Naked Lunch

David Cronenberg, 1991

The adaptation of books to film is as old as cinema itself, stretching as far back as the early experiments of pioneers such as George Méliès, who would make his own filmic versions of novels such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and fairy tales such as Cinderella over a hundred years ago. Primarily the purpose of the adaptation is simply to transpose the descriptions of events, character and dialogue from the page and onto the screen changing as little as possible so as not upset your core audience (those who have read the novel). However, this approach is dependent on the source text possessing a linear narrative. When the author has taken a more post-modern approach, the director must employ other techniques to ensure the creation of a successful film. Naked Lunch is one such example of this. 

The film is based on William Burroughs novel of the same name, a novel which ignores a traditional approach to story telling in favour of employing each chapter to act as a short story, these chapters are united by nothing more than the occasional recurring characters and a series of common themes and concerns (primarily drug addiction and homosexuality). Juxtaposed together these chapters can be seen to be doing more than simply telling the tale of a characters passage through a fictional world, but as attempting to create a fuller picture of the nightmarish world that Burrough’s characters are inhabiting.

Films rarely succeed however when they completely break free of the confines of an act structure, although many books can be described as ‘plot less’ there are few examples of films that have faced commercial or critical success when there is no forward narrative present (Last Year in Marienbad being the only exception that comes to mind). Cronenberg therefore takes certain elements from the book, such as the alien like ‘Mugwumps’ that produce their own highly addictive secretions, and the ‘black meat’( used metaphorically to represent methadone) along with various characters such as Doctor Benway (Roy Scheider) and places them around the story of William Lee (Peter Weller). William Lee was Burrough’s pen name on his first novel Junky and the story draws largely on biographical material from Burrough’s own life. Like his fictional alter ego Burroughs worked as a bug exterminator in New York, he accidentally shot his wife Joan (played in the film by Judy Davis) through the head during a drunken game of ‘William-tell’ and would later retire to the ‘International zone’ (or Interzone) of Tangier where he would send correspondence to his friend Allen Ginsberg that would later be placed together and form Naked Lunch. The more surreal elements of the book are attributed in the film to Lee’s drug addiction, firstly to ‘bug powder’ and then the substitute ‘ the black meat’ (Burroughs was an opiate addict for most of his life). The more surreal elements of the plot are treated as hallucinations, which he then chronicles to form his book.

This approach works well to give Burrough’s text a form and structure necessary for the screen, it is not a betrayal of the novels experimental approach in that by putting on display the creative process used to forge the original source material, is post-modern and experimental itself. In the 90’s many films would see release that worked on a similar level, from the same year as Naked Lunch there is for example Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka, focusing on another author living through the experiences that would become his fiction. Later in the decade there would also be Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which also dealt with the influence of hard drugs on the authors writing style. Fellini’s 8 ½ can be seen as the only film to precede it in creating a work of fiction centred around the work’s conception, a source which Naked Lunch surely must have drawn upon (indeed it‘s eccentric cast of characters feel like a more downbeat version of Fellini‘s own).
Burroughs had always hoped to bring Naked Lunch to the screen, and had made forays into film himself shortly following the books publication. Working with Anthony Balch on such short films as The Cut Ups in 1966, he attempted to apply techniques he had perfected in the literary world to the screen (in this example, his cut up technique). Working closely together with Cronenberg, Burroughs manages to translate his world onto the screen successfully, whilst Cronenberg is allowed to further build on themes touched upon his other works. There is his usual use of body horror and the dangers of scientific experimentation, but primarily it can be seen as treating literature in the same way television was portrayed in Videodrome, like a drug for both those who create and consume it.

words by pete bond.