9. THE NAKED LUNCH
(1991, Written and Directed by David Cronenberg, based on the novel by William S. Burroughs)
The Naked Lunch was the archetypal “unadaptable” novel: a book so dense, so purely literary, that for decades after its publication it was thought impossible to film. Finally, it was David Cronenberg, the film-maker who cut up the human body just as Burroughs had cut up human language, who adapted and filmed it, incorporating elements of Burroughs’ own remarkable life to create a hybrid of novel and biopic that, like the book itself, may not always make sense but is never less than compelling.
A contemporary review of the film by the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum said, “It is…fundamentally a film about writing – even the film about writing.” Cronenberg certainly seemed more interested in documenting the extraordinary story of the novel’s composition than in faithfully adapting the novel itself. His Naked Lunch is a writer’s nightmare brought to life: the young, drunken Burroughs accidentally shoots his wife dead when he tries to re-enact the William Tell story; he experiences drug-induced hallucinations, including a talking typewriter (it is fascinating to think of a 21st century film-maker creating a talking laptop or tablet and employing all the devices available on such a computer, including Twitter, Skype and voice recognition); and he is played by a stunningly deadpan (if that is not a contradiction in terms) Peter Weller, who is almost more robotic in this film than he was in Paul Verhoeven’s original Robocop.
The film of The Naked Lunch may not be an entirely successful adaptation of its source novel, but it is undoubtedly an incredible film about writing and writers, showing how the whole process of trying to create a book or play (or even a screenplay) can turn a mind in on itself, to the point that the interior mental world that is created becomes more real than the exterior world that the writer is fleeing from.