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A Clockwork Orange: Turning A Classic Novel Into An Interactive App

Just how do you turn a analogue text into a digital app?

by Kevin Holmes
Oct 17 2012, 4:59pm

It's no secret that the publishing world has undergone something of a shake up over the last couple of years. Kindles and ebooks, self-publishing and the success of Fifty Shades of Grey have all taken their toll on the industry—and much like other entertainment industries it's had to move with the times or be damned. Or— which is what generally happens—do a bit of both. And while some people might think the digital publishing revolution (even though it's not really a revolution) is just bad fan fiction, unnecessary interaction, and mommy porn—it's not all bad.

With the old publishing methods changing it's meant that publishing houses have looked to digital formats to release books, creating interactive apps that can augment a classic book with a wealth of bonus material, or provide a different way of reading a contemporary one. One of the successes of this way of doing things has been the release of TS Elliot's The Waste Land as an interactive iPad app with articles, interactive text, videos, interviews and a whole bunch of DVD extras-style material that fans can dive into.

The latest literary classic to get this treatment is A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, released by Random House. The app has a wealth of material that you can read and watch, from the author's thoughts on why Mick Jagger would've been a better person to play Alex in the film, to his annoyance at people calling it The Clockwork Orange rather than A Clockwork Orange.

Sophia McDougall discussing the novel’s violence

There are letters from the original publisher and interviews and insights from authors like Martin Amis and Sophia McDougall, discussing the novel’s violence and themes. Plus articles about the book when it was first published, a slang dictionary for Nadsat, and the text itself which is not only interactive—allowing you to read the articles and watch the videos where they have relevance in the novel—but also features the original 1961 typescript with Burgess' notations. It makes you wish that a lot more book apps were released with this level of detail and material.

But, just how do you go about turning a classic text into an interactive app?

Get greedy with the archive material, but beware of rights
The more the merrier it seems when it comes to archive material, so it helps if the author has a foundation you can tap into as Dan Franklin, digital publisher at Random House, notes: “This was all about cracking open the Burgess Foundation archive and the publisher archive too, documents that you wouldn’t find unless you travelled to a museum. The prime example being the 1961 manuscript with Burgess’s annotations, otherwise kept at McMaster University in Canada. We were greedy for as much valuable material as possible.”

This idea of gathering plenty of material is confirmed by Berbank Green, co-founder of PopLeaf the company that developed the software for the app. “The concept was for the app to contain as much archive material as possible and leave out as little as possible.” Green said in an email. “We ordered the material into four main piles: Material directly related to the book; to the film; the play; and miscellaneous material. We then prioritised getting the rights to use the first pile and it went on from there.” Rights can be a bit of an issue when including such a wealth of information and it became a major factor with this app, meaning not everything they wanted could be included. For instance, Franklin says they wanted to include a great Playboy interview with Burgess but, unfortunately, couldn't figure out who had the rights.

Design is key
Turning such an iconic book, and film, into an interactive app is a vast task and one of the key components is to look at how it's presented to the reader. Keeping the aesthetic simple helps make sure the multimedia components don’t get too distractive, but you also want to keep it original, engaging, and relevant. Ideas presented by PopLeaf for the design for A Clockwork Orange included a kind of digital degradation and intentional glitchiness—but because the audience might not be too savvy on the aesthetics of glitch art, these gave way to an elegant cog mechanic that links the text and material. Talking about the cog design Berbank says, "The minimalist cog interface seemed to tie a lot of the symbolism of the book together—the milk white, the mechanical movement, the eye-like circle, the nipple like cog teeth—and provide us with a fun way to attach many different navigation options."

The app’s cog wheel interface

Look at what a printed book can and can't do
You can read a book and relish it, lost in your own thoughts about what it all means while enjoying the purity of the experience, untainted by anyone else’s view. But what you can't do is quickly swipe between different versions of the text, or access radio interviews, or read manuscripts usually sat in a museum, or watch videos from contemporary authors that build on the legacy of the novel. Berbank says it was important to “Present the book as cleanly and unobtrusively as possible” while equally important to “Provide as many ways to access the content as contextually as possible.” Tom Avery, Editor at William Heinemann—who original published the novel in the 60s—says: "I I love the ease with which you can compare the restored text to the original typescript. It's fascinating to be able to see the novel in such a raw form—with queries, marginalia: illustrations, musical notes and scribbles—against the interactive version, which similarly, with the embedded material, sheds new light on the text and Burgess's creative process."

The original 1961 typescript with annotations

It's more than just a study guide, but never more than the novel
While an app like this can be a very accomplished study guide it's also something fun, something to explore at your leisure rather than be reminded of late nights as a teenager cramming in revision for an exam. "I’d love this to be the first way younger readers experience the book," Fraklin says, "reading it through first and then going in deep. There are quite a lot of good in-jokes in the linking words I think. The Burgess audio is solid gold too."

Berbank hopes people will approach it experimentally, experiencing it in a non-linear fashion and going against the more academic ways of studying a novel—it’s more about leisurely discovery rather than regimented learning. “The app is non didactic”, he says "and it is really up to the reader/browser/film-enthusiast how to approach it. We hope it feels a little playful behind the minimalism and that those who want to explore in a non linear way find it fun." While Avery sees it as a place where this archival material can live on, beyond the book stores, museums, and classrooms calling it "A digital museum, of sorts, and an exciting introduction to a tremendous writer. The text takes centre stage, but can be endlessly explored."

Martin Amis reading the text


A Clockwork Orange
Random House
Anthony Burgess
interactive apps