Forman Adapts for Film

After a moderately successful career as a director in Czechoslovakia, Miloš Forman achieved international recognition as a filmmaker with his adaptation of Ken Kesey’s landmark novel.

Summary of Event

Almost from the moment of its publication in 1962, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Kesey) became, along with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and Other Poems (1956), one of the central documents of an American counterculture; at the same time, it received respectful reviews from serious critics in the cultural mainstream. Ken Kesey’s depiction of a mental hospital as a symbolic equivalent to American society, one in which many patients voluntarily have accepted the domination of an authoritarian administration until they are inspired to reclaim their freedom by a wildly energetic, anarchic antihero, Randle Patrick McMurphy, captured the imagination of a large number of readers who felt trapped by the social and political structure of the United States in the early 1960’s. Forman, Miloš
Kesey, Ken
Douglas, Michael
Douglas, Kirk
Nicholson, Jack

In spite of its somewhat sexist conception of a suffocating maternal presence—the Big Nurse of the institution—as the cause of conformity and impotence, Kesey’s bold vision of a man who refused to be crushed by a stagnant, fear-ridden culture had a widespread appeal. This appeal was recognized by the intelligent actor Kirk Douglas, who thrived on roles that permitted him to play principled action heroes. In anticipation of an eventual film production, he cast himself as McMurphy in an Off-Broadway stage version in 1963. Although Douglas’s efforts were acknowledged by some critics, the play was neither a commercial nor a critical success. Douglas’s attempts to interest a film studio were even less successful, and he eventually agreed to let his son, Michael Douglas, a television star, attempt to put together a deal.

With little experience in the industry, Michael Douglas was not limited by conventional arrangements or expectations. Instead of seeking financing from the large studios, he approached Saul Zaentz Zaentz, Saul of Fantasy Records, who agreed to act as the film’s coproducer after Jack Nicholson accepted the role of McMurphy for a salary of one million dollars, approximately one-third of the entire production budget. Then, citing his appreciation of Miloš Forman’s sense of black humor and naturalism in previous films that were made in Europe, such as Loves of a Blonde (1965) and The Firemen’s Ball (1968), as well as acting on his father’s suggestion, Douglas contacted Forman, who had left Czechoslovakia after the repressive reaction to the Prague Spring in 1968.

Forman had been able to make one film in the United States, Taking Off (1971), but since then, he had written three screenplays without finding a backer for any of them. He was not familiar with Kesey’s novel, but upon reading it he liked it immensely and immediately agreed to make the film. His experiences in Czechoslovakia led him toward considerations of how institutional tyranny affects the citizens of a country, and he knew that many artists and political activists had been imprisoned by totalitarian regimes on the grounds that their resistance was a form of insanity. Commenting on the book’s subject, he observed, “Why shouldn’t insane people seem more appealing? Aren’t we more interesting and more appealing than our government officials?”

Jack Nicholson (center) in a scene from One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

(Museum of Modern Art/Film Stills Archive)

Douglas convinced Dean R. Brooks, Brooks, Dean R. the superintendent of the Oregon State Mental Hospital in Salem, to permit the crew to make the film on the hospital grounds. Brooks claimed that the therapeutic benefits for the patients outweighed the risks involved, and he insisted that the film must not denigrate the patients. Eventually, eighty-nine patients worked in the production. Brooks himself played Doctor Spivey, the chief psychiatrist. Forman, who frequently had worked with amateurs in his European productions, liked the “unforeseeable moments which first of all confused me, but later enraptured me.” He accepted Douglas’s offer to direct the film after Nicholson already was committed to the project, but he was involved in the remainder of the casting. He chose Louise Fletcher Fletcher, Louise to play Nurse Ratched after seeing her in a small part in director Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us (1974).

The entire production company spent ten to twelve hours a day on the hospital grounds, and Nicholson spent two weeks prior to filming in the mental ward. He noted, “Usually I don’t have much trouble slipping out of a film role, but here I don’t go home from a movie studio, I go home from a mental institution.” He was especially enthusiastic about the role of McMurphy, saying that he was admirable in his desire “to fight for his fellow man.” Nicholson believed that the role had a “very human appeal.”

