When the film adaption of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, first premiered in 1975, actress Louise Fletcher remembers the crowd cheering ‘as if they were watching football’ at the climactic scene where her character, Nurse Ratched, is strangled by Jack Nicholson’s character, Randle McMurphy.
As the fictional nurse, Fletcher could evoke that kind of extreme reaction from audiences with her allusive ‘dish blue eyes of a murderer’ (as described by Nicholson) and through each subtle expression that silently hints she’s getting a perverse joy from exercising her authority. Fletcher’s performance made the name Nurse Ratched popular shorthand for institutional abuse of power – and what’s further chilling is that it’s equally possible Ratched was perhaps never really acting maliciously but just doing her job.
This is the basis of the Netflix series Ratched (2020). In both the book and Milos Forman‘s film, we know surprisingly little about Nurse Mildred Ratched or ‘Big Nurse’ beyond the patient’s perspective of her. Unlike most popular fictional villains, Nurse Ratched, up until Ratched, didn’t have a backstory providing context into who she is, what drives her actions, and whether she was always a ‘villain’. In fact, a crucial part of what made Nurse Ratched seem so callous was her unknown motives paired with her detached demeanour.
This prequel, tracing a young Mildred Ratched (played by Sarah Paulson) from 1947 — before her life as head nurse at the Oregon psychiatric hospital where McMurphy later meets her – set Netflix’s record for most popular 2020 premiere. Ratched received mixed reviews. Yet, whether you like the series or not, it’s fascinating when a villain is reimagined 45 years later. Watching from a historical standpoint, it becomes obvious the extent to which each portrayal mirrors the time of its creation.
Both the novel and subsequent film focus on McMurphy, with Kesey’s story specifically narrated from Chief Bromden’s viewpoint – a Native American patient who’s been in the psychiatric hospital for 10 years. Beyond her role as head nurse, Mildred Ratched was less important to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest than what made Ratched a great and timeless antagonist — representing oppressive society as a whole. Ratched Ryan Murphy and Evan Romansky have revived Big Nurse with an understanding that ‘abusers are people who have been abused’ – a theme that resonates in today’s cultural climate.
In contrast to the new adaption, the Nurse Ratched of the novel and film is a one-dimensional villain. Written in the early 1960s by a writer who was defined as the ‘Pied Piper of the hippie era’ in his New York Times obituary; Ratched was a symbol of the power structure that was being challenged during this era through student protests, the civil rights movement, second-wave feminism, and the prevalent drug culture. Even her name intentionally sounds like rachet — a tool used to tighten bolts into place and keep a machine in running order –- signifying the character’s love for obedience and order.
Kesey’s time working as an attendant in a psychiatric ward and his experiences with psychedelic drugs inspired what would be his breakthrough novel. Similarly, Forman also brought to the story his own lived experience of cultural and political tyranny. When he was only nine-years-old, both of his parents were killed in concentration camps for suspected involvement in the underground resistance. He fled his native Czechoslovakia for the US in 1968 during the Prague Spring – a mass protest and political upheaval period.
While Kesey’s Ratched is meant to be a criticism of authority repressing individualism, the reimagined Ratched shifts into her victimhood; a victim of failed bureaucracy and repressed individualism. Netflix describes the premise of Ratched to reveal ‘that true monsters are made not born’. As the series progresses, we learn that throughout her childhood, Mildred survived ongoing physical and sexual abuse within the foster care system alongside another foster child, Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock), whom she thinks of as a brother.