‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’: Despite Winning 5 Oscars, Author Ken Kesey Never Watched the Adaptation

When it comes to having their books made into movies, authors frequently experience mixed emotions. On one hand, a good movie adaptation usually means that the sales for the author’s book will sky-rocket, which equals a tidy boost in royalties. On the other hand, the author is understandably worried about what happens when they release creative control of a project they poured their heart and soul into to another person. While some authors are content with the final projects and even made cameos in the movie, others regret the adaptation. Ken Kesey refused to even watch the movie version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

A scene from 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' where the cast sits around a common room
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | Republic Pictures/Getty Images

What was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest about?

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has an original, odd, and compelling plot. In the movie, Jack Nicholson portrays McMurphy, a man who decides that rather than perform labor duties during his prison incarceration, he’ll plead insanity and be admitted into the mental ward, which he feels is more appealing. He doesn’t know about Nurse Ratched who has no qualms about using her position of authority to abuse McMurphy and his fellow inmates. Not only does McMurphy feel compelled to everything in his power to oppress Ratched’s attempts at degradation, but he also works to rally his fellow inmates.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was filmed in Depoe Bay, Oregon. It was released to theaters in November 1975. IMDb reports that it grossed an impressive $108,997,629. When you look at Reel Run Down, you discover that the movie is one of the few films to win in all five major Oscar categories. While the film was a commercial and critical success, the people involved with production didn’t find the experience entirely pleasant. 

Screenrant reports that William Redfield who played Dr. Brooks was in the middle of filming when he was diagnosed with leukemia. Danny DeVito continues to have nightmares about filming the movie’s final scene. Sydney Lassick suffered an emotional and mental breakdown while filming. Louise Fletcher was so disturbed by her character that she refused to watch the movie.

Ken Kesey refuses to watch the movie

Despite the fact that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was both a commercial and critical success, Ken Kesey, who wrote the book the movie is based on refused to watch it. He had two reasons for being bitter about the movie. Long before the movie hit theaters, Kesey was already irritated. Some promises that had been made were broken. It’s also likely that Kesey felt he should have made more money from the project. Michael Douglas, who was a huge fan of the book and directed the movie, gave The Guardian a little insight into the argument.

“My producing partner, Saul Zaentz – the owner of Fantasy Records and a voracious reader – felt an affinity with Kesey,” Douglas explained. “After Larry and I made a first attempt, Saul asked Kesey to write a screenplay and promised him a piece of the action. But like a lot of novelists trying to adapt their own material, it didn’t work out. We fell out with him after that. It was our only longstanding, painful issue. We got into a financial dispute – it was silly, but maybe it was his way of defending his ego.”

Kesey was also upset by the decision to remove the character, Chief Bromden, from the role of story narrator. Mental Floss reported that Kesey was so disappointed with the movie, that he passed it by one evening while he was channel surfing.

Ken Kesey isn’t the only author who wasn’t happy when their book was made into a movie

Ken Kesey isn’t the only author who wasn’t happy with the film adaptation of their book. Mary Poppins might be one of the most beloved movies of all time, but author P.L. Travers was quick to let everyone know how much she hated the movie. Her disdain started long before work on the movie even started.

From the moment Walt Disney expressed an interest in acquiring the rights, Travers fought with him. While Disney eventually won, Travers continued to express her disappointment, she didn’t like the animated scenes and she felt that the character Mary Poppins was way too glamorous.

Stephen King usually works well with the Hollywood set and seldom complains about the movie adaptations of his book. The Shining is an exception. He didn’t feel that the screenwriters created a good character arc for Jack Torrence and he felt that the movie version of Wendy was way too misogynistic.

Rick Riordan created legions of fans with his Percy Jackson series, which follows the trials and tribulations of a young Percy Jackson as tries to save the world. Disney loved the books and decided to adapt them into a film. Riordan objected when he learned that the main characters were going to be several years older than the book versions. He wrote a letter to the studio explaining how this wouldn’t work if they wanted to turn the movies into a series. Since only the first two Percy Jackson movies were converted into movies, it’s clear Riordan knew what he was talking about.

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