The History of Nurse Ratched Explained: A Primer for Ryan Murphy’s New Netflix Series
To say that Ryan Murphy is one of the busiest individuals working in television right now almost feels like an understatement. Best known for creating a number of popular shows — including Glee, American Horror Story, and Pose — Murphy has proven himself a force to be reckoned with when it comes to modern television. Although his usual home base is on the Fox Studios lot, where some of his biggest shows still reign supreme on FX, he made a monumental jump to the world of streaming a couple of years ago.
The agreement Murphy signed with Netflix is one of the largest producer deals in television history. The five-year, $300 million contract whisked him away to a brand new home for the time being, and he’s already had a couple of projects make their grand debut on the platform. Though not part of his newly-signed deal, the first series of his to premiere on Netflix was The Politician, which was actually one of the last shows he produced under his previous deal with 20th Century Fox. Despite being led by a star-studded cast, however, the show received middling reviews from critics. Unfortunately, his next project received a similar reception.
The second project of his that was released on the streaming service was a miniseries called Hollywood, a dazzling but flat ode to the Golden Age of Tinseltown that also fell short with critics, with Collider’s own Tom Reimann calling it a “hopeful story that frequently feels somewhat at odds with itself.” However, Murphy isn’t one to slow down when the going gets tough, as he’s now gearing up to release his third Netflix series which takes a sharp turn genre-wise from his previous two outings on the platform — leaning into territory he’s already very familiar with.
Ratched finds Murphy returning to the world of horror, psychological horror to be exact, with his own take on Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Not only that, but he’s brought American Horror Story staple — and one of the show’s longtime fan-favorite cast members — Sarah Paulson along with him. But, before you start your full-blown binge of the new series, we’ve put together a guide that breaks down everything you need to know about Murphy’s new show, including its original source material and the multiple adaptations that have stemmed from it over the years.
The Book That Started It All
It all began in 1962 with a novel written by Ken Kesey. Set in a psychiatric hospital in Oregon, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is narrated by Chief Bromden, a patient at the hospital who pretends to be deaf and mute in order to fly under everyone’s radar. However, life at the hospital begins to change once a man named Randle McMurphy is admitted after faking insanity to avoid doing time at a prison work farm. He’s a rambunctious character that challenges the hospital’s way of life, especially disrupting the commanding atmosphere upheld by the head nurse, Nurse Ratched.
Kesey wrote the novel during his time working the night-shift as a nurse’s aide in a psychiatric hospital in Menlo Park, California. While working there, he wrote about what he witnessed — explaining in an interview that he felt he was seeing something “really peculiarly American and tragic and glorious at the same time,” and that the book “just kind of wrote itself” during his time there. Even Nurse Ratched was inspired by that hospital’s real head nurse, though Kesey said in an interview with the New York Times that, after running into her years later, “she was much smaller than [he] remembered, and a whole lot more human.” Who would have thought that the antagonist he based on her would go on to get her own show, let alone that the novel itself would spark a flood of adaptations not long after its publication?
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Takes Broadway
Just a year later, Kesey’s novel made its Broadway debut. Adapted by Dale Wasserman, the play premiered on November 13, 1963, and ran until January 25, 1964. At the time, it starred Kirk Douglas as Randle McMurphy, Ed Ames as Chief Bromden, and Joan Tetzel as Nurse Ratched. Even Gene Wilder and William Daniels starred in the play as patients in the hospital, Billy Bibbit and Dale Harding, respectively. Unfortunately, Wasserman’s version of the play was panned by most critics and struggled tremendously during its run, with Wasserman even calling the experience “terrible.” However, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s time on Broadway would actually get another shot at success only a couple of years later.
…Make that two more shots at success. The first time was off-Broadway in 1971 — which, unlike its predecessor, became a hit amongst both critics and audiences — and the second was a Broadway production in 2001, with Gary Sinise playing McMurphy. The latter even went on to win a Tony for Best Revival of a Play. New versions of the play continued to take the stage, including multiple runs in the early aughts with Christian Slater filling McMurphy’s shoes.
