One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (1962)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest directed by Milos Forman (1975)
Last summer I covered Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey which was adapted into a movie with Paul Newman, Henry Fonda, and Lee Remick. I absolutely loved that book, and really enjoyed the movie as well. Yet, I was not in a rush to also read Cuckoo’s Nest, even though this is the more popular and well-known work of his. But it was requested by Shelby, so I decided I would go ahead and cover it!
A big reason I wasn’t in a rush to read this one is because I have heard from multiple sources that the book is very sexist. But based on Sometimes a Great Notion, I knew Kesey was a great writer so I was curious about it. On top of that, the adaptation of Cuckoo’s Nest swept the Osars and has become so iconic. It is referenced so much in other shows and movies and in pop culture.
I will say, the book is incredibly sexist. And I’m not saying that simply because the villain is a woman. Misery by Stephen King is one of my favorite books, and in that the villain is a woman-I love a great female antagonist! There is just so much said against her as a woman, as well as the other female characters, that was just so offensive. It seemed like Kesey used the book to show why women shoudn’t be in positions of power and why men should be the ones in charge. On top of that, it was racist at times as well. Despite being written from the perspective of a Native American, it is racist towards African Americans.
Yet, in a way, it is a great story and I loved how it was written! If only Kesey hadn’t made some of the choices he did in regard to the hospital staff and some of the dialog we have, this could have been great!
It’s hard to say if I would recommend it. I guess I would, but just be aware of the offensive content.
There is a lot of symbolism between the main character, McMurphy, and Christ from the Bible. In that way it reminded me a lot of Cool Hand Luke, which I have done a book vs movie for! Both have a man coming into a situation where the other men are beaten down and have lost their confidence. But this new guy shows up and is a source of inspiration and hope and freedom for these men. And Cool Hand Luke has that religious symbolism as well. As far as books go, I like Cuckoo’s Nest better than the Cool Hand Luke book. But with movies I might say I like Cool Hand Luke better.
I’ll be getting into detail as far as that symbolism goes, but I will save that till closer to the end.
The movie doesn’t come across as sexist or racist really, so in some ways it is an improvement of the book. Yet there were certain scenes missing that I had really liked in the book and missed. I would definitely recommend the movie though. Nurse Ratched has become so iconic, that even before hearing of this movie, I had heard of Nurse Ratched, funny enough. The performances are all amazing. Of course, Louise Fletcher won an Oscar for her role as Rached, as well as Jack Nicholson as McMurphy. All of the other men in the ward were amazing and I read they basically never broke character. The movie was filmed at a mental institute in Oregan and so the actors were often interacting with real patients and a lot of the extras were real patients there. Two of the most notable actors are Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd in their first roles-both were fantastic. And I also have to mention Scatman Crothers who is in a smaller role, but he of course was in The Shining which also stared Jack Nicholson! (And yes, I have a The Shining book vs movie, you should check it out! I also read that Shelley Duvall wanted the role of Candy but didn’t get the part).
Before getting into the details of the book and movie I want to warn you there will be spoilers for both book and movie from here on out!
In the book, Chief Bromden plays a much bigger role because he is the narrator of the book! He and McMurphy also share a room.
In the book we know right away that Bromden can hear and speak but pretends he can’t. He is able to overhear a lot of staff conversations because they don’t care if he is around because they don’t think he can hear them. In the book, when McMurphy first shows up, he goes around greeting the men and shaking their hands (this doesn’t really happen in the movie). He goes to shake Bromden’s hand, and they tell him he’s deaf and dumb. Bromden can tell that McMurphy doesn’t buy it and Bromden ends up shaking his hand.
In both book and movie, part way through, Bromden talks to McMurphy, revealing the truth. In the book, like I said, McMurphy knew Bromden could speak and isn’t surprised. Whereas in the movie he is taken aback and is impressed that Bromden has pulled one over on them.
In the book, Bromden ends up speaking with the others as well, whereas in the movie we only see him speak to McMurphy.
In the book we get a lot of flashbacks with Bromden which I really loved. We also get a section where he reflects that before he started to pretend he was deaf and dumb, people around him treated like he was deaf and dumb. Specifically, when he was a kid, he was outside when these white people showed up and they wanted to speak to Bromden’s dad who was the Chief. They are talking as if Bromden can’t hear them, and when Bromden speaks up, they ignore him as if they didn’t even hear.
