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Words, Words, Words

A catalog of my comments and thoughts on books, reading, and writing as well as anything I come across that seems interesting. I used to sell other people's words at an independent bookstore but now I hope to get by on selling my own.

Now a Major Motion Picture!

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - Ken Kesey, Robert Faggen

I have held off on a number of movies so I can read the book first, and not out of some puritanical belief in the superiority of the book. Okay, not JUST because of a belief in the superiority in the book. Reading asks more of its audience than movies do, a story comes alive in the minds of readers. In reading we translate descriptions into images, sounds, emotions; movies do all that work for us. Keeping the movie out of your reading experience is much harder than the reverse.


I read that Ken Kesey was upset by the exclusion of Chief Bromden's voice from the movie of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and I spent a good deal of time considering the conflict through my reading. Voiceover tends to be a crutch in movies but the story is changed substantially when moved from the perspective of the Chief. Bromden himself nearly disappears in the movie. On the other hand, Stanley Kubrick tended to succeed as a filmmaker in spite of source material, not because of it. He saw that a great movie is a different creature than a great book, and though a surface description would be identical for both, I tried to separate them while I was reading.


Of course, the associations were still there, I wanted to picture Jack Nicholson as Randle Patrick MacMurphy, but the more I read, the further these characters got from the movie—I felt like the book's MacMurray was more of a fighter and more self-important, I saw someone like Mickey Rourke. They were crueler, the patients had greater agency than their movie counterparts, MacMurray was more dangerous-seeming and the stakes felt more real, particularly in terms of the struggles with mental illness. Chief Bromden's voice makes the story more immediate, it takes us out of the bounds of the ward and introduces a subplot of his own dealing with his young life and the move of the American government into tribal grounds. 



The book struggles with a question that still hangs over our mental health system today: are we working towards optimal health (whatever that means) or simply minimizing conflict? One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest also achieves something rare in stories about mental health, the people come before the diagnosis. It isn't a story about depression or schizophrenia, it is a story about people and those are some of the challenges they face.


Best of all, it is a counterculture story that goes beyond the window dressing. No hippies, drugs (okay, some drugs, mostly prescription and mostly construed as negative), no concerts, no road trips, no discourses on poetry, no dabbling in Buddhism. It is a story about the ideas of the counterculture and how they come to affect people.