This view coincided with Forman’s idea that “we have to live with the insane, so we had better accept them as human beings.” He was unaware of the book’s reputation, and this enabled him to create his own cinematic vision rather than to act merely as the story’s illustrator. His most significant decision was to change the focus of narration from the schizophrenic mute Chief “Broom” Bromden of Kesey’s novel to a more anonymous observer, possibly another patient on the ward. In describing to screenwriters Bo Goldman Goldman, Bo and Lawrence Hauben Hauben, Lawrence what he wanted, Forman said, “I hate that voice-over . . . going with the camera through somebody’s head.” Hauben wanted to use a less realistic approach that might be closer to the mood of Kesey’s novel, but Forman believed that such an approach might confuse viewers.

Forman also clashed with cinematographer Haskell Wexler, Wexler, Haskell who objected to the use of a comic mode while considering issues of mental illness. Forman eventually replaced Wexler with Bill Butler, Butler, Bill who shared his belief that the camera should not intrude on actors and story. Although Kesey’s book is at the heart of the film, the ultimate shape and form is clearly Forman’s, reflecting his ideas of sanity and the relationship of an individual to a tightly structured society. He was determined to make a film in accordance with his belief that his first priority is to entertain, but he believed that he had kept the novel’s essence.

The various disputes that took place during the actual filming through the autumn and winter of 1974 and 1975 were only a prelude to the controversy that occurred after the film premiered in New York City and Los Angeles on November 19, 1975. It was initially released in a limited series of engagements designed to build a critical reputation for the film before its general distribution. The producers knew that the sensitive subject and its somewhat antic treatment, in addition to the expectations of the novel’s wide readership, would generate sufficient interest to override any really strenuous objections to the film’s content.


Initial critical responses to the film confirmed the producer’s anticipation of a volatile, mixed reaction. At first, most reviewers found some elements to admire and some aspects of the film to criticize, their tentative judgments a function of their realization that the film’s power was undeniable and their concern that it might have been misused. Vincent Canby Canby, Vincent of The New York Times, like virtually everyone else, was very impressed with the acting but thought the ending awkward and the analogy between American society and the mental hospital unsatisfactory. Robert Hatch, writing in The Nation, thought the film was entertaining but had no depth. Pauline Kael Kael, Pauline of The New Yorker thought it lacked the visual energy a director such as Martin Scorsese might have provided. Stanley Kauffmann, Kauffmann, Stanley writing in The New Republic, found the film warped, sentimental, and dangerous, but he noted that Nicholson was “tremendous” and praised Forman’s sensitive handling and expert casting. In Newsweek, Jack Kroll Kroll, Jack argued that Forman gave the novel shape and clarity but lost the terror, black humor, and complexity that made it a “riveting allegory.”

Other critics were more concerned that the novel and the film were somehow not more closely aligned, responding more to the political program of Kesey’s thought than the focus of the film. Time magazine’s Richard Schickel Schickel, Richard thought the film did not express Kesey’s subtle understanding of revolution, and John Simon, Simon, John in a typically contrarian complaint, was bothered that there was some ambiguity to McMurphy’s character, even though Simon detested Kesey’s position.

As additional essays appeared in journals during the year after the film’s release, the critical focus widened, with some commentators comparing McMurphy’s struggle with the story of Christ, others praising Kesey and Forman’s critique of society, and some regarding the film as irresponsible and anti-intellectual or dangerous in its appeal to adolescent fantasies. Others found the film valuable in its depiction of an oppressed human spirit fighting against dominating institutions. The one point of agreement was that Forman’s collaboration with the actors was very successful.

The validity of this position was confirmed by the Academy Award ceremony. For the first time since It Happened One Night in 1934, one film won the five major Oscars: Forman as Best Director, Nicholson and Fletcher as Best Actor and Best Actress, Hauben and Goldman for Best Screenplay, and the film as Best Picture. Academy Awards;Best Actress
Academy Awards;Best Picture
Academy Awards;Best Director
Academy Awards;Best Screenplay
Academy Awards;Best Actor At the presentation, Forman was reunited with his two sons, whom he had not seen in five years. They had been permitted to travel from Czechoslovakia because “the international publicity of the Academy Awards is important to the Communist leaders,” Forman said. He added that there was a feeling that many members of the Academy did not like to give a major award to a foreigner, and he was pleased to see this notion dispelled.

