5 thoughts on “Cuckoo’s Nest 2–The Movie as Adaptation

  1. Christina Puccinelli

    As several of my classmates have already mentioned, Chief Bromden’s narration in Ken Kesey’s novel provides a layer of specific and informative social commentary that is much less obviously present in the film adaptation. As a long-term patient of state mental institutions, the Chief is able to provide insight into the differences between the “old” mental asylums that existed in the early 20th century and the “new” asylums that arose out of mid-century reform movements. Reflecting on his time since being committed, he explains that at the old hospital “they didn’t have TV or swimming pools or chicken twice a month. They didn’t have nothing but walls and chairs, confinement jackets it took you hours of hard work to get out of. They’ve learned a lot since then” (127). Reading this novel for the second time in the context of this course, I was predictably most fascinated by these interwoven remarks regarding the transformation and present incarnation of the asylum. I was thus disappointed by how completely the film ignored this aspect of the novel.

    In terms of specific scenes, I found several glaring differences between the novel’s description of the boating excursion and the film’s presentation of this same event. The result of these differences is that, while the novel frames this trip as a pivotal moment for both character development and plot, any deep significance is largely lost on the big screen. The film diverges from the original text from the moment that McMurphy hijacks the hospital bus for an impromptu fishing trip instead of acquiring the authorized approval of Nurse Ratched and Dr. Spivey as he does in the novel. Given this first dramatic departure of the film from the text, it is unsurprising that others follow soon after – two of which I find particularly detrimental to the scene’s impact on the viewer.

    In the novel, after some initial embarrassment regarding their hospital uniforms and their associated status in society, McMurphy’s comrades come to embrace their institutionalized identities, with Harding even noting that “mental illness could have the aspect of power, power” (238). This same moment is not included in the film. Instead, when McMurphy and his companions board the fishing boat that they intend to take to sea, McMurphy simply lies to the dock worker and explains that they are all doctors from the state mental hospital out for a retreat. As self-worth and pride are replaced by falsehoods, the emotional impact on the viewer is obviously much diminished. Similarly, the novel includes a rather beautiful moment of character growth when the men are all fishing on the boat. As several men hook fish and begin crying out to McMurphy for help, their ringleader simply stands several feet away and laughs, enjoying the spectacle in front of him. Once it becomes clear that McMurphy cannot be relied upon, Harding, Scanlon and Billy all step up, growing into themselves as they wrestle with the fish they have caught. In the movie, on the other hand, McMurphy not only offers his assistance, but even shoves the others aside, yelling “I got it. Give it to me” (1:03:55). Far from stepping back to allow others to step up, McMurphy actively and intentionally inserts himself into the situation.

  2. Colleen Gair

    I agree with the others who have posted that the concept of machines, as introduced and perpetuated in the text through Chief’s narration, is a crucial aspect of the text that is not present in the movie. Since he viewed everything in those terms, it allowed us to see into the subtle–and not subtle–intricacies of the hospital because his focus was on how the hospital functioned. As a result, a lot of the intimacy was lost between the viewer and the characters in the film, as well as the atrocities that occurred. Due to Chief’s unique position in the asylum, in the book he felt nearly like an omniscient narrator. The book felt much more provocative and troubling than the movie because Chief was always aware of what was happening behind closed doors, and what had happened in all the years that he had been there. Further, we talked in class on Tuesday about the contrast between the “old asylum” and the new one, which only Chief experienced. As a result of not having Chief’s narration, that comparison was lost as well, which lessened the efficacy of the social commentary on the seemingly more humane medicalization /technological advances that the book reveals.

  3. Jenna McNicholas

    I think one of the most drastic differences between the book and the movie is the “black boys” sexually assaulting the patients in the book and Nurse Ratched being complicit. There is never even a sexual innuendo or suggestion in the movie, which is a drastic change. I think this has a lot of implications. The “black boys” are less of her minions, for lack of a better word, and aren’t always on call for her and doing her every wish. There is less of a relationship between Nurse Ratched and the black boys, which makes their characters more likable. Overall, the black boys have an entirely different role in the movie than in the book, and this causes somewhat of a camaraderie and understanding between the patients and black boys. There are many scenes where we actually see the patients and the black boys being on similar playing levels, whether it be the basketball scene or the party scene. There are certainly times when the black boys speak down towards the patients; however, their overall presence in the ward is harmless. This difference in portrayal leads to a singular evil, Nurse Ratched, which I think really justifies the ending scene of McMurphy strangling her, an attempt to defeat the “monster” of the ward, and free the patients from her evil. I think one reason for this is that the books portrayal of the black boys being extremely sexually deviant would have been problematic in the time period, and would have certainly stirred controversy.

  4. Campbell Goldsmith

    I agree with Laura that a crucial aspect missing from the movie is the discussion of the web of machines. While Nurse Ratchet is still depicted as a cold, powerful, and heartless woman emasculating the men she is “caring” for, the movie lacks any discussion of her power via the electricity running through the walls of the asylum, controlling the actions of every patients and orderly. Therefore, the book more directly comments on societal gender roles and the ways in which women can become “powerful” in society. In the book, Nurse Ratchet gains her control by taking it away from the men. She makes the men feel like outcasts, criminals, and psychopaths who do not belong in society. McMurphy is the first man to counter this control, and sets the men on a path towards a probable “cure.” Ratchet is so obsessed with maintaining control that she loses sight of curing her patients, emasculating them in the process. In a way, Ratchet plays into the general stereotypes of women – controlling, “bitchty,” cold hearted, and overpowering. She is seen as the villian in both the novel and movie, plagued against the doctors and male patients. One question I want to pose: how is Ratchet’s character contrasted from Candy’s in both the book and movie? Clearly Candy and Ratchet are two completely different female characters, but represent the female identity in varying ways. How does this contrast play into the power dynamics of gender roles?

  5. Laura Dillon

    One crucial difference between the book and movie is that the movie does not include the discussion about the Combine and the mechanical, systemized force that controls everyone in the asylum. It is easy to understand that this would be difficult to present in the movie, but it does give the movie a narrower angle of interpretation and discussion than the book allows. In the movie, Nurse Ratched is simply a free-willed individual, just like all the other characters. This ignores/detaches her from the Combine and makes the story less about societal control and more about just a group of characters fighting against each other. In the book, the struggle between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched is a struggle between a non-conforming individual and an evil system of total control; in the movie it is a struggle between a rowdy man and an individual mean nurse. I think this emphasizes the movie characters and their individual personalities more than they were meant to be, but overall I think both versions tell a similar story, though the movie’s is more surface level.

Leave a Reply