Exterminate All Rational Thought: Burroughs at the Movies

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I love Naked Lunch. I love David Cronenberg. Theoretically, I should love David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of William Burrough’s psychosurreal classic. But hey, that’s rational thought for you, right? I didn’t love it in ’93 or ’94, the first time I saw it. Maybe I was too young. Maybe I just didn’t get it (but if that was the case then why did I love the book so much..?) So I watched it again as an undergrad; this was maybe ’99 or ’00. Nope. In fact, I remember thinking “Wow. This is actually pretty bad.” At that point, I was a big Cronenberg fan too. eXistenZ had just come out. eXistenZ is easily my favorite Cronenberg film, and a favorite film in general, and Naked Lunch didn’t hold up well against it or my re-reading of the Burrough’s book. But yet and still, ever the glutton for disappointment, I gave the Naked Lunch movie another shot this weekend, as part of the Biblioklept Summer of Cronenberg Film Festival. Guess what? It’s not a very good movie.

The fault of Cronenberg’s movie is not in failing to adapt the content of Burrough’s book, which is pretty much untranslatable as a narrative movie. Instead, Cronenberg attempts to weld some of the images of Naked Lunch–along with elements of other Burroughs novels such as Nova Express, The Soft Machine, and The Ticket that Exploded–into a cohesive thread using Burroughs’s biography as the overarching frame story. Burroughs’s life story is fascinating–the guy shot his wife in the head, for chrissakes–and lit junkies will love to see characters based on Kerouac and Ginsberg and Paul Bowles–but the end results simply don’t achieve or reflect the spirit of the novel. The bitter, caustic satire of Naked Lunch is almost wholly absent, replaced by wry one-liners from Peter Weller (who woodenly portrays Burroughs’s alter-ego, William Lee (an alter-ego who doesn’t appear in the novel of Naked Lunch at all, incidentally)). Cronenberg seems to underestimate his audience’s capacity for a nonlinear story, taking the loose collection of riffs, routines, and episodes that comprise Naked Lunch, and turning them into a pretty dull meditation on the nature of creativity and the suffering and alienation of the outsider-artist. Worst of all, the audience is asked to identify and sympathize with William Lee–again, this seems to be a negation of the original text.

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In the end, Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch is just another bad Cronenberg film (see also: his mish-mashed adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s Crash, his boring adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone). In Naked Lunch, we get the usual Cronenbergian tropes: mechanical objects that become hideously organic, bodily invasion, constant “is this real or is this a dream?” moments, and general dark creepiness. However, they simply don’t work here: Cronenberg is attempting Burroughs-icky resulting only in Cronenberg-icky. Cronenberg’s entire oeuvre is littered with flawed films, but I tend to enjoy them more for their flaws. This one was a no-go though, and I gave it three shots. But, in a way, I believe that Cronenberg deserved three viewings. You never know. Still, I doubt I’ll watch this one again.

If you haven’t seen a Cronenberg film, I suggest starting with Videodrome, A History of Violence, or eXistenZ. He also has a new movie coming out later this year, Eastern Promises starring Naomi Watts. If you haven’t read Burroughs, I suggest starting with Junkie or Queer (or just go ahead and jump into Naked Lunch).

I end with a far better review of Naked Lunch than I’ve provided here, courtesy of The Simpsons. Do you remember that episode where Bart makes a fake driver license (not the one where he’s awarded a real driver license courtesy Mayor Quimby)? And he takes Milhouse and Nelson and Martin on a road trip to the World’s Fair in Knoxville? Well, along the way the boys decide to sneak into an R-rated movie. They leave the theater disappointed; the shot reveals that they’ve just left Naked Lunch. Nelson remarks: “There’s at least two things wrong with that title.” I’ll leave it at that.

10 thoughts on “Exterminate All Rational Thought: Burroughs at the Movies”

  1. My favorite Wm. Burroughs novel was CITIES OF THE RED NIGHT. It’s his most consistent offering, filled with wild imagery…but it also happens to be readable. I rather liked Cronenberg’s adaptation of NAKED LUNCH. I’m not sure Peter Weller was the right person for the part of Lee and certainly Roy Schieder was a disaster as Dr. Benway. But there were some powerful moments that did evoke the mood and spirit of the novel. What I most love about Burroughs’ work is when he READS it and there are a number of CD’s where you can hear the master mugwump himself perform some of his best bits. Highly recommended.

