The International Writers Magazine
: Adpatation

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey/Milos Foreman
Sally Hawkesford

ne flew east, one flew west, one flew over the cuckoo’s nest, but which way did Milos Forman take in his adaptation of Ken Kesey's classic One flew over the Cuckoo’s nest?

One of the key movies of the 70’s is claimed to be Milos Forman's One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest. Forman’s take on the classic hallucinogenic, antiestablishment novel is somewhat left to be desired. His film undermines the author Ken Kesey's original, which deals with the complex cultural issues of the 20th century.

The film adaptation cuts important scenes and themes from the original. For example, Forman's version completely misses out the harsh racial discrimination, which the resident guards undertake under the influence of the wicked Nurse Ratched, effectively played by Louise Fletcher. The language used by Kesey, with reference to the guards, definitely puts a cultural influence into context as to how ‘Blacks’ were represented in 60’s within society. Quotes such as "The black boys" (Kesey, 1962, 139) are generally how the resident guards are described.

The political content of the novel is not developed enough through the characters and themes of the film. On reading the book, it’s quite obvious Kesey’s idea of the asylum establishment is based around Russian politics with a direct link to the Soviet Union embedded within the character of Nurse Ratched. However, the film doesn't convey these complex ideologies to the viewer whatsoever.
Kesey has been quoted in saying that had he never been in the acid movement group the Merry Pranksters in the 60’s he would have never written One Flew over the Cuckoo’s nest. This makes me wonder why Milos Forman didn’t include some of the many scenes of the Chief’s hallucinations, also, priceless lines such as "Jus’ a plain old cigarette. Hee hee, yes. You want a toke?" (Hauben and Goldman 1975). This line in itself concludes Kesey's cultural influences from the drug movements apparent in the era in which he wrote.

The main problem I had with this film, is the fact, why did Forman change the whole direction and narration of this book? The book is written from the narration and direction of Chief Bromden, Played by William Redfield, but the film takes direction from star attraction, Randall Patrick McMurphy, Played by Jack Nicholson. In my eyes, the casting of Jack Nicholson as McMurphy was an ambiguous decision on many levels. Nicholson did play the character of McMurphy exceptionally well. However from the vivid iconic imagery that the reader gets in the novel, McMurphy is inaccurate in being star of the film.

The Chief character is the main disappointment within Forman’s screenplay. The Chief is the protagonist, and it should have stayed that way. In my opinion Nicholson would have been more suitably cast as the Chief's role. That way Forman would still have made his box office smash and also made an extraordinary rendition of Kesey’s novel. The actual characterisation of the Chief is poor. Within the film the viewer isn't guided through the true medical condition of the character and the reasons behind his imprisonment. In the novel we learn why the Chief is deaf and dumb; we're introduced into his tribal background and understand the true characteristics behind his acute condition of schizophrenia and paranoia. Parts of the novel where the Chief talks in-depth about the mist and fog that is taking over his own instinct of vision aren't even worthy of a mention in the mind of Forman. The film only touches on the Chief's character from the visual form and starves the viewer from the moments where Kesey has crafted an emotional connection between the reader and the character.

Kesey has been quoted as saying that he has never watched Forman's rendition and sued the producers because the rewriting of the screenplay, and especially the narration, not being told from the eyes of the Chief was one factor that Kesey couldn't understand.

The film is good in its own right. It has yet to outshine the novel. It is difficult to describe the two distinctly different artistic methods of storytelling without comparing them in depth. I feel the film simplifies some of Kesey's main themes and complexities that he deals with in the novel. The film has made the story into a comedy, with, I admit, quite humorous scenes including McMurphy and Charlie Cheswick, played by Sydney Lassick. But, by making this film into a comedy, Forman managed to take away the films true meaning. Forman managed to simplify the fact of the treatment that these men were under going in this hospital, and their lack of human rights whilst in this establishment.

Quibbles aside, the novel is tremendous with its muscular narrative and fight for justice, which can leave you sometime feeling completely high. The film is also awesome! Its story is simple, tragic and humorous and oddly life-affirming. If you haven't already read the novel, read it! If you haven’t seen the film then watch it! See which way you fly.

© Sally Hawkesford November 2005

Sally is a Creative Arts major at the University of Portsmouth


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