drawing by Ken Kesey from a 2002 edition of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Re-reading Kesey's classic after many years inspired a rush of pleasure and then a rush to the Internet for some other perspectives.
Let's start with the "villain," Nurse Ratched, who gets under the skin of the "good guy," Randle Patrick McMurphy, and also the skin of the reader. If you experience the novel as a teen you've encountered the Big Nurse archetype in schools but you have no idea how much she (or he) will persist as a feature of American life, in the workplace, politics, and social realms. Because Kesey made the character female the book will be seen as un-PC today but the author reminds us he also had a female nurse in the story who wasn't a didactic power-freak. From a NYT article, published the year he died:
...Mr. Kesey noted that his novel included another, more positive female character, "along with the big castrator of a nurse and the two prostitutes." "She was an Asian nurse who worked in the hospital's electroshock room.
"She is just as tough and snappy as anything," he said. "It is good to have one positive woman there."
Nowadays when most people think of One Flew Over it's the film version, which Kesey had issues with:
Mr. Kesey said he never saw the 1975 film version of his book, directed by Milos Forman and with Jack Nicholson as the lead, R. P. McMurphy. "It has been the smartest thing I never did," Mr. Kesey said, "because Jack Nicholson is great but he is not McMurphy -- he is too short." He added that Mr. Nicholson also seemed too shrewd for the character.
Nicholson may have been shrewd, but director Milos Forman significantly dumbed down the material. Ironically he was hired as an outsider (Czech art film director) but made the ultimate Hollywood good-vs-evil schlockfest, and became a Hollywood power as a result. His incomprehension of Kesey's complex story stands out in a 1975 Village Voice interview:
I asked [Forman] about his decision, implemented in the screenplay of Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman, to treat the story objectively rather than through the eyes of the Indian, Kesey’s point-of-view character.
"I didn’t want that for my movie," he said. "I hate that voice-over, I hate that whole psychedelic ‘60s drug free-association thing, going with the camera through somebody’s head. That’s fine in the book, or on a stage, which is stylized. But in film the sky is real, the grass is real, the tree is real; the people had better be real too."
"You know, I’m glad I didn’t know the reputation of the book when I read it, so I didn’t have this artificial reverence for the ‘cult classic.’ And I think it’s much better that it was made now than in the ‘60s. After a certain time, all the distracting elements fall away, all the transitory psychedelic stuff. And we can follow what it is really about. My film is very simple."
You know, transitory psychedelic stuff such as the book's brilliant but unreliable narration, via Chief Broom, whom Forman relegated to a bit part. Perversely, Forman's take on the story is based on an uncritical acceptance of McMurphy vs Nurse as a clash of primal forces, which was a paranoid schizophrenic's view. Take the Chief out of the equation and you have a comic book story instead of a multi-layered, critical story. Even the CliffsNotes-type sites on the Net understand this better than Forman did. Bright Hub Education has a nuanced theory about the Chief:
Bromden’s suffocation of the catatonic McMurphy ends the novel, and is popularly understood as a mercy-killing of a man whose soul has been stripped away. Yet a much darker reading of the novel shows the patients discarding a symbol they no longer have use for. McMurphy was the epitome of rebellion and subversion against the systems of control set in place. The patients are content to ignore his flaws and stand behind him against the equally-abstracted Ratched. Yet when the battle is over, when those that could help themselves have done so, the defeated form of McMurphy is left behind. He destroys himself to redeem his friends, and they in turn destroy him because he was never seen as a person at all, but an outmoded symbol.
Literary criticism of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has attracted both its share of accolades and controversies for its depiction of a hospital ward as a place of domination and control, and a rambunctious patient who encourages acting out instead of conforming. What makes this story so critically interesting is that it is not simply a polemic against institutional forces. Rather, it is an ingenious portrayal of fantasy and how people [got] caught up in the grandiose and lost sight of humanity. We sympathize with Bromden, the fake deaf-mute for his understanding, but at the novel’s end, we are forced to question that he may truly be the most blind of all.
