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.