The perspective changes everything - A comparison of the narrative perspective of film and novel "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

30 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)



1. Introduction

2. A short summary of movie plot and book plot

3. Differences between movie plot and book plot

4. Important characterizations in movie and book:
4.1. The Big Nurse, Miss Ratched
4.2. Randle Patrick McMurphy
4.3. Chief Bromden
4.4. Harding
4.5. Billy Bibbit

5. Conclusions

1. Introduction

The novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey is without a doubt an outstanding example of American Literature. So it was obviously necessary to make a movie out of the manuscript. Unfortunately, there are some harsh differences between movie and book, which in some cases change the original plot in a way that influences the viewer. Most of the differences come out of the different narrative perspective of the film because the story is just told objectively, while the book tells it from a patient’s point of view. But there are inexactnesses that change the viewer’s perspective towards the characters. The only fact “saving” the movie is the choice of incredible actors. Jack Nicholson (McMurphy), Louise Fletcher (Ms. Ratched), William Redfield (Harding), Will Sampson (Chief Bromden) and Brad Dourif (Billy Bibbit) are only the main examples for the unbelievable performance shown in this movie by all actors. Although most of their characters are illustrated differently in the book, they all did a great job.

Since my project is to compare the narrative perspective of the book to that of the film my sources were the book[1] and the DVD.[2] Additionally I have used several essays collected in “A casebook on Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” edited by George J. Searles[3]. This book was a very valuable source for my work because the essays content lots of information, interpretations, and views of various authors on many different themes.

2. A short summary of the movie plot and the book plot

In general the plots of the novel and the movie do not differ too much.

Setting is a ward in a mental hospital, probably in California (film), patients of which are divided in Acutes and Chronics. The ward is ruled by the “Big Nurse”, Ms. Mildred Ratched. She leads a regiment that is based on the knowledge and ways of psychiatric treatment of the time the novel is set in, the early 1960s. EST, Electro Shock Therapy, is an absolute regular way to manage difficult patients. Medication, especially with sedatives, is the usual method to keep the patients calm. The most modern method on the ward is the daily group session for talking therapy. But Miss Ratched uses even this to hold her men down.

Miss Ratched’s helpers are the so-called Black Boys, three black men who absolute obey her and her techniques in treating the patients. They never oppose, they act more like dogs than like people with their own heads to think. Their job on the ward is their chance to take revenge for all the bad thing that have happened to them through white men.

There is also a half-native/half-white man on the ward, Chief Bromden. In the book he is the narrator, in the movie he has a supporting role. He is considered to be deaf and dumb. He one day stopped talking because there was nobody who would listen to him and take him seriously, anyway. In the novel he tells the reader lots of things about the patients and their individual situations. In the movie he becomes more important only in the end.

One day in autumn a new patient enters the ward: Randle Patrick McMurphy. He was committed to the ward from a work farm, and he soon tells the others he is faking his madness to get away from the work.

Within a very short time he shows up as a friend for nearly every Acute. He gambles with them for money and cigarettes and he brings a “fresh breeze” into the old and conservative house. He is always laughing and joking, something that has not been heard for a long time.

From the very beginning on he opposes the ward policy - and therefore the system itself - but he does so always in a friendly, polite and kind way, so he cannot be blamed. He bets that he can break the Big Nurse within a week. That does not work, but after a while he at least manages that Miss Ratched loses control over herself. He cannot break her until the end. She wins the battle, but through his fight against conventions and rules he wakes up the other patients on the ward from their lethargy. More and more of them line up behind McMurphy against the Big Nurse. That is illustrated e.g. by a vote McMurphy brings up in favor to change the ward rules, so the men can watch the World Series on TV in the evening. First only a few vote for him but next time he gets a majority. Big Nurse does not accept this because the time was up, and they all sit down in front of the blank TV set while McMurphy commentates a fictive game. In the book this behavior goes on for many days. It makes the Big Nurse angry, but she does not get noticeably upset.

The war going on between McMurphy and Miss Ratched is a silent one. It seldom becomes visible. But in the end, after McMurphy took some of the men on a deep sea fishing trip, legal in the book, illegal in the movie, and was treated with EST for that, he wants to get out of the hospital. He organizes a “ward party”, two girls come along to celebrate his farewell and later bring him to Canada. The night watcher is pacified with alcohol and there is a real orgy taking place on the ward. One of the patients, Billy Bibbit, a stutterer, falls in love with Candy, one of the girls, already on the fishing trip. McMurphy gives them a room for themselves a little bit, and then wants to leave. But all fall asleep and are found the next morning.

Big Nurse brings Billy back under her control very quickly by mentioning his dominant mother and how disappointed she will be about that situation. Billy is brought to the Doctor’s office and left alone. He uses the time, he is unwatched, to commit suicide.