In both, Bromden is huge, yet when McMurphy says something about his size, Bromden says he isn’t as big as McMurphy. In the book, McMurphy promises to get Bromden back to his large stature, and as the book goes on, Bromden gains a newfound confidence which makes him feel big again. This is in the movie as well, but not as clearly discussed between the characters as it was in the book.
In the movie we get scenes with just the doctors, but because the book is narrated by Bromden we only know what he knows and see what he sees. He does overhear staff discussions, so we do get a look into that though to some extent.
Nurse Ratched and sexism in the book
When McMurphy first shows up in book and movie, he is lively and laughing. He gets card games and basketball games going and stands up to Nurse Ratched. I wanted to mention real quick, in book and movie we learn that McMurphy had been at a work farm for statutory rape of a 15 year old. He says she claimed she was 18 and that she basically forced him. McMurphy is also sexist and racist, and yet he is the hero of the story. Anti-hero I guess would be the better term. The fact that he is someone who has some big issues that make him unlikeable at times I guess adds to his character and makes him more fleshed out. I wish certain elements of this book were left out, but I can apricate that Kesey made him someone who was morally gray (to say the least).
In the book and movie, the first group therapy meeting he is in they are talking about Harding. Ratched brings up some topics from Harding’s life, and eventually all the men are chiming in, picking on Harding. The nurse also has a logbook where men can walk up and write down things they learn about other patients, but the longer McMurphy is there, the less the men tell on each other. Anyway, after this therapy meeting, McMurphy in the book walks up to Harding and says it was a pecking party what happened in that meeting. Harding then tells him that the men are all rabbits, and Nurse Ratched is the wolf and McMurphy says she is a “ball cutter”, saying, “No, that nurse ain’t some kind of monster chicken, buddy, what she is is a ball-cutter. I’ve seen a thousand of ’em, old and young, men and women. Seen ’em all over the country and in the homes—people who try to make you weak so they can get you to toe the line, to follow their rules, to live like they want you to.”
(I just have to say, it’s ridiculous that he is annoyed that Ratched runs a tight ship and enforces her rules. She is in charge of mentally unstable men! Of course she needs strict rules and can’t be a pushover, otherwise it would be chaos.)
They then talk about how to put Nurse Ratchet in her place and Harding says,
“So you see, my friend, it is somewhat as you stated: man has but one truly effective weapon against the juggernaut of modern matriarchy, but it certainly is not laughter. One weapon, and with every passing year in this hip, motivationally researched society, more and more people are discovering how to render that weapon useless and conquer those who have hitherto been the conquerors—”
He is basically saying that the only true way for a man to show a woman whose boss is to have sex with her, and sex by force seems to be the implication. But McMurphy admits that despite Nurse Ratched not being bad looking and have large breasts (which are talked about a lot in the book), he says, “I see what you’re drivin’ at. And you’re by God right. I couldn’t get it up over old frozen face in there even if she had the beauty of Marilyn Monroe.” It is decided that because Nurse Ratched has made herself so unappealing to men that they would be unable to “get it up” with her, she has therefore won over them. And the reason she isn’t desired sexually is because she is so stern and in charge and when a man feels inferior to a woman, it makes him unable to preform sexually, according to Kesey.
Women being seen as sex objects and seeing womanhood as a weakness are why this book is so offensively sexist. Her breasts are talked about so much, and about how she tries to mask her femineity. If there was some nuance here, if we learned more about Nurse Ratched and why she is the way she is, it wouldn’t have been so offensive. But all the female characters in the book are portrayed negatively and without depth. The nurses, as well as the superintendent of the hospital who is a woman, Billy’s mother who is manipulative, Harding’s wife who is cruel and sleeps around, Bromden’s mother who he says made his dad “small”, then you have the two prostitutes who aren’t shown as being bad people but obviously they are seen as sex objects.
Ratched is symbolism of the world trying to make you conform and lose your confidence and individuality, and maybe there is a specific reason Kesey had her be a woman who was attractive, yet “unscrewable” to put it bluntly. But even so, to have her womanhood seen as a weakness she is trying to hide, is just so sexist.
I read an blog post that talks about the sexism in the book and I just wanted to quote a few passages from it.
