First published in 1962, A Clockwork Orange is a novella (or short novel), narrated by Alex, a 15 year old leader of a teenage gang with a predilection for motiveless violence. (Early drafts of the novella use the title The Plank in Your Eye.)
Burgess began writing the novel in early 1961. On his return to England from colonial teaching posts in 1959, Burgess noticed that England had changed in his absence. A new youth culture was beginning to emerge, with pop music, milk bars, drugs and Teddy Boy violence. By 1960, the era of "mods" and "rockers" had begun. Frequent reports of fighting between gangs of youths appeared in the press, creating fear about the possibility of significant social disruption. In this atmosphere, Burgess conceived a story about the choice between good and evil as a fundamental human right: is governmental imposition of Pavlovian conditioning to prevent even the most depraved citizen from choosing to commit evil acts ethically justifiable? More generally, by associating the music of Beethoven with Alex's worst acts of violence, Burgess questions whether great art contains intrinsic moral value, or whether, in fact, there is no equivalence between the two.
On a personal level, Burgess claimed that the kernel for Alex's brutal behaviour lay in an attack suffered by his first wife, Lynne, during a wartime blackout in London in 1944. Other sources of inspiration for the novel include dystopian fiction, such as George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and the determinism of psychologists, such as B.F. Skinner, who denied the importance of culture, environment, and free will.
Among the most striking aspects of the novel is its language. Realising that contemporary slang would soon become outdated, Burgess invented an artificial dialect of about 200 words, consisting of elements of Russian, Romany, Cockney rhyming slang, armed forces slang, Elizabethan English and the Malay language familiar to him. He called the invented language "nadsat" (Russian for -teen).
Shortly after its publication in 1962, A Clockwork Orange began attracting the interest of filmakers in Britain and the US. A BBC dramatization (now lost) of the book's first three chapters for the program Tonight in the early 1960s was followed in 1965 by Vinyl, a low-budget film adaptation produced by Andy Warhol. The novelist and screenwriter Terry Southern subsequently purchased a six-month film option, adapted the novel into a screenplay, and pitched it to several film producers without success. Southern, who had collaborated with Stanley Kubrick on the screenplay of Dr Strangelove, tried to interest him in A Clockwork Orange during the filming of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Kubrick, preoccupied with his next project, a Napoleon film, paid little attention. Lacking the money to renew the option, Southern let it expire, but his enthusiasm for the project led his attorney Si Litvinoff to purchase the film rights in 1965/1966 together with Litvinoff's business partner Max L. Raab. At one point, Litvinoff and Raab intended to produce a film, using Southern's script and starring David Hemmings as Alex; later they commissioned Burgess to write the screenplay himself. There had also been talk of filming A Clockwork Orange with Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones cast as Alex and his three droogs, but none of these plans were carried out.
When Max L Raab agreed to provide 1 million dollars to produce the film with Nic Roeg directing Jagger in the lead from the Southern screenplay, Kubrick decided that he wanted to direct it and produced his own screenplay. (His plans for a Napoleon epic had stalled.) Warner Brothers agreed to finance the film and Litvinoff made the deal and used the million dollars to produce "Walkabout" directed by Roeg. In January 1970 Kubrick contacted Malcolm McDowell for the part of Alex, who immediately accepted the lead.
As with the novel, reaction to the film was divided, if even more impassioned. Its release sparked controversy, particularly in the U.K. where it was said to have inspired a series of copycat crimes. Such was the furore that, in early 1973, Kubrick took the unprecedented step of prohibiting the film to be shown in the U.K. Taking legal action when necessary, Kubrick strictly enforced and never lifted the ban, which remained in effect until 2000, a year after his death.
In 1987, Burgess transformed his novel into what he called "a play with music". In the stage adaptation, Burgess abridged the story, reducing the dialogue and introducing music in its place, which he composed. Alex expresses himself principally through parodies of Beethoven and opera, pastiches of Baroque, English music hall, swing, and pop music. The score consists of sixteen musical numbers, two of which are repeated. A stage production of A Clockwork Orange in German ran for six months in 1988 at the municipal theatre in Bonn. In 1990, the Royal Shakespeare Company presented a revised version of the play at the Barbican Theatre in London. Titled A Clockwork Orange: 2004, it featured music by Bono and The Edge (Dave Evans) of the band U2, and starred Phil Daniels as Alex. Promotional materials were produced by Malcolm Garrett. This revision, adapted by director Ron Daniels with Burgess's approval and published by Arrow in 1990, restores passages from the novel, altering dialogue, and deleting some of the musical numbers. Burgess's own music for A Clockwork Orange was performed in a US production of the play presented by the Fabulous and Ridiculous Theatre in May 2000 and it received its European premiere in Manchester in 2012. It was performed for the first time in the UK on Saturday 30 September 2017 in Hull University's Middleton Hall as part of the Contains Strong Language Festival and it was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in Drama on 3 the following evening (Sunday 1 October). As well as including Burgess's own songs, the dramatisation in Hull included extracts from Beethoven's symphonies performed by the BBC Philharmonic as described by Burgess in his dramatic text and selected scenes from A Clockwork Orange: 2004. The radio theatre performance was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 in collaboration with BBC Philharmonic.
A further stage production featuring Burgess's music took place at the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool in 2018.