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Retrospectives

Naked Lunch: Adapting the Unadaptable

It had been nearly four years since I watched David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991) for the first time. I remember, upon finishing watching this film, high school me had been so enamored with what I just experienced that the next day I tried to read William S. Burroughs’ novel. I gave dozens of pages a shot, but since this was my first foray into postmodern literature, I was just puzzled with the scattershot and free-form prose of Burroughs. My takeaway though, was that it was incredible that Cronenberg was able to adapt something so unadaptable to film and pull it off so well in the way he did. 

In what starts out as most films do, through the establishment of main characters and a free-form jazz score coupled with art-deco aesthetics; this then morphs into a film about a slew of autobiographical problems that Burroughs faced in real life, that are thrust upon the protagonist, Bill Lee (Peter Weller). Drug use, homosexuality, and the creative process as a writer are the main themes that the film eventually manages to hone in on. The strange, Cronenbergian staples start with the introduction of an insect that talks through the mouth of an anus telling Lee to kill his wife, Joan Lee (Judy Davis) because she is a “secret agent”. It becomes such a Kafka-esque work that Kafka is even mentioned by Joan Lee. Also through Cronenbergian fashion, these various bugs and creatures are given an oozing and hyper-sexualized style and voice to them. This collaboration between Burroughs and Cronenberg was a perfect creative pairing for that reason. Videodrome took the idea of James Woods having moments of intimacy with pulsating Betamax tapes and televisions with faces on them and with Shivers (1975) he had already used the template of tying bugs in with sexuality. 

However, Naked Lunch doesn’t just make the bugs out to be these strange creatures just looking at trying to burrow their way into the minds of as many humans as possible, but as a creative companion, a writer can discuss their work with. The bugs, later on in the film are portrayed as typewriters for that reason, a product of Lee’s hallucinations on his drug-infused fantasies at some points, dictating to Lee what to write. The personal connection to typewriters humanizes these inanimate objects through the names that they are referred to throughout Naked Lunch. Tom Frost (Ian Holm) talks about how much he loves his “mujahideen”, the name given to his favorite typewriter. Burroughs himself was a heroin user and it is quite obvious that the insecticide in the film is a reference to that. The way that the insecticide is shot up intravenously and as the film progresses characters move onto harder drugs. The hardest drug coming from the secretions of the fictional reptilian creatures, Mugwumps. Their scaly and bony mien being one of the more impactful things from the film.

The film also has one of the most unreliable narrators I’ve seen in cinema. It is challenging to decipher which pieces of the film are actually tied to reality and which are inside the head of a drug-addict suffering from writer’s block, needing a fix in order to continue to construct. The far off city of Interzone (Joy Division were a fan of Burroughs’ work) that Lee flees to is when it fully becomes an unhinged meditation in the surreal. What Lee believes are smashed-up typewriter parts in a bag are seen by other characters to be just a collage of various pill bottles. During a discussion with Tom Frost, the synchronized sound coming from his mouth is dubbed over by other dialogue also spoken by Frost where he proclaims: “If you look carefully at my lips, you’ll realize that I’m actually saying something else. I’m not actually telling you about the several ways I’m gradually murdering Joan [Lee]”. The openness of the interpretation between fiction and reality makes Naked Lunch all the better, constantly throwing curveballs and depicting addiction as a sad, puzzling dimension of the human psyche. 

Cronenberg’s adaptation of Burroughs’ work attempts to be a transgressive and provocative work the same way the 1959 novel was. Unfortunately, there was not nearly as much discussion about the film compared to the novel. But for people that enjoy postmodern narratives that deconstruct the creative process such as Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002), then this is an enjoyable, Kafkaesque meditation in that wheelhouse.