“Kesey used the novel to give his negative response to newly changing gender roles. In his 1962 novel, he promoted sexism and misogyny through various tools like derogatory language towards women, the subjugation of powerful women and the continuous fight over masculinity vs. femininity.
Another female character, Candy (the main sex worker), seems to be described as the opposite of Ms. Ratched. The reader doesn’t really get to know her because she’s only mentioned in the story in regards to her physical appearances and doing whatever McMurphy tells her to. She’s portrayed as someone who has a “heart of gold” due to her passivity and is only there to please men in her role as a sex worker.
McMurphy attacks the Nurse and starts choking her right after tearing up her uniform to expose her large breasts and reveal her femininity; the one thing that she tried to hide from the very beginning of the book. This appears to be a metaphorical rape even though the book tries to justify this through Bromden’s remarks that the act was “a hard duty that finally just had to be done, like it or not”. Although McMurphy’s life is upside down at that point, he succeeds in his goal of giving the men their victory through breaking Nurse Ratched’s defenses. After her re-feminization by McMurphy, Chief remarks that her new uniform “could no longer conceal the fact that she was a woman,” and it is implied that because of this, “she couldn’t rule with her old power anymore.”
Throughout the novel, Kesey uses sexuality to condemn women in power as unnatural beings. He criticizes women who want reform by describing the “Big Nurse” as a masculine machine, indicating that they have to adopt male characteristics to receive control of something bigger than just their homes. By giving the men their power back at the end, Ken Kesey ends the novel with as stubbornly sexist a tone as it started. He reassures men in his era that, traditionally, they are superior and that they can reassert the power they had believed to have lost if they wish.”
Racism in the book
The lack of nuance with the black orderly’s is what makes that aspect of the book racist as well. White orderlies are mentioned, but the only ones that are at odds with McMurphy and who abuse the others are the black orderlies. McMurphy also uses various racial slurs against them. It could have been interesting if maybe we saw how the women and black men who work in the hospital are belittled and looked down on when they are out in the world. So, when they are at work, maybe they do like to bully these white men, since the white men in the world treat them so poorly. But that is never talked about or addressed. It just seems like Kesey made a weird choice to make the good guys be white men and the villains be women and black men. It was just very cringey at best, and offensive at worst.
As I said, we do get Bromden as a fleshed-out character so that was cool at least.
Anyway, back to the storyline. In the book and movie, we McMurphy ask about turning the music off but Nurse Ratched points out the men who are invalids and how the music is all they have. McMurphy sees that she has a point and drops it. Later, he meets with the male doctor and wins him over and the doctor is who brings up the topic in the next meeting of allowing the men to use the empty tub room to play cards. This isn’t in the movie, and we just see them playing in that room. Doctor Spivey is in all of the group therapy meetings in the book, but in the movie he isn’t. In the book, Ratched has more power than the doctor, but in the movie, it seems like the doctor is higher up. The book talking about how Ratched has emasculated the doctor furthers the sexism whereas in the book he was on Ratched’s side.
In book and movie, we get the scene where McMurphy makes a bet that he can lift a control panel in the tub room. At first people are making comments, but then he truly tries to lift it, with everything he’s got. He isn’t able to though and as he walks out, he turns and says, “But at least I tried.” This was a great scene in the book and movie.
We also get the part when Cheswick wants to watch the World Series, as does McMurphy. They do one round of voting to switch tv times, but only three men vote. McMurphy is disgusted by their cowardice, and at another meeting he brings it up again and the nurse allows them to vote once more. This time every man in the circle raises his hand, however the nurse says he isn’t including the patients who are out of it and not really there. McMurphy walks to all of them and tries to get them to raise their hand but they don’t. The nurse says the voting is done but McMurphy keeps trying and when he goes to Bromden, Bromden raises his hand, making the majority win. McMurphy is ecstatic, but the Nurse says the voting had closed and it doesn’t count. In the movie he then walks over to the tv waiting for it to be turned on. He then starts shouting at the tv as if there is a game on, and the men come over and all start cheering as if they really are watching a game. This is in the book too, but they sit in front of the blank tv for however many days the World Series is supposed to be on. This was a great scene in the movie, as well as the book. But I think the movie was even better here.
In the book, a little after this Cheswick purposely gets himself stuck in the grate at the bottom the pool and drowns. This doesn’t happen in the movie.
