THE CUCKOOS NEST
Back in 1962, Ken Keseys ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ was published. As the world got to know the book, an actor by the name of Kirk Douglas bought the rights to it. It went to Broadway for 6 months with Kirk Douglas playing the role of McMurphy. Kirk tried to get studios interested in it, so that a movie could be made. He had no luck so passed the project to his son Michael
Within 18 months, Michael Douglas had the money, the studios were interested, and he was ready to put it into production. Rumour has it that Kirk Douglas was excited to play McMurphy again but Milos Forman, the director, had other ideas. He cast a young and up and coming actor by the name of Jack Nicholson.
The story is set in a mental hospital and is narrated by Chief Bromden, a seemingly deaf and dumb patient who pretends to be unable to communicate. The plot revolves around the arrival of Randle P. McMurphy, a charming and rebellious criminal who fakes insanity to serve his prison sentence in a more lenient environment.
McMurphy’s arrival disrupts the strict and oppressive regime of Nurse Ratched, also known as “Big Nurse,” who maintains control over the hospital and its patients through psychological manipulation. McMurphy’s lively and unconventional behaviour challenges her authority and inspires other patients to assert their individuality.
McMurphy is the charismatic and rebellious protagonist of the story. He represents freedom, individualism, and the desire to challenge authority. His arrival disrupts the rigid, oppressive routines of the ward. The other patients see possibilities in him for a lifestyle they never dreamed they could have. He brings them out of their shell, away from Nurse Ratcheds control which gives the patients a lease of life. McMurphy’s character embodies the desire for personal freedom and individual expression. Through his actions inspire the other patients begin to question their own constraints.
Nurse Ratched is the story’s primary antagonist. She’s the head nurse in the mental institution and is known for her cold, controlling, and manipulative behaviour. She symbolises oppressive authority, conformity, and the dehumanising effects of institutional power. She seems to have little care for those in her charge. She has her way of doing things and will use whichever manipulative method she can to ensure compliance. One of the central themes throughout is the abuse of power and control within institutions. Nurse Ratched’s authoritarian rule and McMurphy’s resistance to it highlight the tension between freedom and conformity.
Chief Bromden is a Native American patient who pretends to be deaf and dumb to avoid interacting with the oppressive hospital staff. He serves as the story’s narrator and provides insights into the workings of the institution. His gradual transformation and McMurphy’s influence on him are central to the narrative.
Billy is a timid and stuttering patient who is heavily influenced by McMurphy. His character highlights the damaging effects of institutionalisation and the struggle for self-esteem.
Harding is an intellectual patient who struggles with his own insecurities and identity. He represents the emasculating effects of the institution on its patients.
Cuckoo’s Nest” examines many themes throughout its screen time. The dehumanising effects of the mental institution are a recurring theme throughout the movie. The patients are reduced to mere numbers, and their humanity and dignity are stripped away through routine and medication.
As viewers we see the characters’ lives profoundly affected by their institutionalisation, and we have front row seats to watching how they must confront their own fears, desires, and limitations. While the ending of the movie is both dramatic and thought-provoking, it leaves viewers to ponder the cost of challenging authority and the nature of sanity itself.
The movie makes you think. You can’t help but explore the conflict between conformity to societal norms and the desire to rebel against them. The story raises questions about the definitions of mental illness and sanity, suggesting that some patients may be institutionalised unnecessarily.
The characters grapple with the trade-off between personal freedom and the security of the institution. McMurphy advocates for personal liberty, while Nurse Ratched emphasises control for the patients’ supposed benefit. All of these characters and themes contribute to the movie and novels exploration of the human condition, the struggle for autonomy, and the consequences of conformity and rebellion in the face of oppressive authority.
Both the movie and the novel show us how true freedom and individuality can come at a cost and may involve personal sacrifice too. Ken Keseys work is a thought provoking and enduring commentary ensuring that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is firmly ensconced in the realm of American literature.