And here's CliffsNotes itself, to tutor the hapless Forman on his perch atop the Hollywood food chain:
Perhaps the most telling difference between the film and the novel is the ending. The novel contains an episode missing from the film wherein Chief observes a dog sniffing gopher holes from the hospital window. The dog is distracted by a flock of geese forming a cross against a full moon. The dog chases the geese toward a road where it is implied the dog will confront an automobile with the inevitably tragic result that machine will triumph over nature. Coincidentally, this is the same course the Chief follows when he escapes from the hospital, giving the novel's resolution a degree of uncertainty as to whether the Chief will succeed in the outside world or succumb to a worse fate in a world increasingly overrun by dehumanizing mechanization. The film's conclusion, however, depicts Chief running from the hospital toward what the viewer assumes is happiness and liberty.
AV Club (which ultimately thinks the movie has "aged better") notes the Chief's contribution to the narrative:
The novel lays out its case with borderline religious fervor. In Bromden’s eyes, McMurphy is practically superhuman, a giant of a man with a great booming voice and seemingly inexhaustible lust for life, an avatar for all that is individual and righteous and masculine (yeah, we’ll get to that) in the world. His battle against Ratched for the soul of the ward plays out like an epic showdown between two brilliant, near-mythic opponents. Even the glimpses we get of McMurphy tired or acting in self-interest have a Christ-like feel to them, a certain garden of Gethsemane vibe. He struggles because whether he wants it or not, he’s responsible for all of them; and in the end, he has to sacrifice himself to free them.
Contrast that with the movie, where most of the running time has McMurphy acting like any reasonable person might if they were thrown into the nuthouse...
Chuck Palahniuk also weighs in that it's a three-way struggle, not a two-way struggle (with the Chief as angelic third party), and why this is important:
And of course we have rebels, loud and dashing, but they'll be silenced when they become too much of a threat. Arrested or lobotomized or wrongly accused of molesting children and thereby discredited. But always lost, killed, left bereft.
That's the pattern. That's always the pattern. But we're never stuck with just two choices.
With any luck, the rest of us will see what's happening and choose to find a third option. Instead of reinforcing a social system by rebelling or conforming, we'll become the Big Chief, and escape into some beautiful vision. A future that's not a reaction to or an extension of any mental ward where we find ourselves trapped at the present moment.
By losing the Chief, as Forman did, you also lose the Chief's paranoid-but-perceptive vision of The Combine, the larger system of social control for which the asylum is just a branch office. James Wolcott gave special attention to that in his 2011 evaluation of the novel:
It’s tempting to consign One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest to a souvenir piece from the dissident 60s, its protest energy, trippy prophecy, and twitchy paranoia bridging the marijuana grove between the Beats of yore and the hippies ready to sprout. [Argh, this Vanity Fair style of writing --tm] But when I reread it, it seemed more (curse the word) relevant than ever, the oppressive forces it mutinied against having only gotten more immersive and influential in our lives since McMurphy got zapped. Big Nurse has been supplanted by Big Pharma, the pilling of America fulfilling the novel’s vision of weaponized medication: “Miltowns! Thorazines! Libriums! Stelazines! … Tranquilize all of us completely out of existence.” And the Combine, the novel’s metaphor for the silent machinery of social indoctrination, manipulation, and management, stands as a rough draft for the Matrix, the vision of modern existence as a holographic fraud, a covert information grid operating on its own agenda.
Wolcott wrote this pre-Snowden -- the Combine's biomechanical tendrils have only grown more pervasive in the last half-decade. Kesey's favorite version of the play incorporated the Combine into the production, according to the NYT:
[The Gary Sinise version of the play] was not [Kesey's] favorite production, he added. That designation he reserved for a production he saw 15 years ago at a Sacramento high school, staged so that an elaborate display of grinding cogs and gears appeared in silhouette between scenes to illustrate the play's sinister ''Combine,'' a metaphor for society's grinding machinery.
...and it would be interesting to see a remake of the film with the Chief's "hallucinations" woven into the story.