The fishing trip
In the book, once someone has been there for a month, they can make a request to leave for a day trip. McMurphy requests to go fishing with his aunts but needs ten men to sign up with him. In the end he gets his ten, Bromden being the final member.
His two aunts are actually two prostitutes, but one of them doesn’t show up, and they therefore won’t have enough room for everything. McMurphy then talks Doctor Spivey into joining them and his car fits the rest.
While on the way, they get gas and the attendants make the doctor and men feel embarrassed. The doctor acts like the men aren’t mental patients, and his embarrassment of them makes them all ashamed and cowardly. Then McMurphy shows up and he proudly flaunts that they are from the mental hospital. Seeing the way he doesn’t hide this fact boosts the other men and they get confident.
Then they go to get the boat and at one point McMurphy is inside talking to the guy in charge, and other guys at the dock start pestering Candy. The other guys have lost the confidence they’d had at the gas station and stand by as Candy is picked on. She starts to wander off, but then McMurphy comes back out and calls to her to come back with them.
They get out on the boat and McMurphy goes in the cabin with Candy. While in there, the men freak out and call to McMurphy. He and Candy come out and Candy is the one that helps them reel in the fish while McMurphy laughs at the scene.
In the movie, a group of men take trips on the bus. One day McMurphy jumps the fence and steals the bus. He drives to pick up Candy, then takes them to the docks to get a fishing boat. The same thing happens where he and Candy go in the cabin, but then they need him. In the movie, McMurphy helps with the fish, not Candy.
In the book, after this fishing trip the nurse has the men who went get cleaned up. While there, the two black orderlies, Washington and Warren, are bullying this one guy. McMurphy then steps in and gets in a fist fight with them and Bromden also gets involved.
In the movie, the fight happens during one of their therapy meetings.
In both, McMurphy and Bromden are taken up to get electroshock. In the book, this is a cool, dreamlike, flow of conscience scene from the perspective of Bromden. But they are up there for a while, and whenever McMurphy gets back to his old self, they give him more. Meanwhile, men in the ward are making up stories about how the shocks aren’t hurting him at all and talking about the ruckus McMurphy must be raising.
In the movie when he comes back, he acts like he is out of it, but is just messing with them and he seems fine. In the book he just shows back up and seems fine.
Late night party
In the book, on the way home from the fishing trip Billy is flirting with Candy and McMurphy makes plans for her to show up to the ward at 2am two weeks from now to hook up with Billy.
In the movie, one night he sneaks into the office and calls up Candy and tells her to come over.
In both, Candy and a friend of hers show up with booze and in the book the old orderly is on board with it and is drinking. In the movie he is drinking and helps the women in, but he is worried about it but eventually passes out.
In the book they have this great night of partying and Candy and Billy get together. As morning nears, Harding and Bromden are worried about McMurphy. Harding comes up with a plan for McMurphy to escape and not be blamed and McMurphy apricates his planning, but then they all end up falling asleep and McMurphy never escapes.
In the movie, after they party, he is getting ready to get out of there when he talks to Billy and finds out Billy is into Candy. He then sets them up to have sex and says they will leave once they are done. However, they all end up falling asleep.
The morning after
The morning after is pretty much the same in book and movie. Nurse Ratched finds Billy and makes him ashamed for what he’s done and threatens to tell his mom. Billy gets upset and tells her McMurphy forced him. She then has him put in the doctor’s office, but then a few minutes later there is a scream because Billy found the doctors knife or something and has slit his throat. The nurse acts like it wasn’t her fault, and McMurphy loses it and tries to strangle her but he is taken off her by the orderlies. In the book, before trying to strangle her, he also rips her uniform and reveals her breasts. Which again, her breasts are talked about so much, and the fact that his “hero” moment involves him tearing her top just seems wrong. And again, going back to making it seem like the fact that she is a woman is a weakness and the fact that he shows her femineity in this way, makes it seem like that’s the grand moment.
In the book, McMurphy is taken away and while he is gone, various men check themselves out. Because, by the way, most men were in there voluntarily. The night of the party, McMurphy tells Harding he should leave with him but Harding says he wants to officially check out, to prove to his wife that he could. He tells McMurphy that thanks to him, the men are men now, and no longer rabbits.
So yeah, a number of them check out. Then one day McMurphy is wheeled back in but is now just a shell of what he once was because he has had a lobotomy. (By the way, if you want to learn more about lobotomy’s you should check out my Shutter Island book vs movie). Bromden and the others that are still there inspect him and say that it isn’t McMurphy, just some guy they want them to think is McMurphy.