In the book this is used by Miss Ratched to blame McMurphy indirectly for the murder. In the film she suggests that it would be best to go back to daily routine. The effect in both is the same: McMurphy rages. He tries to kill the Big Nurse but fails. Some days later the routine seems to be back on the ward as well as Miss Ratched. McMurphy is missing. He already has become a legend among the patients. One says he has fled, others say they heard he is on the so-called Disturbed Ward. In the book he is brought back on a litter and laid on his bed. A paper on the end of his bed says that he is freshly operated, had a lobotomy. In the movie he is brought back to the dorm on his own feet. In both, Chief Bromden goes to his bed and kills him by pushing a pillow onto his face. He wants to flee and cannot accept the new McMurphy. He considers the lobotomized revel undignified and this way makes sure, McMurphy becomes a hero.

After that, Chief goes into the tub room, heaves out the big, heavy control panel, throws it through one of the windows and runs away.

3. Differences between movie plot and book plot

As I already mentioned, there are a number of differences between the book plot and the movie plot. Some of them do not harm the intention Kesey had, when writing his novel, but some are harsh. Several differences were necessary because Milos Forman chose a different perspective. He does not tell the story from the Chief’s point of view but from an objective one through a subjective camera[4] perspective. And that changes many things because the viewer can now see and hear things that the reader could never know directly since the Chief was not able to be everywhere on the ward. The elimination of the first person narrator places McMurphy and Ms. Ratched outside the coloration of Chief’s projections. All characters virtually are defined and get their own point of view by using the subjective camera. None of them sees the world but each looks at the world. Forman uses this way of filming to translate Kesey’s novel into a cinematic idiom.[5]

Still there are differences that on first sight appear as inaccuracies but are used by Forman to emphasize his point of view.

The outer appearance for example is one of those. Big Nurse in the book is a normal-stated woman, who wants to hide the signs of her femaleness – her enormous bosom – with a starched uniform. The Chief tells she is in her mid-forties. Big Nurse in the movie is a small and slim woman of indefinite age. There are only few close ups in which you can at least have a guess at her age. Everything between the end of twenty and the beginning of fifty seems possible.

McMurphy is red haired in the book. He has red hair all over his chest and back. The Chief describes him as a big strong man (what may result from his own thought that he is small) with perhaps a little overweight, always wearing a red motorcycle cap. From the second day on he has to wear the typical green clothing all patients wear.

Jack Nicholson is neither red haired nor big and strong. In 1975, when the movie was made, he was a average looking man in his “best years”, looking as if he is around the end of his thirties, maybe beginning of his forties. His hair was brown and began to fall out. As McMurphy he wears a dark blue cap in the beginning of the movie, when he comes into the ward, and also, in the end when the “party” takes place, and every time, when the patients are outside, but not inside the ward. Most of the time in the movie he wears quite normal clothes like someone who just came in from the street. The maximum of ward clothing is the blue shirt, which is another difference to the book. George B. MacDonald sees in the use of color an important issue of Forman’s view on the novel. There the dominating colors are green and white, in the movie walls are painted in colors that would photograph as off-white, green, and a washed-out lemon-beige. The film creates a homogenous color design by playing these watery shades into the liquid blues and yellow green of other parts of the hospital interior. Inside colors are set off by the richer, more saturated seaweed greens of the trees and grass visible through the windows. The first part of the movie is dominated by a chromatic monotony to give the viewer a feeling of captivity within the ward.

The yellowish orange bus with which McMurphy brings the men to the pier for the fishing trip, provides a change of mood and meaning of the story. The orange color is continued in the life vests on the boat. For the viewer it is a relief to see the men in such colors instead of the pastel aquamarine hospital clothes that look more like pajamas.

Forman often uses bright colors to express freedom, anger, danger, sexuality, or frustration. We see this for example in the shot after the ward party when the red night light appears directly above Big Nurse’s head expressing all the rage beneath the surface of her rigid countenance. Another example is the blood around Billy Bibbit after his suicide. The meaning of the situation is embodied in the colors: the red blood clashes with the pale green of the floor, and thus signifies the lack of harmony which prevails at every level of this film.[6]


[1] Ken Kesey: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Signet Books, 1995.

[2] Einer flog über das Kuckucksnest. Warner Bros. Home Videos, 2003.

[3] George J. Searles: A casebook on Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. University of New Mexico Press, first edition, Albuquerque, 1992.

[4] Term „subjective camera“ usually refers to any shot in which the camera photographs something through the eyes of one of the characters in the dramatic situation. Normally it indicates what a character sees, cut can present the director’s viewpoint.

[5] George B. MacDonald: Control by Camera: Milos Forman as Subjective Narrator. In: Searles, George J.: A Casebook on Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, p. 163-172.

[6] George B. MacDonald: ibid..

Excerpt out of 30 pages


The perspective changes everything - A comparison of the narrative perspective of film and novel "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald  (Institute for Anglistics/American Studies)
1,0 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
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933 KB
Flew, Over, Cuckoo, Nest
Quote paper
Juliane Weuffen (Author), 2004, The perspective changes everything - A comparison of the narrative perspective of film and novel "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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