The strategy of a carefully timed and placed distribution was altered to a broad, general release and an extensive publicity campaign, with some theater owners displeased by the percentage split but compelled to accept it. Variety noted in April, 1976, that there was a box-office improvement in major markets after the Academy Awards. Forman’s career prospects were improved considerably by the award, enabling him to make another controversial adaptation, Hair, Hair (film) from the Broadway musical in 1979, and to adapt E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 postmodern novel Ragtime
Ragtime (film) in 1981. The culmination of the rise in his reputation and influence was his production of Amadeus (1984) Amadeus (film) in Prague, in a triumphal return to the country he had left in 1968; Amadeus gave Forman the opportunity to employ many of his old colleagues in the Czech film industry.

The award to Nicholson on his fifth nomination ratified his reputation as a superstar, as well as a superb actor, whose earning power compared to that of Robert Redford and Al Pacino. Fletcher, on the other hand, was disappointed by questions suggesting that her role was really a supporting one. She remarked that she had not received any good offers since the film had opened. Michael Douglas made the point that the success of this offbeat project ten years in the making might send some studio heads back to reread some of the scripts they had turned down. As for himself, Douglas predicted, “It’s all downhill from here,” but his career actually took a different turn as he became a leading actor in films including Romancing the Stone (1984) and Wall Street (1987). Although they were not mentioned much at the time, the cast of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest included, as patients, Christopher Lloyd Lloyd, Christopher and Danny DeVito, DeVito, Danny before their roles in the Taxi television series and their success in films.

The only person involved with the project who was thoroughly displeased was Ken Kesey. Kesey wrote a script that was not used, and Zaentz gave him a small percentage of the production in return for his suggestions. Kesey claimed that Douglas did not honor a verbal agreement with him about his share of the gross and about his ability to control the adaptation. He considered a lawsuit, especially after each of the Oscar winners failed to mention him in their speeches. Kesey did benefit from increased sales of the novel that provided the story.

The passage of time since the film’s release has provided a broader perspective for the issues that it raised. Kesey’s novel retains its power, and the character of McMurphy can be seen as another version of the alienated post-World War II hero, akin to Yossarian in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22
Catch-22 (Heller)[Catch Twenty Two] (1961), Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye
Catcher in the Rye, The (Salinger) (1951), or T. S. Garp in John Irving’s The World According to Garp
World According to Garp, The (Irving) (1978). The film conveys this quality as well, and the issues of sexism, racism, and antiauthoritarian rebellion that it explores remain subjects of intense debate, so that its presentation of these issues seems less a matter of specific advocacy and more an investigation of unsettled and vital social concerns. As Forman has said in discussing the basic philosophical position of his work, “You want to be part of this cleansing process of the human soul. We will never beat the stupidity of bureaucracy, and so on, but we must never stop fighting it.” The relevance of this credo is an essential element in the continuing importance of his best films.

Further Reading

  • Cahill, Tim. “Knocking Around the Nest.” Rolling Stone, December 4, 1975, 48-54, 87-88. Informative first-person accounts by Forman and Douglas about selecting the cast and crew, and by Nicholson on his experiences with mental patients.
  • Forman, Miloš. Turnaround: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 1996. Forman’s autobiography, written in a modest tone, details his life growing up in postwar Czechoslovakia and offers insight into his experience directing films in his homeland and in Hollywood.
  • Haskel, Molly. “Kesey Cured: Forman’s Sweet Insanity.” In The Modern American Novel and the Movies, edited by Gerald Peary and Roger Shatzkin. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978. One of the best reviews of the film, with an interview that offers some of Forman’s ideas about the film’s themes.
  • Liehm, Antonín J. The Miloš Forman Stories. White Plains, N.Y.: International Arts and Sciences Press, 1975. A study of the director’s life and career by a knowledgeable and sympathetic authority on Eastern European cinema.
  • Skvorecky, Josef. All the Bright Young Men and Women: A Personal History of the Czech Cinema. Toronto: Peter Martin Associates, 1971. Places Forman in the context of his country’s film industry. Written with sensitivity and insight by one of Forman’s oldest friends and coworkers.
  • Slater, Thomas J. Miloš Forman: A Bio-Bibliography. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987. An absolutely indispensable volume for the student of Forman’s work. Contains an overview of Forman’s life and career, a critical filmography, and a well-annotated bibliography.
  • Sturhahn, Larry. “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest: An Interview with Miloš Forman.” Filmmaker’s Newsletter (December, 1975): 26-31. Forman discusses how he works with his writers, cast, and crew.

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