Book Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey


I have a vague recollection of seeing bits and pieces of the 1975 film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” when I was a kid. I remember finding it more than a little disturbing. Having finally read the book, I am just lucky that I didn’t suffer nightmares after watching the film all those years ago. After finishing the book last week I decided to watch the movie again. As is usually the case, the book was much better than the film. Although, I should admit that my immense dislike of Jack Nicholson may have had more to do with why I didn’t really like the film.

It is easy to see why Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is considered a modern classic. Told from the point of view of a largely silent Native American who is assumed to be deaf and dumb, the novel chronicles a mental hospital in the late 1950s when a new patient arrives  in Nurse Mildred Ratched’s ward. Randle Patrick McMurphy arrives from a penitentiary work-farm ostensibly because he is mentally disturbed. The reader is left to wonder if he really is. It is suggested that he is pretending to get out of the hard work of the penitentiary and sees the hospital as a more pleasant alternative. For me one of the more poignant moments in the book is when McMurphy realizes that many of his fellow ward-mates are actually there voluntarily and could be discharged fairly easily and more or less at their own discretion. McMurphy on the other hand has been committed by the state of Oregon and is at the mercy of the hospital staff to decide whether he is sane or not. After learning this, McMurphy realizes that his disruptive behavior on the ward could relegate him to a lifetime in an insane asylum that would extend well beyond the terms of his criminal sentence.

McMurphy’s disruptive behavior is not entirely self-serving, he does manage to bring new life and perhaps even hope to some of the other patients. In the end though, his attempts to do so have consequences not entirely unforeseen. Although the book is based partly on Kesey’s experience in a Veteran’s Administration hospital, it is hard to know how realistic the staff’s intentionally sadistic behavior is. The Nurse Ratched character and the conditions on her ward epitomize much of what our society believes happened in state hospitals in the 1950s and 1960s. You would have to live under a rock to not know that emotional, physical, and sexual abuses have been uncovered in all kinds of institutional settings, but Nurse Ratched’s attitude and modus operandi suggests something more systemic than real life abuse cases would support. Interestingly enough I will have some opportunity to look into these issues as my work over the next few months includes taking oral histories of people who lived and worked in a large government run mental facility.

Bottom line: read the book, skip the movie.

8 thoughts on “Book Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

  1. Jim Murdoch September 20, 2011 / 9:14 am

    One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was the first X-Rated film I ever saw, it was also the first film I went to alone and the first film (if you discount Lobo, The Lonely Wolf which I saw when I was about five) that I cried during. I must have seen it a half-dozen times over the last thirty-five years, the last time only recently. It was also the first film I’d watched where I’d knowingly read the book first. The book is not so much better than the film as different from the film. I rank Forman’s film as one of the best film adaptations around and there are some dire ones, many dire ones. But I do feel I have to jump to its defence. Nicholson may not be your cup of tea but he makes that role his own and although my daughter tells me that Christian Slater acquitted himself well on stage for me Nicholson’s is the definitive Randle P. McMurphy. Remember too that this film was only the second to win all five major Academy Awards including the Oscar for best actor for Nicholson. I also think that Kesey’s novel is a masterwork but clearly it needs less defending here.


  2. Julie @ Read Handed September 20, 2011 / 10:32 am

    Just the other day, someone (older than me) referenced this “show” and looked at me, saying “You've probably never even heard of that show, have you?” I said, “It was actually originally a book by Ken Kesey and then turned into a movie starring Jack Nicholson.” So boo-ya. “But you weren't even alive yet when the movie came out…” Okay… so what? Anyway, it was fun blowing her mind. And the book is genius.


  3. pagesofjulia September 20, 2011 / 4:40 pm

    +1 on read the book, skip the movie!! (always, but yes especially with this one.)

    I love One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. In my mind it's aligned with 1984, Stranger in a Strange Land, and A Brave New World; my parents gave me those 4 books in one package to read in, oh, 7th grade? Yes, they are unique people. I agree this is a disturbing book but also a thought-provoking one. The message of hope that comes in at the end really captured my imagination.

    And speaking of Kesey, have you read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test? The connection is kind of slight – Kesey is one of the many characters in Tom Wolfe's (nonfiction, journalistic) book about the acid-warped ramblings of a group of day-glo hippies in the 60's. But I never miss a chance to proselytize – THAT is one of my very favorite books, and again I think it is an Important one. Yes, again courtesy of my parents. :)


  4. Jeane September 21, 2011 / 11:31 am

    Excellent review. I always thought the book was pretty disturbing, but so powerful also I couldn't stop reading it. (Several times, in fact). I actually thought the movie was pretty strong, too, but then I saw it after reading the book so it didn't spoil that for me.


  5. Thomas at My Porch September 22, 2011 / 2:48 pm

    Jim: I would agree with you that it is better to say the film is different from the book rather than the book is better than the film. And it isn't hard to understand why the film was so well awarded. My dislike of Nicholson no doubt clouded my judgment.

    Julie: I was only six when the film came out but I think the film and book are so embedded in pop culture, at least by reference, that it would be hard to not know about it.

    Julia: Your parents are indeed unique. That is quite a reading list for a 7th grader. I like Tom Wolfe's later stuff but was never able to get through Electric Kool-Aid, although Owsley, the guy who supplied Kesey with his acid spent time at the mental hospital I am researching.

    Jeane: Oddly, I picked up the book a few times before I was actually able to get into the rhythm of it. But once I did it was very engrossing.


  6. Steph September 22, 2011 / 4:41 pm

    Great review, Thomas. I know that I have both read this book AND seen the film, and while I know I really liked the book, I honestly don't remember much about it at all, other than the obvious points that one would simply glean from reading the back cover. Your review has really made me want to rediscover this one for myself, because I think such a good book deserves more from me than a vague “I liked it, but I can't say why!” response.


  7. pagesofjulia September 23, 2011 / 10:52 am

    I guess the Kool-Aid isn't for everyone. Just goes to show there's room for all of us and our tastes. The lines would be too long if we all liked the same things :)


  8. nishitak October 14, 2011 / 8:41 am

    Hats of to pagesofjulia's parents. That's an awesome reading list, and I remember my dad recommending these books to me at a similar age…except of course for Stranger in a Strange Land.

    My dad's progressive about a lot of things, but sex was not one of them :D


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