poster girl for bureaucratic control freaks everywhere.
You may vividly remember some key scenes: McMurphy playfully soaking all the ward mental patients with the hose from the hydrotherapy machine, McMurphy in the rec yard trying to show Chief Bromden how to dunk a basketball, McMurphy commandeering a yellow school bus to take the loonies out for a wild joyride.
The only problem is that these are all scenes from the movie that do not occur in the book.
I suppose this is what happens when the film version of a book becomes a huge hit and an important cultural phenomenon in its own right. For better or worse, it takes on a life of its own.
Make no mistake, the movie version of Cuckoo’s Nest (directed by Milos Forman and released in 1975) is a wonderful piece of filmmaking and became a cultural touchstone in the mid-1970s. It is, deservedly, one of a handful of films to have won Academy Awards in the five major categories (Best Picture, Lead Actor, Lead Actress, Director, Screenplay).
However, when I decided to have a reunion with Kesey’s novel, I discovered that my “memories” of the book were, in actuality, mostly derived from the film. (Not surprising, given the indelible performances of Jack Nicholson as McMurphy and Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched. And, while I’d read the novel just that once, I’d seen the film version of Cuckoo’s Nest perhaps a half-dozen times.)
So when I re-read Cuckoo’s Nest over the past few days, I was surprised and delighted to discover that reading the book summoned up memories and feelings I had almost totally forgotten. And I suddenly remembered why the novel (which had been assigned in a “Contemporary Fiction” course I took in my junior year) had been one of my Top Ten favorite books back in college.
Reading Kesey’s book again is something of a revelation. Because for all the film’s brilliance, the book is equally brilliant–OK, let’s come out and say it–more brilliant in several crucial ways.
For one thing, the movie doesn’t capture–and to be fair does not attempt to capture–the trippy texture of the novel. In fact, the film’s straightforward, almost cinema verite style is the direct opposite of the novel’s hallucinatory, vision-laden narration.
Reading Cuckoo’s Nest again after all these years, I am struck by what a wonderful creation Chief Bromden is: I had forgotten how his narrative perspective and unique voice inform the novel, and make it the triumph that it is.
I remember my first encounter with the novel . . . having to read the first couple of pages of Cuckoo’s Nest several times over to figure out what was going on. Where are we? Who are the black boys? Are they really committing sex acts in the halls? It takes a bit of effort to learn to understand and appreciate Chief’s distinctive voice:
They’re out there.
Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them.
They’re mopping when I come out the dorm, all three of them sulky and hating everything, the time of day, the place they’re at here, the people they got to work around. When they hate like this, better if they don’t see me. I creep along the wall quiet as dust in my canvas shoes, but they got special sensitive equipment detects my fear and they all look up, all three at once, eyes glittering out of the black faces like the hard glitter of radio tubes out of the back of an old radio.
The Chief’s visions and hallucinations are on one level the fantasies and fabrications of a mentally ill patient, and yet on another level connect to a deeper truth about the true state of things in the ward and beyond.
The ultimate outsider (half-white, half-Indian), Chief Bromden is uniquely gifted with the insight to peer underneath the surface reality; unlike the other characters, he can see things the way they really are: the fog machine that dulls the inmates’ perceptions, the wires and electrical currents that control the patients and their behavior, the fact that the pills he and the other inmates are constantly ingesting are actually tiny devices meant to control them:
I got away once holding one of those same red capsules under my tongue, played like I’d swallowed it, and crushed it open later in the broom closet. For a nick of time, before it all turned to white dust, I saw it was a miniature electronic element like the ones I helped the Radar Corps work with in the Army, microscopic wires and girds and transistors, this one designed to dissolve on contact with air . . .
And the Chief is the only character who is aware of the existence and insidious power of the Combine–the massive, amorphous machine dedicated at all costs to preserving the social status quo and striving to control its members.
In its quest for verisimilitude, the film totally dispenses with the “Combine” metaphor that in some ways forms the backbone of the novel.
