I saw the film adaptation almost 10 years ago (wow, now I feel old), so while I had a general idea of what to expect from this novel, my expectations were pretty vague.
Randle McMurphy is a new patient in a somewhat old-fashioned psychiatric ward, taking what he thinks will be the easy way out of a prison sentence. His bravado and stubbornness bring a sense of optimism to the inmates, and, not used to having his freedom restricted, McMurphy engages in an unwise power struggle with the glacial head nurse.
For me the book was more effective than the film, partly because so much takes place within the minds of the characters, and that’s very difficult to portray when all you can see is external action. Also, the film focuses almost exclusively on Jack Nicholson’s character, McMurphy, while the novel is seen through the eyes of the ‘deaf and dumb’ Chief Bromden. As well as McMurphy’s central plotline, we come to understand Bromden’s own past and psychoses, and having the world filtered through his eyes adds another dimension to the story. That said, what I remember of the film was very good indeed, it’s just that I feel this is one of those novels where so much is internal rather than external that much is lost in a film adaptation.
I get the feeling with this one that, if I was studying the novel rather than reading it recreationally, there’s a lot of symbolism and subtext going on – if they’d let us study this during American Literature at university rather than forcing us to read the entire speech made on the Mayflower crossing, I’d have enjoyed the module much more. Even on a surface reading, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a powerful, frustrating and touching story that keeps you thinking long after it’s finished.
Next up: Absolution by Murder by Peter Tremayne