Naked Lunch

Cronenberg

Naked Lunch is the 1991 film adaptation written and directed by David Cronenberg, of William S. Burroughs’ novel of the same name. Rather than attempting a straight adaptation, Cronenberg took a few elements from the book and combined them with elements of Burroughs’ life, creating a hybrid film about the writing of the book rather than the book itself. Peter Weller starred as William Lee, the pseudonym Burroughs used when he wrote ‘Junkie.’

Lee is an exterminator who finds that his wife Joan is stealing his insecticide (pyrethrum) to use as a drug. When Lee is arrested by the police, he begins hallucinating because of ‘bug powder’ exposure. He believes he is a secret agent whose controller (a giant bug) assigns him the mission of killing Joan, who is an agent of an organization called Interzone Incorporated. Lee dismisses the bug and its instructions and kills it. He returns home to find Joan sleeping with Hank, one of his writer friends. Shortly afterwards, he accidentally kills her while attempting to shoot a drinking glass off her head in imitation of William Tell.

Having inadvertently accomplished his ‘mission,’ Lee flees to Interzone. He spends his time writing reports for his imaginary handler, and it is these documents which, at the insistence of his literary colleagues, eventually become the titular book. Whilst Lee is under the influence of assorted mind-altering substances, his typewriter, a Clark Nova, becomes a giant talking insect which tells him to find Dr. Benway, by seducing Joan Frost, who is a doppelgänger of his dead wife. After coming to the conclusion that Dr. Benway is, in fact, the secret mastermind of a narcotics operation for a drug called ‘black meat’ which is supposedly derived from the guts of giant centipedes, Lee completes his report and flees Interzone to Annexia (a totalitarian state) with Joan Frost. Stopped by the Annexian border patrol and instructed to prove that he is a writer as he claims, Lee produces a pen. As this is insufficient proof for passage he inexplicably offers a demonstration of his William Tell routine using a glass atop Joan Frost’s head. He again misses badly and thus re-enacts the earlier killing of his wife. He is then allowed to enter Annexia.

The film can be seen as a metatextual adaptation, in that it depicts the writing of the novel itself. Several characters are loosely based on people that Burroughs knew: Hank and Martin are based on Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg (who assisted Burroughs in compiling the original novel), and Tom and Joan Frost on Paul and Jane Bowles whom Burroughs befriended in Tangier, Morocco. The shooting of Joan Lee is based on the 1951 death of Joan Vollmer, Burroughs’ common-law wife. Burroughs shot and killed Vollmer in a drunken game of ‘William Tell’ at a party in Mexico City. He would later flee to the United States. Burroughs was convicted in absentia of homicide and sentenced to two years, which were suspended. Burroughs later expressed Joan’s death as the starting point of his literary career, saying: ‘I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for Joan’s death.’

Burroughs scholar Timothy S. Murphy found the film to be a muddled adaptation that reflects Cronenberg’s mind more than the novel: he feels that Burroughs’ subversive, allegorically political depiction of drugs and homosexuality becomes merely aesthetic. Murphy argues that Burroughs’ social and politically situated literary techniques become in the film merely the hallucination of a junkie, and that by using the life of Burroughs himself as a framing narrative, Cronenberg turns a fragmented, unromantic, bitterly critical and satirical novel into a conventional bildungsroman (coming-of-age story).

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