In the film, the central conflict is presented primarily as a battle between two larger-than-life characters–McMurphy versus Nurse Ratched (understandable, given the outsized talents of Nicholson and Fletcher)–while the novel posits a much bigger battle between the forces of spontaneity, individualism, and freedom arrayed against the forces of limitations, rules, regulations and deadening conformity:
The ward is a factory for the Combine. It’s for fixing up mistakes made in the neighborhoods and in the schools and in the churches, the hospital is. When a completed product goes back into society, all fixed up good as new, better than new sometimes, it brings joy to the Big Nurse’s heart; something that came in all twisted and different is now a functioning, adjusted component, a credit to the whole outfit and a marvel to behold.
Nurse Ratched is the perfect manifestation of the Combine, outwardly helpful and poised and in control, but in reality a monster who can shape-shift to appear normal and benign. Of all the characters, only Chief Bromden is capable of glimpsing her true nature. One night she becomes angry at the ward attendants; the Chief sees her transformation:
She knows what they been saying, and I can see she’s furious clean out of control. She’s going to tear the black bastards limb from limb, she’s so furious. She’s swelling up, swells till her back’s splitting out the white uniform . . . She looks around her with a swivel of her huge head . . . her painted smile twists, stretches to an open snarl, and she blows up bigger and bigger, big as a tractor, so big I can smell the machinery inside the way you smell a motor pulling too big a load.
The most critical aspect of the novel that I had forgotten and which the film dampens down considerably is the extent to which Cuckoo’s Nest is really Chief Bromden’s story.
McMurphy is obviously a crucial character and the catalyst for most of the story’s action, but it is the Chief’s tragic disintegration–as a son, as an Indian, as a man–and his gradual re-awakening and psychic growth that form the heart and soul of the novel.
Kesey, in fact, distanced himself from the film production when he learned that the film was not going to tell the story from the Chief’s perspective; he also objected to casting Nicholson as McMurphy. (And, as it turned out, it appears Kesey’s reservations were right, because while the book is Chief Bromden’s story, the film is pretty much hijacked by McMurphy/Nicholson.)
When I read the novel as a painfully shy, often tongue-tied twenty-year-old, it was Chief Bromden with whom I most closely identified.
McMurphy was the obvious hero figure, of course, but I related more closely with Chief Bromden–trying to blend in, feeling not as powerful or fully alive as I would have liked. I totally got why he had pretended to be deaf and dumb for the past twenty years.
And I loved seeing his growth in the book. His first attempt to communicate with McMurphy, his halting steps to remember and reclaim his life as an Indian, his final act of love and defiance and freedom.
How many of us Baby Boomers identified with the Chief when we read a passage like the following:
And later, hiding in the latrine from the black boys, I’d take a look at my own self in the mirror and wonder how it was possible that anyone could manage such an enormous thing as being what he was. There’d be my face in the mirror, dark and hard, with big, high cheekbones like the cheek underneath them had been hacked out with a hatchet, eyes all black and hard and mean-looking, just like Papa’s eyes or the eyes of all those tough, mean-looking Indians you see on TV, and I’d think, That ain’t me, that ain’t my face . . . It don’t seem like I ever have been me. . . .
And the ending, of course, is perfect.
The Chief mercifully kills McMurphy (or the shell that was McMurphy) and runs away from the hospital and the Combine and imagines himself revisiting his tribe and their land by the Columbia River:
I might go to Canada eventually, but I think I’ll stop along the Columbia on the way. . . . I’d like to see what they’ve been doing since the government tried to buy their right to be Indians. I’ve even heard that some of the tribe have took to building their old ramshackle wood scaffolding all over that big million-dollar hydroelectric dam, and are spearing salmon in the spillway. I’d give something to see that. Mostly, I’d just like to look over the country around the gorge again, just to bring some of it clear in my mind again.
I been away a long time.
I can still recall the goose bumps that passage gave me. It so electrically connected with Huck Finn’s similar decision to escape the confines of the limiting and corrupting influences of “sivilization” and find freedom:
But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.
For one of the first times in my life I felt truly connected with literature, felt it in my bones. Huck Finn and Chief Bromden and Holden Caulfield were brothers. They were my brothers. And all of us were finding a way of existing, of living authentic lives, even though the phonies (in Holden’s case) or the Aunt Sally’s (in Huck’s case) or the Combine (in the Chief’s case) were trying to force us to do otherwise.
So by all means go see the film again, but whatever you do, make sure to get a copy of Cuckoo’s Nest and read that again. It may be time to return to the nest.