It’s a movie that you never quite forget. I saw it years ago, and although the details were fuzzy, I still remembered the jist of it and the powerful/depressing/uplifting ending. And no one forgets Jack Nicholson as Randle McMurphy, the crazy-like-a-fox grifter who gets committed to an asylum in order to avoid prison work camp. But the book – ooooooh the book – is even better.
Published in 1962, the book felt a little dated when I started it. Author Ken Kesey is, after all, pretty much a poster child for the ’60s. And mental health facilities surely have changed dramatically from what Kesey observed in his own work experience in an insane asylum. It didn’t matter, though. The feeling that I was reading about something in the past gradually faded as the book progressed.
The book is narrated by Chief Bromden, a patient in the ward who pretends to be deaf and mute. In the movie, you are allowed to come to your own conclusions about everyone on the ward in the 133 minutes that their actions are displayed on-screen. In the book, your judgement is guided by the inner thoughts of a crazy person. Talk about your possibly unreliable narrator. But as the chief says in the last sentence of Chapter 1, “But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.”
There’s so much more to the book than the antics of McMurphy and the psychological battle he wages against Nurse Ratched, the dictatorial head of the ward. It’s left me thinking about the madness in all of us and how the people we surround ourselves with can bring it out or help us hold it in check.
I think this modern classic (it’s considered a modern classic if if was written in my lifetime, yes?) deserves a new audience. And if you read it before, it’s worth a re-read.