Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was one of the seminal novels of the 1960s and it was adapted into one of the most successful movies, in terms of box office returns and critical acclaim, of all time. After reading Kesey’s novel in galleys, Kirk Douglas bought the rights to the novel before it was published in 1962 and had it adapted into a Broadway play. Douglas hoped to use the play, which debuted on the Great White Way in November 1963, as a springboard to interesting a studio into making a movie of the book, but the play was not a success, running for only 82 performances.
Douglas failed to interest a studio in financing a film version starring himself. In his correspondence with Ken Kesey in 1970, in response to Kesey’s query over whether he planned to abandon the project and turn it over to his son Michael Douglas (who would star as Randall Patrick McMurphy), Douglas reiterated his desire to make the movie. He told Kesey that he had been involved in two lawsuits with Dale Wasserman, who adapted the novel for the 1963 play, both of which went to arbitration, and now was involved in a third lawsuit.
Kirk Douglas did eventually give the movie rights to the novel to his son Michael, who produced (but did not star in) the 1975 film adaptation.
There are numerous differences between Ken Kesey’s novel and the film. The major difference is that the novel is told from Chief Bromden’s point of view, and Bromden is clearly mentally ill, imagining that the inmates are controlled by machines inside the walls of the hospital and that society at large is controlled by “The Combine”.
Chief Bromden, a WWII veteran deeply affected by the failure of the white officials who buy out his tribal land to build a damn on the Columbia River to listen to him, is revealed to be a half-breed, with a white mother, who is a doppelganger for Ratched. He also speaks to other inmates after being drawn out by McMurphy.
McMurphy has no plans to have the Chief escape with him, or send for him after he escapes, but plans to leave him in the hospital.
The sentimental relationship between Bromden and McMurphy at the end of the movie is not present in the novel. Rather, Bromden considers the lobotimized McMurphy (who is brought back to the ward in the daytime for all the inmates to see) as a mannequin-like thing, an illusion created by the Combine, so he is not performing a mercy killing but destroying something insidious, seen by him and the inmates as another gambit by Ratched.
• The novel takes place in the fall of 1960, not in 1963.
• The character of Taber does not appear in the novel, except in memory. A troublesome inmate reminiscent of McMurphy, he already has been released by the time McMurphy is admitted.
• The latent homosexuality of Harding is more explicit in the novel, with Harding eventually confessing to McMurphy that he is “different.” Harding’s wife also appears in the novel and makes fun of Harding’s gay friends.
• Cheswick is contrasted with McMurphy as a failure when it comes to standing up to authority. Cheswick futilely tries to defy Nurse Ratched, but cannot rally the other inmates, which McMurphy can. After losing faith with McMurphy, he drowns in the hospital pool approximately halfway through the novel, possibly a suicide. He does not make the fishing trip.
• Instead of the hospital attendant Washington (one of the “black boys” of the ward — Chief Bromden’s muted racism, as well as Murphy’s more overt racism, including his use of the “N-word”, was removed from the movie — informing McMurphy that he is not serving a fixed sentence but has been committed and his stay is indefinite, it is another hospital inmate, who is serving as the lifeguard at the pool, who tells McMurphy that Nurse Ratched will determine how long the committed inmates have to stay in the hospital.
• In group therapy sessions at which McMurphy is absent, Ratched turns the inmates against McMurphy by revealing that he has made hundreds of dollars off of them from gambling. Though they know that McMurphy is no hypocrite, telling them from the time he entered the hospital that he was a gambler and liked the hospital as it gave him the opportunity to make a lot of money, they become wary of him. Even Chief Bomden becomes disillusioned with McMurphy, whom he finally sees as a hustler after he uses him to win a bet. When McMurphy returns to the ward, he is upset that the other inmates have turned against him. This development causes him to once again defy Nurse Ratched and the hospital attendants and leads to his downfall.
• Dr. Spivey, who is bullied by Nurse Ratched throughout the novel, attends all the group therapy sessions (where he is dominated by Ratched). His situation is similar to the inmates, whom he sympathizes with, but he fears Ratched as she has the power to get rid of the ward doctor through her personal relationship with the hospital supervisor.
• McMurphy breaks the nurse’s station window multiple times. The first time, as he retrieves Cheswick’s cigarettes, he claims the window was so clean he couldn’t see it. He is not punished with electroshock therapy for the incident, as the fight with the hospital attendants that sends him to the Disturbed Ward with Chief Bromden (and not Cheswick, who is dead) happens later, after the fishing trip.
• The fishing trip is arranged by McMurphy with the help of Dr. Spivey as a form of therapy. The object of the trip, from McMurphy’s point of view, is to make money by charging 10 inmates $10 each for the trip, and pocketing the difference from the boat rental. Two prostitutes of McMurphy’s acquaintance are supposed to accompany the inmates as guardians (he claims they are relatives), although only one, Candy, shows up. Dr. Spivey has previously met Candy, when she visited McMurphy at the hospital, and his attraction to her is one reason he approves of the trip. Dr. Spivey accompanies the inmates on the trip, driving half of them in his car, with McMurphy driving the other half in Candy’s car. They bring along a character not in the movie, George Sorenson, a former fishing boat captain and PT boat captain who skippers the boat. One the way back, McMurphy has them visit his childhood home.
• Ratched, to punish McMurphy and those who took the trip (which she opposed and tried to prevent), has them deloused in the showers, greatly disturbing Sorenson, who is a germophobe. McMurphy prevents the attendants from continuing to harass Sorenson by fighting them, aided by the Chief.
• McMurphy is subjected to electroshock therapy only after being given the choice by Ratched of admitting that he was wrong for fighting with the attendants. Ratched says that the course of action was agreed to by the inmates in the group therapy sessions he missed after being taken to the Disturbed Ward. If he will apologize, he will not be shocked. He refuses, is subjected to electroshock therapy, and refuses again when the offer is again made to him. He is shocked numerous times. Later on, Ratched discusses the therapeutic benefits of lobotomy with him at a group meeting.
• McMurphy’s planned escape is arranged as a visit by Candy to deflower Billy Bibbit, who pays for her bus fare. When Billy points out that the money required by McMurphy exceeds the cost of her fare, McMurphy — always the unabashed hustler — tells him she is going to bring some booze with her for McMurphy.
• After the death of Billy Bibbit (who is 31-years-old and whose mother works at the hospital as a receptionist), Ratched blames McMurphy for his death and for the death of Cheswick.
• Nurse Ratched is severely hurt by McMurphy’s attack, losing the power of speech. Most of the Acute inmates, including Harding, either voluntarily leave the hospital or are transferred from her ward before a lobotomized McMurphy is brought back. NcNurphy’s rebellion and sacrifice have enabled most of them to recover their personal agency.