About halfway through the brilliant One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, director Milos Foreman presents us with an image whose delicate paradox underlines the dichotomies of themes that govern the film. In a still, lengthy, almost monochrome closeup, a squirrel daringly but carefully walks across a chain link fence. In this one moment the ideas behind the movie and its source material, Ken Kesey’s novel of the same name, crystallize: nature against the machine, freedom versus imprisonment, inside and outside. The small animal stops on the fence and looks towards the other side. Like McMurphy, it sticks out because of its incongruity and, also like the main character, is too small a force, no matter how powerful, to leave its mark on the establishment.
Cuckoo’s Nest, both film and book, captures McMurphy’s struggle against authority, the heartrending victories of a classic outsider, a free spirit in a closed system, and his eventual, tragic descent. But while the novel is a celebration of how one man, making a near-spiritual sacrifice, can make a difference, awakening from their drugged lethargy an entire community of the defeated, the movie presents us with his ultimate failure. Judging the film as a separate entity from the novel, it is an emotionally compelling masterpiece, but, after having read the source material, it’s clear a lot is lost in translation from page to screen.
***This is a comparative analysis of Foreman's film and Kesey's novel, and it contains spoilers.
In the novel, he teaches the other patients how to be themselves as well, how to reclaim their manhood and their humanity from under the domineering power of Nurse Ratched, a woman who has subsumed sexuality and humanity into duty and righteousness, who has taken every characteristic of identity and individuality and twisted it into a grotesquely warped vision of conformity and machine-like efficiency. As seen through the Chief’s eyes, Kesey’s prose surges, ebbs, and flows in an unforgettable, distinctive voice full of lyricism and feeling. The film, told from an objective, third-person perspective distances us from the characters. They come wondrously alive under Foreman’s direction, each superbly cast, but each a bit less than fully-formed individuals, closer to the categories, types, and labels of the hospital. Their insanity, more than their humanity, is evident in every scene, and the marvelous chaos that ensues regularly throughout the film is refreshingly uncontained.
Of course, because of time limitations, many of the events of the novel are left out or compounded, giving the film a more frenzied, frantic feel as one incident gives way to the next and the men start coming out of McMurphy’s shadow and finally casting their own by realizing they have unexplored depths of stature and weight and meaning, even control over their own minds, bodies, and fates. Beholding McMurphy work his magic is a pleasure and a privilege, and seeing Nicholson wheel and deal—both metaphorically quite literally —is one advantage Foreman’s Cuckoo holds firmly over Kesey’s. He laughs, he screams, he wise-cracks and sings, and through charisma, gall, and sheer will power stages something of a revolution, a reclaiming of rights for the patients. Even their outfits change from white to a lively, natural green.
The fishing trip, a key turning point in both works, is, however, less effective in the film. In the novel, the patients use their condition as a source of power for the first time and are delighted by the result when the gas station attendees succumb. In the film they are not allowed to be themselves, instead pretending they are doctors from the hospital. The scene in which McMurphy introduces them as such to the dock worker—all but poor Harding, who remains “Mr.”—and a series of closeups comically plays off their unprofessional appearance represents a moment of pure joy and relief in a film that uses humor to underscore poignant, painful truths. However effective scenes like these are on their own terms, they lose some of the meaning behind Kesey’s work.
Other important scenes also seem less meaningful in the movie. When McMurphy offers the Chief some chewing gum and he thanks him, the first word he has spoken to anyone in years, it’s wonderful to see Nicholson’s face and laugh with the Chief at the simplicity and quiet grace of the moment. But reading the book we better understand the interaction is more than a funny surprise—and it is a surprise to the viewers when he talks in a way it cannot be to the readers. In Kesey’s novel, the Chief is not thanking McMurphy for the gum, but expressing an uncontrollable need to show gratitude for everything else he’s done for the men.
