One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Last week I went to one of my favorite used bookstores, Baybooks, in Concord and overheard one of the clerks say to another, “Why would she read the book first? Won’t it just spoil the movie?”

While I’ve never felt reading a book first spoiled the movie, there are some movies that forever spoil the book. After you’ve seen Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch you will always see him when you read To Kill a Mockingbird. Once you’ve seen Humphrey Bogart every Dashell Hammet novel you read will summon his image to your mind. I imagine most fans of Harry Potter have a difficult time getting Daniel Radcliffe out of their heads when re-reading their favorite volume. A great performance can forever affect how you read a book.

This was the case with One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey. Not just with the lead character, but with just about all of them. Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Brad Dourif, Danny Devito, Christopher Lloyd and Will Sampson all made such a strong impression in the 1975 film that it’s difficult to get them out of your head when you read the book. The fact that the movie follows the book so closely does not help.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey is the story of a group of men living in a psychiatric hospital in the early 1960’s. The men live a strictly regimented life, presided over by the head nurse, Nurse Ratched, who controls every aspect of their daily routine. Each man is there for a different reason, but for a clear reason. They all belong there. They all need help. Enter Randle McMurphy, a transfer from a prison work camp, a move he engineered believing that life in a hospital would be an improvement over life on a work farm. McMurphy upsets the routine as soon as he arrives. He gets the other men to gamble, smuggles in wine and women, breaks the rules whenever he can, assuming that he has only six more months to go and then he’ll be free.

Nurse Ratched stands in his way. She controls everything on the ward, including the doctors who are all her juniors. Any change McMurphy wants to make must have her approval; any rule he breaks faces her justice. He is determined to break her constant cool demeanor, to get her to react to him with passion, until he finds out that she holds the key to his freedom. Once committed to a psychiatric hospital, a patient stays there until the doctors say he is cured, not until his sentence is up. The doctors will do whatever Nurse Ratched says, so McMurphy must win her approval if he is to win his freedom.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is well worth reading even if you have seen the movie. While it’s different from the movie, it is deeper. By spending more time with them in the novel we get to know the characters much more than we do in the movie. The narrator is Chief Bromden, known as Chief Broom, a Native American who is believed to be both deaf and dumb. He is neither, but the fact that everyone thinks he is makes it possible for him to be the fly-on-the-wall with access to all sorts of information a first person narrator would not have otherwise, especially a first person narrator who belongs in a psychiatric hospital. That’s one difference the novel has going for it–because we can see inside Chief Broom’s head, hear his thoughts through his narration, we know that he does belong in the hospital. He may not be the most reliable of narrators, one of the chief differences between the movie and the book and a fact that makes the ending problematic.

We are always on Jack Nicholson’s side when watching the movie. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest features a young Jack Nicholson, the rebel fighting against the system. The audience can’t help but root for him. The McMurphy of the novel is always sympathetic, but by the end of the story we begin to see that the other patients may not be getting exactly what they need from his antics, that the system they are in may be what the really need. McMurphy’s rebellion is easy to admire in the movie, in the novel it’s easier to see the tragedy it leaves in its wake. By no means is it all McMurphy’s fault, Nurse Ratched is just as responsible and just as awful in the novel as she was in the movie, but McMurphy is the catalyst that pushes events to their tragic conclusion.


Unfortunately, in the years since I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. BayBooks in Concord has closed.  

5 thoughts on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

  1. I actually prefer the book on this occasion, even though the movie is fantastic. You are right though, the actors have made those characters so iconic that it is hard to think of them otherwise.

  2. For me, there is no book vs. movie debate as far as quality goes. The book is an excellent book and the movie is an excellent movie. I don’t think I’d do anything to either that could make them better. It’s a win-win situation.

  3. Wait… a bookstore clerk said reading the book would spoil the movie?! I can’t believe it! Humanity scares me sometimes.
    I’ve read the book and loved it but I haven’t seen the movie. I think I still pictured Jack Nicholson a bit though, but made changes in my mind. Funny how pop culture infiltrates so widely!

  4. My copy of the book had Jack Nicholson on the cover, so I did inevitably have his face in mind as I read the book. But I’ve never seen the movie! The book was very impressive, though, and you’ve made me curious now about the film.

  5. Funny to think of a book clerk noting that reading a book would spoil the movie–you would think that any book person would find that statement abhorrent!

    Though, generally I have a tough time going from a movie to the book–I much rather read the book before seeing the movie, and even then I need enough time to pass that I can watch the movie without analyzing every little detail to the book (this is where having a lousy memory comes in). But because I’m a more visual person, it’s hard to erase the visuals from a movie from my head when reading a book. It’s one of the main reasons why I haven’t read The Princess Bride yet. I do have this one on my shelf and I think enough time has passed since I’ve seen the movie that it’s time to pick up the book. I absolutely agree that the book will usually be much deeper than the movie can be.

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