Author Ken Kesey claims he never saw Milos Foreman's 1975 adaptation of his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Which is weird because the movie was considered an instant classic and won the Oscar for Best Picture (as well as Best Actor for Jack Nicholson and Best Actress for Louise Fletcher). And it gets even weirder when you take into account the fact that it's also an accurate and faithful version of Kesey's brilliant story that makes only a few alterations for the sake of a new medium.
But authors can be snarky types—they don't like watching other people boil their own babies—and while One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest is a truly great adaptation of an even better novel, Kesey actually has some ground to stand on. Read on to find out what that is.
Foreman keeps the same streak of anti-authoritarian rebellion that marked Kesey's book. Randle P. McMurphy (Nicholson) gets himself committed in order to avoid jail and promptly gives an ulcer to the ultimate control freak Nurse Ratched (Fletcher). The movie keeps the same events and narrative progress in place, with a little embellishment here and there for dramatic flair.
For an example, check out the famous scene when Nurse Ratched refuses to turn on the World Series, and McMurphy makes up his own game, to the delighted hoots of his fellow inmates. In the book, he and the rest patients just watch the silent TV. It's the same event and carries the same impact—they're gonna watch the World Series whether it's on or not, thank you very much. But with the famous Jack Nicholson finesse, the ante gets upped, and we're given a much more visually compelling scene, complete with swelling music.
Foreman takes the same approach to other events in the book. The fishing trip, for instance, takes place more or less like it did in the book, except that McMurphy doesn't get permission from the hospital staff, which ups the stakes. Each of these changes stresses the book's basic theme: Rebel Randle vs. Tyrant Nurse (and the evil forces of The Man that she represents). They simply give us a little more hand-waving and shouting, which looks better on screen than quietly standing around and fuming.
The gist? If you're looking for a wild reinterpretation of a literary classic, this ain't your movie. This is the book, in movie form. McMurphy's rebellion continues full-bore, right up to his free lobotomy and ensuing breakout from the Big Chief.
So wait a second. If the movie's so faithful to the book, what was Kesey's beef with it?
Shmoop's got two theories on that front:
(1) The narrative. The book is first-person narrative, told entirely from the perspective of the Big Chief. The fact that he's mentally ill makes for quite a wild read, sure, but it also makes a larger point about rebels and outsiders. Rebellion comes from an outsider's perspective, from someone who thinks and acts differently than the mainstream. You can't get any more outside the mainstream than a mute American Indian locked in an insane asylum. McMurphy's more conventional rebellion reawakens the chief's own unique perspective and sense of identity… which he celebrates by smothering McMurphy's lobotomized body, smashing the nearest window and making a break for freedom.
Unfortunately, the movie can't duplicate Big Chief's point of view without resorting to cheesy narration. Instead, it shoots things from an objective perspective, taking us away from the Chief's viewpoint and changing the basic nature of the atmosphere. It's factual, photographic, and devoid of schizophrenic visual delusions from which the Chief suffers. We can't help but think that's a smart call—audiences would probably freak out if the film involved melting walls and "Combine" machinery—but it also loses the vision and wisdom of the Chief's unique point of view.
(2) The ending. As if to compensate, Foreman makes the ending a little more intimate and personal. In the book, most of the inmates voluntarily choose to leave the asylum after McMurphy injures Nurse Ratched. McMurphy's rebellion has destroyed her power over them, like any good act of felonious assault should.
But in the movie, the inmates are mostly still there and Ratched's rule continues unabated as if McMurphy never happened. The Chief acts entirely alone, and only he really escapes at the end. This, dear Shmoopers, is all a bit of a bummer. It diminishes the impact of McMurphy's sticking it to the man (or ladynurse, as it were), and it ends the movie on a rather bleak note.
And yet. This choice also makes the whole shebang more personal. Sure, McMurphy's rebellion didn't work for everyone, but it did work for the Chief, and maybe that's enough. Considering that the movie takes away his schizophrenic delusions, the least it can do is make his escape the only one that matters.
So it's your call, Shmoopers: were the changes Foreman made a good move? Or did they water down the book's message. Shmoop amongst yourselves.