Directed by David Cronenberg. Starring Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands, Monique Mercure, Roy Scheider. (1992, R, 115 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Jan. 24, 1992
Usually I hate when a reviewer compares a new movie with the source material from which it's taken. But comparisons are unavoidable when faced with the film version of William Burroughs' Naked Lunch – one of the most notorious, most provocative, most upsetting, and most influential books of this (or any other) century. For years, it's held a reputation as one of the great unfilmable projects never to be hatched. Enter Cronenberg, director of The Brood, Videodrome, The Fly, and Dead Ringers, a filmmaker whose fascination with science fiction, insects and visceral horror made him the candidate “most likely to succeed” at the project of filming the great unfilmable. What he came up with is part Burroughs, part Cronenberg and part mutant. Cronenberg's adaptation is not slavishly literal toward the letter of the book, but neither does it betray the spirit. Yet what he creates is something else. The movie uses Burroughs' alter ego William Lee as the protagonist in this narrative which moves from point A to point B with more plotted goals than does the book. The movie also integrates aspects of Burroughs' own life into the text of the story (most specifically Burroughs' accidental shooting of his wife, which is added here as a plot propulsion, Burroughs' relationships with writers Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Paul Bowles, and Jane Bowles). The movie has little of the jagged cross-cut continuity of the book, though it replicates the hallucinatory, drugged-out feel. But the most obvious divergence between the book and the movie is in the movie's accessibility. Yes, the movie is creepy and obsessive and strange, but not nearly as menacing and repulsive and disturbing as the book. The movie allows more paths of entry – we see Lee in the movie's opening shot literally working as an exterminator, it gives us a heterosexual love story hook not present in the novel, there are also fewer insect images per cubic inch and less emphasis on the totalitarian control aspects. Heroin addiction is transposed into the safer fiction of “bug powder” junkiedom and the homosexual thematics are virtually erased. Visually, it also gives the viewer clear-cut signals before and after slipping into its hallucinations. The soundtrack features music performed by Ornette Coleman and his Trio. All this may not be typically Burroughs but, certainly, a literal screen adaptation of Naked Lunch would be commercially unviewable. Above all, Naked Lunch is a writer's movie. Its most successful images involve talking typewriters that speak through the same puckered sphincters that suck up the writer's fingers. Hard to describe, but no one who works with keyboards is quite the same after seeing this movie. This is Davis' second role this past year in movies about the process of writing (the other was Barton Fink). She's astonishing in both. And Weller's Burroughs/Lee captures his role model with eerie precision. Ultimately, Naked Lunch is more about the act of writing, while the original is concerned with the phenomenon of addiction. Each does what it does well … but differently.