(Editor’s note: As always, spoilers may abound for both versions here. Also, I have decided to stop scoring the adaptations as some versions do not seem to lend themselves to a numerical score. Instead, I shall simply discuss how each can be taken and related, mixing it with some film review commentary.)
While adapting books to film is usually a mutually beneficial process for both parties – studios for cashing in on a preexisting audience, publishers for being able to sell thousands of mass market copies with posters as covers – there are several instances where the subject matter doesn’t seem to lend itself to the film. One of the most high-profile titles was Alan Moore’s “Watchmen,” a project which lingered in development hell for years and swapped through a score of directors before Zack Synder’s better-than-expected version earlier this year.
But if “Watchmen’s” story was seen as too intricate to be adapted to film, William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” was on the other end of the spectrum as too chaotic. While a seminal work that helped shatter literary censorship laws in America and inspired hundreds of writers and musicians, the book is a fragmented work purposely designed to be read in any order “like an innaresting sex arrangement.” There might be a narrative in there, but what the narrative is is open for debate, buried in metaphors and purposely provocative routines.
Fittingly, the director who eventually brought the project to the screen was one whose mindset came the closest to Burroughs’ reality: David Cronenberg. In films such as “Shivers” and “The Fly” Cronenberg demonstrates a proven interest in the concepts of infection and transformation, using science fiction as a tool to get deeper into the human psyche – all concepts that Burroughs used liberally in his writing. Perhaps as a result of this common wavelength, he does not even try to capture the original ‘story,’ but creates something that feels both different and exactly what it needs to be.
At first glance, the plot seems bizarre but essentially straightforward compared to the original text. William Lee, a New York exterminator with a history of drug abuse, falls back on bad habits when he becomes addicted to his job’s yellow roach powder. After accidentally shooting his wife in the head while under the influence, he flees to the North African port of Interzone at the behest of a mysterious organization. Assigned to write a report on his wife’s death, he is caught up in a swath of circumstances including black centipede meat, a homicidal doctor, a coven of witches and entopomorphic typewriters.
While this disjointed construction includes little of the original book, this choice is actually doing something wonderfully different in adapations: being faithful to the author before the text. Burroughs was a pioneer in the “cut-up” technique, chopping written text, speeches and recordings up and splicing them back together. His theory was that in doing so, the true meaning of the text would expose itself to the reader, even suggesting it could serve as a form of divination: “When you cut into the past, the future leaks out.”
And in essence, what Cronenberg has done is played cut-up with the Burroughs canon. “Naked Lunch” uses parts of the original book, with the main character William Lee (Burroughs’ doppelganger and pen name) speaking the “Talking Asshole” routine verbatim and confronting the narcotics dicks Hauser and O’Brien. Opening scenes of the book are copied straight from Burroughs’ short story “Exterminator!,” right down to a discussion of roach poisons and elderly Jewish owner (“You vant I should spit right in your face?! You vant?”), theories on telepathy come from “Junky” and a discussion on an old queen named Bobo from “Queer.” And of course, the climactic shooting is based on the most famous story of Burroughs’ life, where he shot his wife Joan Vollmer in Mexico playing William Tell.
But simply presenting the stories would not be enough to capture the spirit of Burroughs’ work, and Cronenberg achieves this with truly ideal casting. Peter Weller nails the Lee character with perfect accuracy, evoking Burroughs’ appearance and drawling speech patterns in an author-actor translation matched only by Johnny Depp in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Judy Davis and Ian Holm are uncanny surrogates for their real-life counterparts (Joan Vollmer and Peter Bowles respectively), Joseph Scorsiani has the fresh-faced exotic look of the Interzone boys Lee lusts for and Roy Scheider has the quiet sociopathy one would expect from the legendary Dr. Benway.
And like in “Naked Lunch” the book, it’s never quite clear who or where these characters are. Davis plays a dual role as Lee’s wife and later Interzone lover, Scheider literally lives inside the skin of a woman and typewriters speak in the voices of exterminators. Both works leave the Lee character unsure what is real or simply the hallucinations of drug withdrawal, which in turn leaves the audience trying to interpret it for some deeper meaning. While the images frequently turn obscene or nauseating, they never come across as gratuitous – a minefield Burroughs expertly navigated for years.
As an adaptation of the book, “Naked Lunch” could never be mistaken for an exact translation, but after reading the book few people would want it to be. The themes are what matter, themes of addiction, control, conspiracy and excess – seeing, as Burroughs would put it, what is “on the end of every fork.” What is on the end of Cronenberg’s fork is a wholly different recipe than what Burroughs put together, but it uses the same ingredients and leaves the same sharp uneasy taste in your mouth.