One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest Movie Essay

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.

What's the Same

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.

What's Different

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.

Despite its seeming more like a fabulous remake of a dated story rather than the first film version of a noted book and play, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is brilliant cinema theatre. Jack Nicholson stars in an outstanding characterization of Ken Kesey’s asylum anti-hero, McMurphy, and Milos Forman’s direction of a superbly-cast film is equally meritorious. Louise Fletcher is excellent as the arch-nemesis ward nurse of the piece, handsomely produced by Saul Zaentz (of Fantasy Records) and Michael Douglas. The R-rated comedy-melodrama is one of United Artists’ more impressive releases this year.

The past 15 years have covered what seems to be a century of enlightenment. Kesey, a major intellectual catalyst of the Beatnik era, is virtually an elder statesman of the avant-garde; he and others were stirring up the mind when less aware kids were doing their “American Graffiti” numbers. What used to be theatre-of-the-absurd has become, via and after JFK, the Beatles, Vietnam, youthful rebellion, Watergate, etc., almost conventional, cliche storytelling.

Thus, this long-delayed film emerges with a dual impact. To those under the age of, say 25, it will be a theatrically powerful but not especially challenging ensemble showpiece, which poses the now-familiar question, who is insane — the keepers or the kept? To those over that age barrier, it is intellectual nostalgia (a revisitation of the days when causes didn’t choke from mace attacks), Lawrence Welk consciousness-raising, or a first-class Maugham, Galsworthy, Maxwell Anderson or Arthur Miller revival.


Sadly, the ideas herein are today as earth-shattering as The Pill, as revolutionary as pot, as relevant as the Cold War. Gladly, however, their transfer to the screen is potent, contemporary, compelling. And so, the young in head like the young in age can be drawn equally to this film as they are to Bette Midler and Manhattan Transfer.

It was Nov. 13, 1963 that Kirk Douglas returned to Broadway in a David Merrick-Edward Lewis Seven Arts-Eric Productions presentation of Dale Wasserman’s legit adaptation of Kesey’s, book, directed by Alex Segal. “Hello, Dolly!” was In its Detroit tryout that week, and John F. Kennedy had two weeks or so left to live. Eleven weeks later, “Cuckoo’s” had closed, a financial flop. But Douglas for years tried to get a film version off the ground, finally yielding to son Michael who pulled it off with Zaentz; meanwhile, both from its ideas and its versatility as a performers’ showcase, local legit productions abounded. (However, play had a very long run, starting March 24, ’71, off-Broadway with William Devane in McMurphy role -Ed.)

The film, made independently for over $3,000,000 before UA bought into it, traces the havoc wrecked in Nurse Fletcher’s zombie-run mental ward when Nicholson (either an illness faker or a free spirit) displays a kind of leadership which neither Fletcher nor the system can handle. The story is a dramatic staple: “Stalag 17,” “Mr. Roberts,” etc. “Us” against “Them-in-authority.” The latter win, but not without a fight.

Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman are credited with the adaptation of the book (Wasserman’s legit version is given separate passing credit). Despite the pointed directions of empathy and revulsion in the original material, the screenplay draws no sharp lines: Fletcher is all the more chilling in her bland autocracy for being apparently sincere in her vocation; Nicholson’s real motives (for the offbeat behavior in a work camp that has sent him to the asylum for observations) are never clarified. All hands appear equally propelled by a perverse destiny.

The lengthy (133-minute) film first stresses broad vulgarity, as if to get all that out of the way, before moving into an ambivalence where one knows not whether to laugh or cry, or both. The cumulative impact is compellingly downbeat (nobody wins, everyone loses) and at the same time confusingly ambiguous (as befits the shallow liberalism of the time it so well depicts).

One must therefore forget the whole and concentrate solely on the excellent theatrics of the parts. Nicholson, Fletcher, Forman, cinematographers Haskell Wexler, Bill Butler and William Fraker; production designer Paul Sylbert; composer Jack Nitzsche (providing some haunting musical excerpts both in complementary and counterpoint effect); supervising editor Richard Chew, among others.

In addition, the major supporting players (with their 1963 Broadway production counterparts noted parenthetically) emerge with authority: Brad Dourif (Gene Wilder), the acne-marked stutterer whose immature sexual fantasies are clarified on the night of Nicholson’s aborted escape; Sidney Lassick (Gerald S. O’Loughlin), a petulant auntie; Will Sampson (Ed Ames), the not-so-dumb Indian with whom Nicholson effects a strong rapport; William Redfield (William Daniels), the over-intelligent inmate.

Also, Sherman (Scatman) Crothers (Milton J. Williams), the night ward attendant whose hankering for liquor and girls precipitates Nicholson’s wild party; Dean R. Brooks (Rex Robbins), in real life a hospital superintendent who makes a superb acting debut as a skeptical chief doctor, plus being the film’s technical advisor; Delos V. Smith (Malcolm Atterbury), William Duell (Charles Tyner), Danny De Vito (Al Nesor), Vincent Schiavelli (Wesley Gale), among other ward-mates; Nathan George (Lincoln Kilpatrick), a male nurse. Joan Tetzel did the head nurse part Fletcher handles so well here. Christopher Lloyd rounds out the crew, while Marya Small and Louisa Moritz are very chipper chippies.

The film’s pacing is relieved by a group escape and fishing boat heist, right out of Mack Sennett, and some stabs at basketball in which Nicholson stations the tall Indian for telling effect. This in turn makes the shock therapy sequences and Dourif’s suicide scene awesomely potent. The film picks one up in a theatrical centrifuge for over two hours; the trip is more than enough to make one forget the mossbound Sixties’ thrust. – until it’s all over.


One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Production: United Artists release of a Fantasy Films production. Produced by Saul Zaentz, Michael Douglas. Directed by Milos Forman. Screenplay, Lawrence Hauben, Bo Goldman, from novel by Ken Kesey, dramatized for the stage by Dale Wasserman. Reviewed at MGM Studios. Culver City, Nov. 7, '75.

Crew: Camera (DeLuxe Color), Haskell Wexler, Bill Butler, William Fraker; editors, Richard Chew, Lynzee Klingman, Sheldon Kahn; music, Jack Nitzsche; production design, Paul Sylbert; art direction, Edwin O'Donovan; sound, Lawrence Jost, Mark Berger; asst. director, Irby Smith. (MPAA Rating: R.) Original review text from 1975. Running time: 133 MIN.

With: Randel P. McMurphy - Jack Nicholson Nurse Ratched - Louise Fletcher Harding - William Redfield Dr. Spivey - Dean Brooks Orderly Turkle - Scatman Crothers Martini - Danny De Vito Sefelt - William Duell Billy Bibbit - Brad Dourif Cheswick - Sidney Lassick Taber - Christopher Lloyd Chief Bromden - Will Sampson Frederickson - Vincent Schiavelli Scanlon - Delos V. Smith Jr. Candy - Marya Small Rose - Louisa Moritz Nurse Pillow - Mimi Sarkisian Attendant Washington - Nathan George

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