Miloš Forman’s 1975 adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is an extraordinary piece of cinema. It is one of three films ever to win all five major Academy Awards (Picture, Lead Actor, Lead Actress, Director, and Screenplay) and this is a legacy it very much deserves. Yet despite this I consider it to be a terrible adaptation of a wonderful novel. The film and Kesey’s text make two very different points.
The narrative of Forman’s film is thus: Randle Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) escapes a prison sentence for statutory rape by pleading insanity. He then finds himself in a mental institution run by the tyrannical Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). McMurphy immediately starts his institutionalisation by testing the boundaries of his new confinement, whilst Nurse Ratched quickly sees her new inmate as a threat to her authority. This tension drives the film. McMurphy is genuinely disgusted by how his fellow inmates are treated, so he leads an open rebellion against the staff and encourages those around him to love themselves and have some fun. The film reaches a head when the Nurse, needing to quash the rebellion, has McMurphy lobotomised. When Chief, a native american inmate who until this point had appeared to be deaf and dumb, discovers his friend in this state he smothers him and breaks out of the asylum. The moral of the film therefore is clear: McMurphy’s rebellion and his ultimate sacrifice ultimately work, as without it the Chief could not escape. McMurphy is the quintessential rebel because he is willing to become a martyr for his cause.
Now this is a fine narrative to have, the sacrifice of good in the face of evil is a tale as old as time after all, but this is not the narrative of Kesey’s novel. In the book McMurphy isn’t the true rebel, Chief is.
The novel is never meant to be a story of good versus evil. Primarily, Kesey wrote the text as an exposé on the disgusting methodology used within psychiatric institutions within 1960s America. But at the same time, he very clearly seeks to explore the nature of “The Rebel” on a social level.
One of the important ambiguities within the text is whether McMurphy actually wants to improve the situation of the other inmates or if he is socially forced into the role. The novel is entirely narrated by Chief, who appears as the voyeur looking into the group. The reader is never allowed into McMurphy’s head and thus understand exactly what his motivations are. What Chief’s point of view makes clear is this – the men who live on the ward need someone to rebel for them. All of these men are unhappy and detest the Nurse, but they lack the confidence to stand up for themselves. When the confident, cocksure and overtly masculine RPM appears on the ward he becomes a focal point for everything all the other inmates wish they could be. McMurphy is therefore pushed into the stereotypical form of rebellion because he is defined on a social level as that figure on the ward.
You also have to ask how can McMurphy be the rebel when his “rebellion” failed? How Do all his actions end? Well for starters a young inmate on the ward, Billy, kills himself once Nurse Ratched catches him sleeping with a prostitute. McMurphy himself is lobotomised, literally losing his very consciousness for the cause. The establishment – in this case the Nurse – wins. Kesey therefore explores the social need for a “rebel” figure. There will always be an authority figure within society, and people will always find a force to fight against it. But to Kesey this prototypical form of rebellion is a distraction, a simulacra to distract from the fact that the establishment ultimately always wins.
This is what makes Chief the true rebel within the text. He doesn’t buy into this system that socially defines authority and rebellion; a system that allows those in power to retain control in perpetuity. Chief opts out of society entirely. He pretends to be dumb and mute as an explicit means of disengaging with the world around him. In response to an overtly post-modern society, Chief succeeds by not buying into social lies but finding his own way into the world; in other words, he may not be a typical rebel like McMurphy, but he is the only one to beat the system in the end.
There’s an irony here given Kesey himself became a figurehead for the hippie movement later in the decade – It’s incredibly easy to read McMurphy as an allegory of Kesey himself – but in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest rebellion is a much more intimate exploration of counter-cultural discourses. In response to an empty, authoritarian society Kesey argues that one shouldn’t buy into the role of “rebel” as by this point is a cultural icon in of itself. Chief’s story therefore argues that the only way to really “rebel” against a totalitarian post-modern society is to opt out; only by refusing to engage and therefore be defined by societal expectations is the Chief able to escape.