One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: The Book v. The Movie

You are all about to be treated to one of my English class essays… Enjoy!

It is an accepted fact among discerning audiences that whenever a book is sent to Hollywood and transformed into a movie, changes are made to the various facets of the original work. Sometimes the changes are for the better, more commonly they are negligible, however the infamous, and rather rare, bad choices that can be made are often the ones that determine the success of a given franchise.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a critically acclaimed novel by Ken Kesey and the movie adaptation, directed by Milos Forman, was similarly well received. This response, however, does not excuse any of the major factual errors found within the movie. Evidently there were no major plot holes or alterations, but the physical descriptions of the various characters within the story as well as their behavior differed quite a bit from their silver screen representation. The most critical physical and behavioral differences can be seen quite clearly when comparing the book versions of Nurse Ratched, McMurphy and the ward patients to their movie counterparts.

Nurse Ratched is portrayed, from the beginning of the novel, as the antagonist. Her dominant behavior and micromanaging of the ward and the lives of those associated with it are at odds with her physical appearance. Kesey, through the narration provided by Bromden, offers us a description of an unrealistically proportioned woman whose anger at the world has left her bitter. A woman whose bitterness is hidden behind a mask described as one that is “smiling and calm and cold.” (Kesey p. 5)

The only descriptions the reader receives of the nurse in the first few chapters are those of a doll-like woman whose benign appearance conceals a more calculated and malignant, at least according to Bromden, iron-clad control over both her life and the lives of those she had the ability to affect. The narrator likens her to “an expensive baby doll [with], skin like flesh colored enamel, blend of white and cream and baby blue eyes.” (Kesey p. 5) Going off of that description, a reader would expect the film adaption to star a woman with doll-like features. The Nurse Ratched that a viewer is greeted with, however, is more of the typical condescending, strict stepmother stereotype popularized by the fairy tales and lore found in any culture as opposed to the saccharine antagonist to eloquently described in the book. There are a number of examples from other movies that a reader could pull from when trying to visualize Nurse Ratched during a perusal of the book. In many ways, her behavior and appearance is very similar to that of Professor Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter books and movies and her overly sweet manner can be very easily compared to the nature of Miss Hattie, the head of the orphanage from Despicable Me. This, however, did not translate well in the film adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Not only was the antagonist’s physical and behavioral appearance changed during the transformation, the protagonist’s was as well. McMurphy is described in the novel as being big, loud, redheaded and overtly social. The McMurphy of the film, however, is average sized, louder than the others, but by no means overly vocal, barring his rants, of course, brown-haired and observant as opposed to the prime example of extrovertism one would expect. Obviously the movie executives would not have cast someone in the role of McMurphy simply because of hair color, but it would not be that hard to die an actor’s hair. Because of the choices that were made, the friendly, and disobedient former logger with a temper that was expected never materialized.

The third example of deviation from the original story with respect to the physical and emotional representation of its various characters is that of the ward’s inhabitants. In the original novel, it is clear that each Acute and Chronic had a specific condition that they were being treated for. Their behavior was that of a grown man minus some factor, the subtraction of which was, of course, as a result of their respective conditions. The reader is given the opportunity to interact with the patients on an individual level rather than in the collective as presented in the movie. Obviously this lack of detail can be attributed to various variables that surround every movie such as budget and time. This choice, however, renders the patients various versions of the same, typical mental patient.

When watching the characters prance across the screen, one of the first things that strikes the viewer is how childlike the patients are. Their squabbles, presided over and regulated by the mother-like figure of Nurse Ratched, are quite similar to those that occur between siblings everyday. Their fixation on trivial occurrences and objects betray an infatuation with discovery concerning their environment. In this film universe, each patient is represented the same way, a far cry from their portrayal as slightly strange individuals whose conditions render them unique as seen in the novel.

In many ways the changes that were made by the director help deliver comedy in what had the potential to be a completely dreary final product. Not only that, but they also made the various characters easier to label. When watching a movie, most viewers appreciate when the less-entertaining aspects of getting oriented are done for them, either through easily identifiable characters or the explicit labeling of individuals and groups. When Nurse Ratched looks evil, less effort has to be expended on trying to make her evil motives more visible to the audience. When the ward members can easily labeled as being childlike, less time has to be spent by both the team behind the film as well as the audience on assigning them specific diseases or disorders. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a masterpiece within which justifiable changes, justified through a simple analysis of the audience, enhance the plotline without eliminating anything critical.

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