Vita Brevis Breviter In Brevi Finietu

Vita Brevis Breviter In Brevi Finietu

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Film Adaptation: One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

Another essay from my uni days, this one was part of a Film Adaptation module during my second year at TASC

Discuss the fidelity of the film adaptation of Ken Kesey's 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest' in relation to audience theories; including the reception of the film and the difference between readers of the novel and viewers of the film.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was a 1962 novel written by American author Ken Kesey. It was adapted into a film of the same name in 1975. Actor Kirk Douglas originally played RP McMurphy in a stage version of the novel, after purchasing the rights to film the piece he passed them onto his son, fellow actor Michael Douglas who set into motion the production of the film whom also acted as producer for the film (Dirks). It was claimed that the film was made in order to appeal more to contemporary audiences. At the time, the now all-star cast were all relatively unknown, the film propelling their careers due to its critical acclaim, both as a film and also in novel form.

The film is set in a mental hospital in the 1960s and followed a group of patients on an all male ward. Kesey himself had spent time as a guinea pig for experimental drugs as well as an aide on a ward in a hospital in Oregon, and based his novel loosely upon his experiences and patients whom he had met during this time (Huffman, 2002). The novel is told from the point of view of a large Indian patient known as Chief Bromden, whereas the film is told from a more neutral view point, but closely follows McMurphy. The story begins when McMurphy is brought onto the ward after his behaviour becomes questionable whilst serving a prison sentence working on a farm after committing a string of crimes, the latest of which being statutory rape. The rest of the plot continues on, showing the reader and view what everyday life in the asylum is like. However McMurphy, not content with this, sneaks prostitutes onto the ward, gambles with the other patients and in the film, steals a bus and boat in order to take the men fishing (Dirks) (Kesey, 1962) (Forman, 1975).

For readers of the novel, it is easy to see that One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is an adaptation of the original novel that is relatively faithful to the initial text. This can be seen in several ways. For example, all of the main characters on the ward, including patients, aides and nurses are the exact same in the film as they are in the novel. The characters personalities, names and general appearances are as identical as possible. For instance, Nurse Ratched, whom is one of the main characters, is described as “She walks stiff.” (Kesey, 1962, p. 4) and “Her face is smooth, calculated, and precision-made, like an expensive baby doll...what would of otherwise been a perfect work, and you can see how bitter she is about it” (Kesey, 1962, p. 6), she is also referred to as ‘Big Nurse’ to illustrate the fact that the patients, in particular Chief Bromden, are scared of her powerful nature, in the film she is prim, neatly kept, strict and seemingly emotionless in order to keep the appearance of being an almost robotic part of the ‘combine’. McMurphy, described by the Chief as having a “voice loud and full of hell” (Kesey, 1962, p. 10) also has the same attitude and approach to things in the book, including speaking in the same manner. The spirit of McMurphy is strong and mischievous, and cannot even be taken out of him by Electroshock Therapy (EST), this shows this strong will and determination, which can easily be seen within the film by the inclusion of the pretending to watch the world series and by the stealing of the bus and boat for the fishing trip.

Most of the action takes place on a single ward, and this is no different in the film version. Other scene settings include the yard and the boat and are again identical to how they are described in the book. The film adaptation does a god job of sticking religiously to the original text in terms of characters and settings, and also manages to stick mostly to the basic plot of the novel. This is important if the audience are going to recognise the film as an adaptation of the text.

When the novel was first released it caused controversy due to the fact that it had a large amount of sexual aspects to it (Cliffs Notes). When adapting the novel, writers had to be careful to be aware of the fact that films have to be censored in a way that books don’t have to be (Fulton, 1977). This meant that there had to be less focus on the sexual elements of Nurse Ratched, as is noted in the book on frequent occasions, and the focus of the film is more on the elements of control she has over the men and the ward.

The narration of the novel is different to the narration of the film. In the book, the story is told from Chief Bromden’s point of view. He describes the ward, characters and events from his own view. This in itself makes the entire view of the story questionable as Chief himself is a patient on the word, whom the others think to be deaf and dumb, when really he just refuses to talk or respond. Without the use of a voice over, it would be hard to establish to readers that Chief was the narrator of the piece and that things are seen from his eyes. Filmmakers and critics alike feel no need for this voice over narration technique, as they feel that it tells what should be implied via the visual (Chatman, 2004, p. 450). Both readers and viewers are drawn to the character of McMurphy which makes it acceptable for the film to still focus on his story and character from a more neutral view point. However, fans and readers of the novel may feel that this makes the adaptation unfaithful to the text (One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest Film Reviews). However, the initial spirit of the text is not lost. Chief provides an observational viewpoint of the action that occurs and rarely is directly involved, expect for instances such as when him and McMurphy play basketball or McMurphy tries to get him to raise his hand during a vote. The camera also tells the story from an observational view point, and allows the action to unfold without interfering (Chatman, 2004).