Then that night, Bromden gets a pillow and suffocates McMurphy. When he is done, one of the others asks if it’s over-meaning they all did really know it was McMurphy and had decided to have Bromden kill him rather than make him live as a vegetable. Bromden then goes to the panel, lifts it, throws it out the window and runs away.
In the movie, McMurphy is brought in at night. Bromden goes over to him saying he was waiting for him to run away. He sees that McMurphy has had a lobotomy, and then kills him to save him. He then gets the panel and escapes as the Christopher Lloyd character cheers.
The ending scene is great in both. I loved in the book how they acted as though it wasn’t really McMurphy, not wanting the Nurse to have the satisfaction of seeing them upset. Also showing that they will remember McMurphy as he was, and not think of him in that comatose state.
But the scene in the movie was amazing as well, the music really adding to that scene.
There are so many Biblical parallels in this book and I won’t even be touching on all of them.
To start with Bromden though-Christ healed the blind/dead/dumb/all of that. And McMurphy got Bromden to speak and hear again in a way. Christ also befriended the prostitutes, and McMurphy is friends with prostitutes. There is even that part in the Bible when the people want to stone a prostitute, and Christ saves her. The scene when Candy is being bullied and the men are standing by not helping, but then McMurphy comes over and “saves” her.
We also have the boat scene. In the Bible Christ is with his disciples on a boat and he is resting in the cabin but then they call out to him because the storm is making is difficult to get the boat under control. On the boat, McMurphy had 12 men with him, and they call him from the cabin because they need his help.
In the book there is also a scene where Harding wants validation from him that his wife gives him a hard time, and McMurphy is angry saying they need to stop using him and relying on him. This is similar to Cool Hand Luke when Luke also feels smothered by the men needing him to be a symbol for them. I’m not sure if there is a specific Bible story that is similar, but I’m sure there is.
When McMurphy is given the electroshock, he even asks if he will get his crown of thorns, which is referring the crown of thorns the people put on Christ.
McMurphy sacrifices himself in the end, and his sacrifice gives the others the freedom and hope they need. The night of the party could also be compared to the last supper. When Harding tries to plan how McMurphy can escape, McMurphy seems uninterested. This could be similar to when one of the disciples tells Christ he doesn’t have to die for them, but Christ rebukes him for tempting Christ not to go through with the sacrifice.
We then have Billy betraying McMurphy, but then committing suicide after. Christ was betrayed by Judas, and then Judas committed suicide.
By the way, in the book, at one point a lot of the men start to question McMurphy when the nurse turns them against him. Pointing out how McMurphy doesn’t selflessly help them and there is always something in it for him in the end. This is similar to the disciples at times doubting Christ because other people are trying to tempt them away from being a follower of Chirst.
We also have McMurphy breaking the nurse’s glass to get cigarettes which she rations out. In the movie he does this as well, but in the book, he breaks the glass on three separate occasions which seems symbolic but I’m not totally sure if it has a Biblical parallel.
We also have the panel which McMurphy tries to lift with all his might. Then, after he has given Bromden the confidence to believe in himself again, Bromden then has the strength to life the panel himself.
Christ died to free us from our sins, and you could say McMurphy died to free the men from the sins the world put on them. They were too scared to check themselves out because of how society made them feel, but after McMurphy they have the courage to leave. Harding by the way, is gay in the book and talks about how there was nothing wrong with him and his sexuality, yet the world made him feel like there was something wrong. So, despite the sexism in this book, at least it isn’t homophobic.
Book vs Movie
Overall, I think I would say the movie wins over the book. There is a lot missing from the movie, and Kesey himself famously dislikes this adaptation. However, I like that it doesn’t feel sexist and it still conveys the same message. Though Kesey said the movie strayed from the point of the novel by not addressing the way society belittles men. In the book Bromden refers to “the combine” which is just the people in charge in the world who call the shots and take advantage of people. The combine is what made him feel small, but then McMurphy makes him feel big again.
Anyway, I did like the book. It could have been a five-star read if not for the big issues I pointed out. As it is, I gave it three stars. The movie is four stars I think, so it does beat out the book by a bit. If you like one, I think it is worth checking out the other.