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  2. ok, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that you’ve: A) read a lot of books and 2) seen a lot of movies. I mean, how many times at the end of the movie do you turn to the person seated next to you and say “I can’t believe it! It was just ;like the book”! When I went to see Naked Lunch, I had very, very low expectations. The movie lived up to them. How can you be surprised that one of the most non-narrative books since the Bible doesn’t make a good movie?
    So here’s a question, what movie did you see that really seemed to follow the spirit of the book? That after seeing it, you said, yeah, that’s what it was about? And no, Valley of the Dolls doesn’t count.

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  3. to answer kingoffrance…fear and loathing in las vegas was virtually word for word with the book. i wasn’t enthralled with cronenberg’s naked lunch either…and thought he virtually destroyed crash. i did really enjoy videodrome and dead ringers though. i agree that naked lunch (as well as most burroughs) is virtually un-adaptable. maybe derek jarman could’ve done it?

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  4. I didn’t make this clear in my post: I don’t think that a filmed adaptation has to stick to the literary work it’s based on in order to succeed. For me, it’s more important that the spirit (which is obviously a subjective, intangible, unquantifiable quality) of the original work come through over the nuts and bolts of the plot. My major problem with Cronenberg’s NL is that it didn’t even try to translate Burroughs’s narrative technique (which I believe is the essence of the spirit of the book) into the language of film; instead Cronenberg relied on a few grotesque visuals and a very dull, run-of-the-mill plot about a “tortured artist”–as I mentioned, I think he underestimated his audience (or, he was simply afraid of making a film he couldn’t sell). I was surprised that “one of the most non-narrative books since the Bible” didn’t make a good movie because:
    a. Cronenberg is a master of using the creepy visual to tell his stories and
    b. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch is essentially a collection of creepy images, impressions, and weird situations.
    As far as movies that get it right (of course, to be fair, I can’t think of any with source material as nonlinear as Naked Lunch):
    I’ll try to narrow it down to a few so:
    I agree w/ Mike: Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing is spot on.
    Peter Brook’s adaptation of Lord of the Flies is superb.
    I also thought Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies got it right.
    Ditto Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly.
    There are any number of Shakespeare adaptations, and I’ve already posted on that so I’ll leave them out of this, with the exception of Prospero’s Books, a Peter Greenaway film loosely based on The Tempest. The film succeeds in translating the spirit and themes of Shakespeare’s work, while at the same time succeeding as Greenaway’s artistic vision as well. Really, you can’t ask for more in an adaptation.

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  5. I think you’re right about the fact that he might have to make a film he couldn’t sell. It’s like asking. someone to make a film based on The Palm Wine Drunkard.
    OK, so how about this: what books have you read and thought to yourself “this would make a great movie”?
    First thing that comes to mind is Yiddish Policeman’s Union
    And I hope you’re including Dave Roback in your top 50 guitarists.

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  6. The last book I read that I kept thinking “this would make such a great movie” was The Children’s Hospital. It really would make a great movie, like an epic type movie with CGI special effects and everything. People would love it too. I want to read YPU, but I haven’t even gotten around to Kavalier and Clay yet. Is Dave Roback the dude from Mazzy Star?

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  7. I have to say… I love Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch and didn’t much like Burrough’s book. Yeah – this is one instance where the movie reigns supreme.
    I’m into books – in a big way. Bukowski is my favourite writer and I’m well familiar with the Beats, but this book just didn’t do it for me.
    I admit, it went over my head and was incredibly hard to read.
    I just want to say that I believe the film is a cult classic with great actors and wonderfully perverse creatures that I can’t (and don’t want to) get out of my head.

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  8. Lynch’s adaptation of “Naked Lunch” reminds me of “Where The Buffalo Roams”; a bad amalgam of the author’s work and life. Perhaps Terry Gulliam should take a stab at it.

    Just a thought.

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