In the novel Chief also speaks, mainly at night, about the machinery they use and keep secret at the hospital. None of the other patients ever acknowledge this machinery, and readers think that it is symbolic of the power and clinical coldness of the hospital. Chief talks about a ‘cloudy’ feeling, which also does not reassure the reader that he is sane at all. This machinery imagery is not mentioned or shown in the film, largely due to the change of view point, but also because it is not feasible to expect an audience to see the relevance and understand why Chief sees this machinery without a long explanation, which would take away from the film the criticisms that it makes on the mental institutions at the time (Chatman, 2004). If the machinery was included it would have made the film longer and also more costly, which would not have benefited the project at all from a filmmaking perspective.

Film cannot convey a description in the way that a novel can, film also does not need some of the more lengthy descriptive sections as a novel would as viewers have the visual to observe the way a character looks, dresses and acts as well as being able to see the setting of the scene rather than having to conjure up a picture in their minds eye (Chatman, 2004, p. 449). This means that the audience can focus on thinking about other elements, such as why the characters act in such a way, or about the action occurring (Fulton, 1977, p. 154). Elements that would take pages to describe can be shown in a matter of seconds to the audience, however, tiny details may be lost if the audience is not watching the visual close enough (Fulton, 1977, p. 155). The film lets the audience become more observational and allows them to make up their own mind based upon how the characters and action are portrayed, whereas with a novel readers are told in a lot more detail about aspects of personalities and looks. However, readers will be able to fill in missing aspects of detail or character background whilst watching the film, whereas a purely film audience would struggle to know more than what is implied on screen (Chatman, 2004, p. 451).

The film adaptation more than just borrows elements from the novel; it tries to transform the writing into a visual that remains accurate (Andrew, 2004, p. 463). The book is hailed as one of the great American classics, and is hugely popular around the globe as well as in its native USA (Brothers Judd), it is also deemed as one of the best post-war novels of that time. The film was also received well by audiences, both readers and non-readers of the original novel. Many found the film to be a good adaptation which had stuck largely to the original idea, bar the narration (Dirks). Many felt that it made the book more accessible to audiences who for various reasons would not have read the book, as well as doing the opposite of making film seem more appealing to those who normally read. This is what an adaptation aims to achieve, a wide sense of appreciation for the original source (Andrew, 2004, p. 463). This adaptation also aims to carry across the same idea that the novel does about mental institutions in the 1960s. As the novel is based upon real experiences, although not real people as such, it is important for the viewers to have the same sense of the novels ideas so that it is just appealing to a large audience in an alternative method.

Adaptation is important to the cinema as it uses previously written sources in order to layout the guidelines for the feature, rather than coming up with an original script. Adaptation also adds a sense of heightened drama and visual aids in order to tell the same story in a different way which appeals to a wider audience (Andrew, 2004, p. 468), it also aims to build on other types of adaptation of the same source. Adaptations can also allow film to build on ideas and topics approached in a written source and can be delivered in a more ‘in your face’ style and a harsher or more pleasant interpretation (Andrew, 2004, pp. 468-469). This means that the same source can be adapted multiple times as each individual will interpretate the source slightly differently. As time goes on, technology and hobbies change, and it is important for adaptations to be updated and contemporised in order to keep appealing to a modern audience whom could still greatly benefit from or enjoy such a novel. Adaptations can also give a sense of reality to a novel, allowing the audience to understand and put into real life context the story within the novel and film (Fulton, 1977, p. 153).

In conclusion, “Adaptations claiming fidelity bear the original as a signified, whereas those inspired by or derived from an earlier text stand in relation of referring to the original.” (Andrew, 2004, p. 461). Although it is common to think that films can only adapt a general idea from a novel (Andrew, 2004, p. 462) One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is a generally close adaptation of the original source and that the section of the audience whom have read the novel find the film to be similar, if not the same, to how the novel portrays the same events, with only minor changes (Fulton, 1977, p. 152). Both the film and the novel were well received and appealed to a large audience that each piece on its own would have done, especially for contemporary audiences. The film captures the essence of the novel well and portrays characters and events with a sense of realism and genuineness.


Andrew, D. (2004). Adaptation. In L. Braudy, & M. Cohen, Film Theory & Criticism (6th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brothers Judd. (n.d.). The Hungry Mind Review's 100 Best 20th Century Books: One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Retrieved April 25th, 2009, from Brothers Judd:

Chatman, S. (2004). What Novels Do And Films Can't (And Vice Versa). In L. Braudy, & M. Cohen, Film Theory & Criticism (6th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cliffs Notes. (n.d.). One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest Critical Essays. Retrieved April 24th, 2009, from Cliffs Notes:,pageNum-106.html

Dirks, T. (n.d.). One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest Film Review. Retrieved April 25th, 2009, from Film Site:

Forman, M. (Director). (1975). One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest [Motion Picture]. USA.

Fulton, A. (1977). From Novel To Film. In J. Harrington, Film And/As Literature. California: California Polytechnic State University.

Huffman, B. (2002, May 17th). Ken Kesey. Retrieved April 24th, 2009, from The Literary Encyclopedia:

Kesey, K. (1962). One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest . USA: Viking Press.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest Film Reviews. (n.d.). Retrieved April 25th, 2009, from Rotten Tomatoes:

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