Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is a family favourite. Nicholson’s portrayal of a rough-and-tumble McMurphy, introducing his fellow patients to a different world – a freer, happier, more confident world – all the while doing psychological battle with Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched, is perhaps Nicholson’s greatest role to date, and it’s one which has stuck with me.
The film itself is truly a masterpiece of emotional stimulation, taking you from laughter to anger, and finally to tears. It is a film which criticizes the treatment, worldwide, of mental illness, and challenges your preconceptions on the same subject. It is, as I said, a family favourite, and one that remains up their in my top 20 or so. It was inevitable then, that I would have to read the book at some point.
Brief intermission: Before I properly begin, I want to quickly discuss issues I have with the book. Written in the 60s, by a white, male author, it is bound to be problematic when reread in our times.
- Cuckoo’s Nest’s only female characters are either big-breasted prostitutes, over-bearing mothers, absentee house-wives, or, of course, the book’s ultimate sub-villain: robotic Nurse Ratched, agent of the Combine (the villian villain). There is certainly a case to be made that Kesey wrote women into his plot as part of the problem. Not cool, Ken. Of course the roles of the women in the book are at times more complex. A counter argument could be that Candy and Sandy, the two prostitutes, are somewhat liberators of the mind and spirit of the men. At times their relationships with the hospital patients act as a rehabilitating force. Of course, then we fall back into the realm of hetero-normativity and it all gets super problematic again. Let’s acknowledge and move on shall we?
- Kesey’s tackling of racial issues is, as was typical of Beat Generation writers, more progressive, though flawed nonetheless. For a start, the entire book is written from the perspective of Chief Bromden, a Native American behemoth, scared of his own shadow. Aboriginal peoples the world over have, throughout history, faced brutal oppression and marginalisation, and are rarely, if ever, given a voice of their own by the powers that be (that’s us white folks btw). Choosing the Chief as his narrator is then, a pretty dope move. It provides us an invaluable insight into the destruction of Native homes, livelihoods, and traditions, as well as illustrating their hopeless fight against a capitalistic state. However (of course there’s a however) Kesey fails to do the same for African Americans. The only black characters in Cuckoo’s Nest are mere cogs in the machine. Either to be exploited by the State (through Nurse Ratched), or by the patients for their own ends. Is this a means of symbolising the oppression of black peoples in America? I don’t know, and considering not one of these characters enjoys any character development, I doubt I’ll ever know.
Anyway. Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I can say that nevertheless (acknowledging the faults and putting them to the side for later) I am so glad I read this book. As happens often with book-to-film adaptations, important messages can be lost in translation. Thankfully in this case both are stand-alone works of brilliance. What the film lacks though is what I find most engaging and empowering about the book: that at it’s core, Cuckoo’s Nest is a call to arms. A splash of ice water in the intoxicated faces of every worker, every marginalised, down-trodden, sorry-ass sucker out there, a ‘roar of protest’ against the State, a big graffitied billboard over the Hollywood hills that says “wake up and fight; freedom is right there in front of you”
This really, is the genius of the book. However you read it, it is a great read, an excellent story which stirs up with equal ferocity the same emotions which the film does. But if you choose to, you’ll find there’s so much more to it than just a story.
Let’s start with the Chief. Believed by everyone else to be deaf and dumb, we as the audience know different. Slowly it is brought to our attention that the Chief stopped talking as a child, when his cries of protest against government plans to dam up his falls fell on selectively-deaf ears. Because of his skin and his culture and even just his name, he found from an early age that he had no voice in society, nor in politics. So he simply stopped talking. After this, he develops a deep fear, a paranoia of anyone finding out that he does have a voice. By the end of the book, however, our narrator is speaking again, at first only with McMurphy, but soon after with the whole ward. He learns to speak openly again because he sees in McMurphy the immense power that just one person’s voice can have against the State (which btw the Chief calls the ‘Combine’). Over time he sees that when utilised collectively, the voice of the people can be the most powerful weapon against the Combine that there is.
The death of Billy Bibbit is another example of how Kesey’s writing remains raw, roaring and relevant.
Self-harming depressive Billy Bibbit is perhaps the most vulnerable and unconfident character in the book. He suffers from a heavy stammer which exacerbates his issues, and whilst self-committed to the hospital, would never dream of leaving to face the outside world again. The companionship, community and politicisation which McMurphy introduces onto the ward, however, goes a long way toward providing Billy the tools he requires to make himself better. Big Nurse has other plans. Just when Billy finally regains his confidence, through relations with McMurphy’s gal pal Candy, Big Nurse Ratched shames him back into his depression, threatening, with a pretense of care, to inform on Billy to his mother for sleeping with this particular kind of lady. Minutes later Billy takes his own life. The Nurse immediately approaches McMurphy – the man who introduced Billy to Candy.
He cut his throat… He opened the doctor’s desk and found some instruments and cut his throat… I hope you’re finally satisfied. Playing with human lives – gambling with human lives – as if you thought yourself to be a God!
Does this behaviour pattern strike you as familiar?
Mass poverty and unemployment? The state will tell you it’s the fault of immigrants, or that you’re too damn lazy, that your neighbour’s too damn lazy and is raking in social welfare, or that we’re in a recession and businesses simply have to make redundancies. They might just fail to tell you how many trillions of dollars are saved to bail out bankers’ greed, or how immigration stimulates the economy, actually often generates skilled labour jobs.
Birth defects and deformations in newborns? That’ll be this mutated Zika virus, so you’re best not to procreate, best in fact not to leave your homes. The State will probably neglect to mention how many decades the Zika virus has actually been around, minus pregnancy problems. They’ll turn your head away from the guys over at Monsanto pumping toxic shit into your water supply.
I could go on. The list of parallels I could draw is endless. The point is this, when bad shit happens, it’s never the fault of the State, the Combine, there’s always a fall-guy. You gotta learn to be smart enough to see past the bullshit.
One last one to leave you with.
Sorry I know I’ve babbled on for hours but honestly it’s a fucking good book.
This is my favourite example of Cuckoo’s Nest’s overriding message. It’s something the Chief says during the middle of a midnight prohibited party that the patients have organised, right under Nurse Ratched’s nose.
As I walked after them it came to me as a kind of sudden surprise that I was drunk, actually drunk, glowing and grinning and staggering drunk for the first time since the Army… right on the Big Nurse’s ward!… square in the center of the Combine’s most powerful stronghold!… We had just unlocked a window and let it in like you let in fresh air. Maybe the Combine wasn’t all-powerful. What was to stop us from doing it again, now that we saw we could? Or keep us from doing other things we wanted?
This for me is the pinnacle of the book, and its most important message. It’s that billboard I talked about, that splash of ice water in the face. This is Ken Kesey’s middle finger, stuck in the face of authority. It’s a big Fuck You to all rules and rule-makers.
At the same time though, I see the desperation in this call to arms. If only people would sit up and pay attention. If only we all could see that the road to freedom, self-determination, intersectional-equality, to happiness is right in front of us; we’d know that to get there is easy.
It’s as easy as opening a window and letting the fresh air in.