The biggest difference between Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and its film adaptation is obvious from the start. The novel is narrated by “Chief” Bromden, a half-Native American mental patient who pretends to be deaf in order to avoid interacting with the outside world. Bromden’s paranoid fantasies take center stage immediately, establishing a perspective full of metaphors made literal and psycho-sexual, racially tinged terror. It takes a page or two for the reality of the situation to sink in, and even then, the reader spends much of the first half of the book working to translate Bromden’s fever dreams into a more level-headed narrative. The result is a voice that never entirely becomes comfortable, and a story in which melodrama routinely threatens to explode into chaos.
By contrast, the first scene of the film adaptation (directed by Milos Forman, with a script by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman) takes place outside the mental institution that will serve as the setting for most of what follows. We see fields and a forest in the early morning, and a car coming up a long road. After a few minutes inside the ward, as the domineering Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) arrives and the patients fall into their morning routine, we cut back to see the car pulling up outside a building and a man (Jack Nicholson) in a stocking cap and leather jacket getting out of the back.
It’s possible the movie could’ve kept Bromden as the narrator. Voice-over could have covered for the fact that he spends most of the story as a silent observer, and scenes could’ve been framed to make the character’s presence clear even when he wasn’t the focus. But instead of trying to capture the novel’s intensity, Forman went for a more restrained approach. There are no grand hallucinations, no visions of the “Combine” that Bromden is convinced is working behind the scenes to turn everyone into easily programmable robots. The events of the book unfold more or less realistically, making Bromden’s job as narrator irrelevant.
He’s still an important character, and Will Sampson (in his film debut) gives a terrific performance; by keeping his intelligence a secret for most of the running time, the movie manages creates a powerful jolt out of the moment when he finally talks to Nicholson’s McMurphy. What’s fascinating, though, is that without Bromden at the story’s center, McMurphy becomes the audience identification figure more less by default. Nicholson is at his peak, his jackknife charisma on full display, and as the outsider coming into a closed circuit universe, we learn along with him how the ward operates, and share his growing bafflement and disgust with Nurse Ratched’s methods. While most of the patients mentioned in the novel appear on screen, none of them get enough time to take focus. Their various nervous tics make them initially off-putting and strange, whereas McMurphy is well-adjusted and easy to understand.
It’s a dynamic that subtly but thoroughly changes the dichotomy of the source material. The novel lays out its case with borderline religious fervor. In Bromden’s eyes, McMurphy is practically superhuman, a giant of a man with a great booming voice and seemingly inexhaustible lust for life, an avatar for all that is individual and righteous and masculine (yeah, we’ll get to that) in the world. His battle against Ratched for the soul of the ward plays out like an epic showdown between two brilliant, near-mythic opponents. Even the glimpses we get of McMurphy tired or acting in self-interest have a Christ-like feel to them, a certain garden of Gethsemane vibe. He struggles because whether he wants it or not, he’s responsible for all of them; and in the end, he has to sacrifice himself to free them.
Contrast that with the movie, where most of the running time has McMurphy acting like any reasonable person might if they were thrown into the nuthouse. He treats the other inmates like regular guys, and gets increasingly annoyed by their antics; he marvels at the Machiavellian horrors of the nurse’s “group therapy” sessions; he talks with doctors, and, when things start going south, tries to escape.
These are all things that happen in the novel—the only major additions are the two scenes of McMurphy in therapy, which give a chance to fill in some of his backstory and his struggles with Ratched. But the tone is different, to the point where at times, it hardly feels like a contest of wills at all. In the book, McMurphy bets the other patients that he can get under the nurse’s skin. The bet feels like the introduction of a premise: While the stakes will grow increasingly dire as time goes on, the basic hook of McMurphy vs. the system lasts till the end. But while he makes the same bet in the movie, it’s treated casually and essentially forgotten. The adaptation trades the ritual of tragedy (McMurphy’s fate is foreshadowed by repeated mentions of an earlier disruptor in the ward who got sent for a lobotomy after causing too many problems) for something more organic and harder to parse.
On the whole, it’s a smart move. The novel’s approach serves it well, but Kesey has an unfortunate tendency to let his critique of conformity and mindless automation get bogged down by misogynistic runners about “ball-cutters” and harridans. The women of the story are either humorless control freaks or daffy whores, and every patient in the ward seems to have suffered at the hands of one or the other. Billy, a desperately shy young man, kills himself when the nurse threatens to tell his mother he slept with a prostitute. The idea of the individual versus society is a staple of literature, and when Kesey sticks to McMurphy and his doomed efforts to beat the system, it’s powerful stuff. But the weird narrow-minded interpretation of how the system does its work undercuts the message.
