David Cronenberg’s 1991 film Naked Lunch should not be seen as an adaptation of the 1959 William S. Burroughs novel â€“ such an undertaking would be quite impossible â€“ but as an exploration of the state of mind that produced such a work. The film’s central image is based on a true story: In 1951, Burroughs shot and killed his wife while playing a game of William Tell. His wife placed a glass on her head and Burroughs attempted to shoot it off. This act becomes, at least in Cronenberg’s film, the basis of Burroughs’ art, the guilt over which becomes the thing forming his every move.
Burroughs is called William Lee here (Peter Weller), a drug-addicted exterminator (“exterminate all rational thought,” he says) who flees to the “Interzone” (read Tangier) after the shooting incident, immersing himself in a paranoid, irrational world where typewriters become enormous cockroaches that speak through anus-like orifices. These insects try to convince Lee that his wife was really an enemy centipede agent while beggin him to overcome his repressed homosexuality. In Interzone he meets Tom and Joan Frost (read Paul and Jane Bowles, played by Ian Holm and Judy Davis, the latter who plays Lee’s wife as well), who become his rivals and intimates as he writes his “reports” (the novel Naked Lunch).
This is dark, disturbing, hallucinogenic filmmaking, and although there is very little of Burroughs’ often violent sexual imagery here, the film is nevertheless rife with a surreal sexual aura. Typewriters sprout ejaculating phallic appendages as do the scaly heads of the Mugwumps, and an Arabic typewriter morphs into a sort of omnisexual creature. It’s a very dark, slimy sexuality that only hints at the kind of sexual terror the novel dwells on, and it’s the only aspect of the film that Cronenberg seems unsure of how to handle. Of course, a film truly faithful to Burroughs’ sexuality would have been impossible to film, let alone watch.
In approximating Burroughs’ heroin-induced reality, Cronenberg only occasionally dips into conventional rationality. There is a brief break in the action â€“ when Lee’s friends Hank (read Jack Keroac) and Martin (Allen Ginsberg) arrive in Tangier to check on his progress on the novel â€“ a pause which allows the audience a look at how immersed in his own reality Burroughs must have been and how outwardly sick he must have seemed. The break is brief and is followed by Cronenberg plunging headlong back into a world that operates as much on his horror movie aesthetic as on Burroughs’ drug-induced visions. There is indeed much that is grotesque here, from the Mugwumps who look like wrinkled, old lizard men and spurt jism from their heads, to the giant centipedes that are carved up for their “black meat” (drugs in this world all come from insects). That Cronenberg dared to risk his substantial fright flick rep (The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly) by making this movie is remarkable. That he made a film that is consistently aware of the pain and guilt that went into the creation of one of the most unusual novels ever written is even more remarkable.