Perhaps the movie audience’s biggest loss is not getting to know the Chief’s story; his importance in the book makes his final liberating act more forceful. In the film no other patients see McMurphy after the operation, whereas in the novel they tell themselves it’s not actually him. When the Chief takes his life—what’s left of it—it is shocking in both movie and book, but it is more understandable in Kesey’s novel. After his escape, the two works diverge in the last scene of the film enough to create opposite meanings.
In the book McMurphy’s sacrifice is not in vain: one by one the men sign out of the ward, breaking free of Ratched’s control, which has been decimated in one fell swoop when McMurphy attacked her, ripping her clothes off in the process, asserting his physical, sexual power over her and making it impossible for her to hide her humanity, vulnerability, and femininity behind the mask of a starched uniform. In the film everything goes back to the way it was before, as if McMurphy had not existed at all. Even before he is brought back down from Disturbed the ward looks like it did in the first scene. Harding deals blackjack as the incessant, lifeless music plays on and on, and the men line up for their medication, which Nurse Ratched, all patched up and better, administers through an opening in her spick and span new glass window. So whereas Kesey’s hero succeeds, leading the patients on to better lives, his sacrifice is inconsequential in the movie.
Intended for a general audience, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest has been popular with high school and college students because of its vivid prose, its sharply drawn and readily comprehensible characters, and its theme of self-reliance and self-respect.
This theme can be clearly seen in Kesey’s presentation of McMurphy as a Christ figure. McMurphy is crucified on a cross-shaped table when he undergoes electroshock therapy. The party that he and the others have on the ward is a kind of Last Supper, with pills and codeine-laced punch taking the place of bread and wine. Candy is a Magdalene, Billy Bibbit is a Judas, Nurse Ratched and her staff are Pharisees, and the twelve people whom McMurphy takes on the fishing trip are Disciples. Yet, there is a significant difference between McMurphy’s story and the Christian Gospels. According to the Gospels, when a storm blew up on the sea of Galilee, the Disciples awakened Jesus, who miraculously calmed the waters. In One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, when McMurphy’s followers on the fishing trip ask for help, he stands in the doorway and laughs. In the Christian worldview, salvation comes by the grace of God; in McMurphy’s worldview, salvation can only come from within each individual.
A gambler, brawler, ladies’ man, and drifter, McMurphy also resembles figures from folklore such as the Roving Gambler and the Wagoner’s Lad, about whom he sings his first morning on the ward. He reminds Harding of the Lone Ranger. In an era when even the West has been settled and civilized, McMurphy makes Nurse Ratched’s ward a last frontier. The great American Dream that he pursues is the existential authenticity of nonconformity, or even of madness. (True madness, unlike neurosis, has its own authenticity, at least in this novel.) The worldview that presents nonconformity as such an unquestioned ideal divides the world and the people in it absolutely. Individualists are “good guys,” and representatives of restraining or civilizing forces are oppressive “bad guys.” Readers must decide whether such an antithetical worldview is a simplification that clarifies important truths or an oversimplification that distorts reality.
Paradoxically, this novel, which so clearly challenges oppression, uses sexist and racist language. Even more significant is that the novel generally characterizes women and African Americans unsympathetically. While the little Japanese nurse on the Disturbed Ward might provide an attractive role model for young female readers, the novel’s most vivid characterizations of women are all negative: McMurphy’s nymphomaniac, underage lover; the stereotypical prostitutes with hearts of gold and minds of plastic; and overwhelming, mechanistic, hypocritical, and emasculating figures such as Billy Bibbit’s mother, Chief Bromden’s mother, and, above all, Nurse Ratched. Similarly, although the African American night orderly, Mr. Turkle, is presented as relatively benign, he is also shown to be an incompetent substance abuser; and although Nurse Ratched’s day orderlies—Washington, Williams, and Geever—are presented as victims of oppression themselves, they are also characterized much more emphatically as hate-filled, perverted, sadistic instruments of oppression in their turn. While the novel’s language referring to minorities and women surely may be taken as representative of the American society in the late 1950’s, the pattern of these characterizations is unfortunate and not in keeping with the novel’s sensitive and sympathetic treatment of Chief Bromden’s problems with cultural assimilation and its championship of oppressed persons in general.