By contrast, the movie’s streamlined approach chucks most of this, and the result is something far more open to interpretation. The sexism is still there in terms of representation, but outside of McMurphy calling Ratched a “cunt,” (which seems pretty in character for the guy), and another patient’s wife, there’s little specific talk of gender, or men having their power robbed by the women in their lives. What’s left is a generalized sense of malaise, the horror of being inadequate to meet the demands of adult life. The mental ward of the movie feels lived-in and depressed, the kind of place you go when there’s no other place left. McMurphy’s “inspirational” efforts are driven more by exasperation than any saintlike desire to improve the lives of others. There’s a subtle but distinguishable arc of him being forced into helping people almost against his will, as though he’s so annoyed that other people aren’t able to appreciate life the way he does that he has to do something about it.
Nicholson’s performance is the key to making this work; he balances humor and irritation so handily that he avoids becoming a too-easy cliché. It helps as well that while the movie takes his side of things, it also implicitly acknowledges that things aren’t entirely as simple as he seems to believe. It’s easy to sympathize with McMurphy’s frustrations, but it’s also possible to feel some pity for Nurse Ratched. While she encourages the bad spirits of the group (and inadvertently leads to Billy’s death), she’s also trying to maintain order in a chaotic world, and the movie is just smart enough to recognize that order has an appeal.
The movie’s main flaws come from trying too hard to push a message across. The book is full of heavy themes, but as these are filtered through Bromden’s skewed perspective, there’s a coherence to their intensity. His rants about the Combine are simplistic and absurd, but they function well as characterization, depicting Bromden as a man so broken down that he sees everything in terms of grand conspiracy and epic adventure. He feels small, so the things he sees take on more size; and as the novel progresses, and McMurphy helps him regain his size, he calms down to the point where he can stand on his own.
When the movie falls back into something approaching Bromden’s overtly stylized tone, it’s unable to support it. In both versions of the story, McMurphy arranges for the patients of the ward to rent a boat and go on a fishing trip; Bromden comes along in the novel, and it’s an important transitional sequence, showing how the shy, neurotic patients blossom at a chance for real freedom. The movie takes the same approach (minus Bromden), but the overly comical music and self-consciously wacky antics of the group are more cringe-inducing than charming. At one point, the men spy on McMurphy and his girl having sex in the cabin of the boat, and it’s a deeply creepy moment that’s played like a light-hearted goof between friends.
Then there’s the ending. It’s one of the story’s most enduring contributions to popular culture: McMurphy attacks Nurse Ratched in response to Billy’s death; he’s taken off the ward and lobotomized; Bromden smothers the post-lobotomy McMurphy in his bed, then picks up the control box for the hydrotherapy system, throws it through a window, and escapes. One man must die so that another may live. The system can’t be defeated, but maybe, with a little luck and a lot of upper body strength, it can be escaped.
It’s a memorable conclusion, a striking mixture of despair and triumph. It’s also a bit of a stretch, pushing characters to behave in ways that don’t entirely fit what we know about them. The novel comes closer to carrying it off, mainly because Kesey spends a good deal of time warning us what’s coming. There are the mentions of what happened to the last patient who got under Nurse Ratched’s skin; when McMurphy tries to lift the control box himself, he tells the others that he’s going throw it through a window, just like Bromden does in the end; and, most importantly, Bromden frames the big showdown between McMurphy and the nurse in a way that makes a definitive conclusion to the conflict seem unavoidable. By the end, McMurphy’s barely himself anymore, trapped inside the expectations of the men whose lives he’s changed, his larger-than-life status a curse as much as a blessing.
Still, that he falls asleep on the ward instead of escaping during the party he sets up specifically for that purpose doesn’t make a lot of sense. It makes even less sense in the movie, where McMurphy is clearly human, and clearly more than eager to be off on his own. The movie’s tension between the McMurphy who wants his freedom, and the McMurphy who kind of likes the men of the ward, is something that never really goes away—generally he seems more annoyed by their inability to get out of their own way than he is determined to inspire them. Which works well for most of the running time, because it fits Forman’s muted, Altman-esque observational approach.
But in sticking to the source material’s ending (which is admittedly so iconic it would’ve been difficult to change), the movie betrays the more complex version of McMurphy that Nicholson has worked to create, even as it tries to justify the decision. There’s a lovely close-up of him near the end of the party after everyone has left him alone, and he’s waiting to go; his face goes still, and for a moment some of the exhaustion Bromden talks about in the novel comes across, as though some part of him realizes that no matter how hard he tries, he’s not going to be able to get away; in deciding to give Billy some time alone with a pretty woman, he’s lost his chance for freedom.
It’s not enough to make everything else plausible, but it’s something. Forman even tries to wring some suspense out of giving McMurphy one last chance to escape the next morning—but by the time he’s being led back onto the ward with twin lobotomy scars on his forehead, any subtlety or ambiguity is lost. In both versions, the finale feels a little too designed, a little too easily definitive, but the image of Bromden finally escaping into the wild is hard to resist. It’s a twist that requires a certain willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience, but in both cases, considerable ground is made toward earning that disbelief. At the very least, it makes for an excellent title.
Start with: The book. In conjunction, the two work together well; the novel allows the film’s characters a richer inner life, while the movie edges away from the book’s at times off-putting eccentricities. If you only want to go through the story once, though, stick with the movie. It’s aged better.