From Page to Screen
The film adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a classic known to many and was actually first thought of during the play’s initial run in ‘63. Douglas, who starred as McMurphy in the original Broadway adaptation, had purchased the rights to Kesey’s story but was unable to find a studio willing to take a chance on it at the time. He had later ended up selling the rights to his son, Michael Douglas, who took on the task of producing the film himself. Young Douglas and his producing partner, Saul Zaentz, approached Kesey about writing the screenplay, but unfortunately, it didn’t end up working out.
In a 1992 interview with NPR, Kesey explained that he wrote the script “to be as weird as [he] thought being in the nuthouse was […] But it was not what they wanted.” He went on to add that he was naive at the time and he “wanted to do The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and they wanted to do Hogan’s Heroes.” After ending things on quite a sour note with Kesey, they wound up going with Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman’s script instead. Although it wasn’t an easy production, with Douglas stating in an interview with The Guardian that he and Zaentz “went over-budget and over-schedule,” Zaentz took a gamble and financed the remainder of the movie well beyond its $2 million estimate. Thankfully, that risk was well worth the reward.
Starring Jack Nicholson as the troublemaking Randle McMurphy and Louise Fletcher as the wicked Nurse Ratched, the Milos Forman film became a monumental success. Receiving heaps of praise from both critics and audiences, It went on to win all five major Academy Awards: Best Screenplay, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Picture. Not to mention, at the time of its release, it was the seventh highest-grossing film of all time, raking in a whopping $109 million in 1975. To this day, it still remains a significant part of cinematic history, even being selected for preservation in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 1993. Now, 45 years since the film’s release, Murphy’s ready to shine a light on the terrifying backstory of Kesey’s infamous antagonist.
Netflix’s Time to Shine
Created by Evan Romansky, who also wrote the pilot, the show was one in high demand, with both Hulu and Apple also vying for the Cuckoo’s Nest origin story. But, in September of 2017, Netflix announced that they had officially out-bid their competitors and greenlit two Seasons of the show. Murphy is set to executive produce the series and will also be directing Season 1’s pilot. Douglas will also be executive producing the new show along with Sarah Paulson, Ian Brennan, Jacob Epstein, Aleen Keshishian, Alexis Martin Woodall, Tim Minear, Margaret Riley, Romansky, Jennifer Salt, Robert Mitas, Tanase Popa, Eryn Krueger Mekash, and Eric Kovtun.
Starring Paulson as the titular nurse, Ratched will focus on her journey from being a new hire at a psychiatric hospital to slyly working her way up the ladder. And thankfully, since Netflix has already ordered two seasons of the show, you can expect there to be plenty of thrilling twists and turns to keep you invested. Per Netflix, the official synopsis reads:
“In 1947, Mildred arrives in Northern California to seek employment at a leading psychiatric hospital where new and unsettling experiments have begun on the human mind. On a clandestine mission, Mildred presents herself as the perfect image of what a dedicated nurse should be, but the wheels are always turning and as she begins to infiltrate the mental health care system and those within it, Mildred’s stylish exterior belies a growing darkness that has long been smoldering within, revealing that true monsters are made, not born.”
Alongside Paulson, the series also stars Jon Jon Briones as Dr. Richard Hanover who runs the asylum; Judy Davis as the hospital’s head nurse, Betsy Bucket; Finn Wittrock as a man named Edmund Tolleson, a serial killer currently in the asylum; Vincent D’Onofrio as Governor George Wilburn; and Cynthia Nixon as Gwendolyn Briggs, the Governor’s press secretary, amongst plenty more famous faces as well. As evident from Netflix’s plot description, it’s already a sure thing that this series will be nothing like his two previous outings with the streaming service, and hopefully, that’s exactly what he needs to reel viewers in. Plus, what better way to kick off spooky season than with some brand new suspenseful content from the mind behind American Horror Story?
Ratched Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix.
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