One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Most of the time, but not all the time, when a movie is made from a book, I prefer the book. This is one of the exceptions. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of my all-time favorite movies, but just a moderately interesting book to me.

Virtually the entire novel takes place in a mental hospital, in a ward run by a control freak nurse, Nurse Ratched. The story is told in the first person by Mr. Bromden, a very large Indian nicknamed “the Chief” (or “Chief Broom,” because the orderlies give him a mop or a broom every day and he drifts along doing chores).

He fools everyone into thinking he’s deaf and dumb, though what’s interesting is that he didn’t initially intend that. He just found that in most of the roles he’d occupied in life, including now inmate in a mental hospital, people ignored him and didn’t listen to him. Eventually he stopped bothering to talk and went into a permanent uncommunicative funk. Eventually as the personnel in the hospital changed over the years people assumed—to the minimal degree they took notice of him at all—that he couldn’t talk and probably was deaf too.

The main action of the story involves the way newcomer Randall P. McMurphy—who has transferred over from a state prison—shakes up everything on the ward. Prior to his arrival the patients are meek and intimidated, unable to stand up for themselves, unwilling to question authority, and even incapable of openly laughing anymore. But McMurphy is an irrepressible jokester, con man, life of the party, grab all the gusto in life you can sort of guy—who successfully defied the Chinese in a prison camp during the Korean War and led a successful escape—and his commanding presence gives the men back their lives and their craving for autonomy, much to the chagrin of Nurse Ratched who wants them as docile and as dependent on her as possible.

I remember I had a teacher in high school who told us about this book. We didn’t read it for class; she just was conversing with us about some of her favorite books. She said that having the Chief narrate the book allowed the author to display the character’s return to sanity. Early on, she said, the narration manifests a significant inability to grasp reality, a mind that’s clearly malfunctioning. The deeper you get into the book, the more sane and coherent the narration becomes as the Chief is influenced by McMurphy to fight his way back to mental health.

That would be interesting, except I don’t read it that way at all. For one thing, at the very beginning the Chief is already referring to McMurphy in the past tense, and says that he has a story to tell, implying that the story has already taken place and he’s now going to go back and relate it to the reader. So it’s not like this is some kind of a journal or diary where the Chief is relating the events as they happen. The story is a retrospective, and the Chief is as sane or insane as he happens to be at the time he tells it.

Furthermore, even if you ignore that and just examine the Chief’s description of events, there’s really little or no change in the sanity of his worldview. He changes in other ways, as the patients in general do, but that’s a matter of self-confidence, willingness to assert himself, etc., not how crazy he is.

The Chief’s views are presumably those of the author, with the difference being that the Chief by all appearances—at the beginning and at the end of the novel—believes even the crazy elements of what he’s saying in a literal way, whereas presumably the author intends these ideas metaphorically.

According to the Chief, and Kesey, the mental hospital is a microcosm of our repressive society. The powers that be encourage the common people to freely relinquish their autonomy (nearly all the inmates in the mental hospital are there voluntarily, even though they complain about everything), follow the rules that benefit their overlords, and bicker amongst themselves rather than band together (Nurse Ratched’s group “therapy” sessions are all about encouraging people to rat on each other and to confess anything that humiliates them and makes it harder for them to be respected by themselves or others). It’s just that the Chief is convinced that the bad guys, such as Nurse Ratched, are capable of shape shifting, that people have electronic devices implanted in them to control them, and that those in control have perfected various supernatural ways to impose their will.

Really, though, that’s what the book (and movie) is about. It’s not some sort of exposé of ill treatment in mental hospitals. That’s all metaphorical. Kesey was a beatnik type writing about the conformity and illusory freedom of 1950s and early 1960s America. He was trying to wake people up to the way most of us conform to rules and customs and expectations that stifle us and prevent us from living anything remotely resembling a fulfilling life. We do it to ourselves, under the influence of those who benefit from our behaving as sheep.

I found the literary device of having this all narrated by a paranoid character who interprets this theme in a bizarrely literal way tiresome after a while. It’s a borderline surreal telling of the story. A little of that kind of thing goes a long way for me; if there’s more than a little of that—like here—then to some degree it loses me as a reader.

Still, the story is compelling, because McMurphy is so compelling. I won’t say he has the impact in print that he does as portrayed in the flesh by Jack Nicholson, but he’s certainly a dynamic and charismatic figure.

One of the minor characters that I find most memorable is Bancini. He’s in the film too, but he’s even more minor there, as you’re told nothing of his back story. He’s the old guy who just sits or wanders around repeating, “I’m tired, I’m tired.”

But in the book, he, like the Chief, is a conduit for the author’s message. Apparently he’s mild to moderately mentally retarded, to where with all his effort and concentration he can barely do an unskilled menial railroad job. But perhaps because he’s so slow, he doesn’t absorb society’s propaganda—he isn’t fooled.

The problem is he doesn’t have the smarts to be able to articulate just what it is he thinks he sees that’s deadening people and making them docile to a system that doesn’t serve their interests. He recognizes that he doesn’t have the ability to educate people about what they’re allowing to control them—he tries once, after being committed to the mental hospital, but people have no clue what he’s talking about and treat it like an incoherent rant—and what adds to his frustration is that the educated, intelligent people who have the tools he lacks don’t devote themselves to getting the message out about what’s wrong with society. Eventually he just can’t fight this vague, amorphous enemy alone, and so he collapses into an extreme passivity where he perpetually mumbles about how tired he is.

Some characters that are briefly referenced but never shown in the film appear in the book or at least are described in much greater detail. These include patient Billy Bibbit’s mother, and patient Dale Harding’s wife, both of whom—especially Billy’s mother—are clearly the type to aggravate rather than ameliorate the emotional problems of those around them.

There’s maybe a chuckle or two in the book, but the film has more comedic elements. Indeed some people see the film as primarily a comedy, until the last several minutes that are deadly serious. I experienced the book as somewhat darker overall. There are several instances of conflict, violence, and even death in the book that the filmmakers did not recreate for the movie.

On the other hand, the ending in the book is arguably a happier one. I’ve read that Kesey in fact was unhappy with how the film changed the ending. He wanted his characters, inspired by McMurphy, to rally together and more unambiguously defeat Nurse Ratched, to either leave the facility (if they’re there voluntarily), or if they remain in the hospital to make it clear moving forward that the nurse will never again be able to humiliate and control them. Whereas in the movie, one character triumphantly escapes, but there are mixed signals what’s to become of the other men, whether they will be inspired to fight back and reclaim their autonomy, or life will pretty much return to what it had always been on the ward.

Even if I don’t personally put it on the same level as the film, I do think the book version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is worth reading and pondering over.


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