Pairing a piece of fiction and its film adaptation, analyse and compare their handling of character psychology; and/or plot; and/or narration.
William S. Burroughs’ 1959 work Naked Lunch evades a chronological narrative and employs the “cut-up method” to fragment psychological states. Burroughs’s radical treatment of character and narrative contributes to an abstracted reality which lends to the work’s satirical underpinnings. Narrative bricolage articulates the textual themes of psychological disunity and repression which are explored by Cronenberg in his adaptation. Writing in a letter to Irvin Rosenthal in 1960, Burroughs wrote “THIS IS NOT A NOVEL. And should not appear like one […] the book should flow from beginning to end without spatial interruption.” This demonstrates an aversion to narrative convention, as well as underscoring Burroughs’ fluid treatment of time and space. Burroughs’ non-linear narrative complicates the practise of cinematic adaptation, undertaken by David Cronenberg in 1991. Writing on the process of adaptation, Boris Eikhenbaum states, “to translate a literary work into the language of film means to find in film language analogues for the stylistic principles of that literary work.” In an interview following the release of the film, Cronenberg confessed that “It is impossible to make a movie out of Naked Lunch. A literal translation just wouldn’t work.”. Cronenberg’s translation to the “language of film” draws on the text’s “analogues” of narrative vignettes and the thematic attention to psychological disunity and repression. Ultimately this adaptation necessitates an application of plot to the written work to effectively make this transition. Whilst this may not be an exact reproduction, Cronenberg fulfils what J. Dudley Andrews cites as the “the task of adaptation”, being “the reproduction in cinema of something essential about an original text”.
Character psychology within Burroughs’ Naked Lunch is explored through an unstable narrative which demonstrates psychological disunity. The stylistic use of repeated words and images alludes to the paranoid state of the protagonist, William Lee. Burroughs further explores psychological disunity through the narrative execution of editorial parentheses which intersect the stream-of-consciousness narrative, such as in the opening passage. This indicates a retrospective revision, perhaps from an altered state of perception. This creates a sense of narrative disunity, where the editorial parentheses relay a stern, declarative tone which offsets the fluid ramblings of Lee. Ultimately, these narrative effects underpin the psychological instability of the text’s protagonist. The use of heavy repetition and the ‘cut-up’ method, disrupts the reader’s ability to rationalise the text’s meaning, producing an effect similar to the disorientation of narcotics.
These repeated phrases therefore hold symbolic weighting and reveals paranoid preoccupations. Repetition of ‘vultures’ across “vultures pecking through the mud streets”,” vultures over the swamp and Cyprus stumps” “vultures; little wheeling specks” spans three consecutive pages and elucidates Bill’s feelings of entrapment and enclosing enemies. A paranoid narrative style pervades the discourse of medicine, as Burroughs writes “the finance company is repossessing your wife’s artificial kidney… they are evicting your grandmother from her iron lung”. This satirical hyperbole emphasises the collective loss of empathy which late capitalism can be held accountable for. As Robin Lyndenberg writes, “[the text] disrupts structures of binary opposition and hierarchy; exposes the “parasitic economy” of discourse; “extend and dissolves” the boundaries of the body and uses the concrete metonymy of the “bodily functions of digestion and procreation” to dissolve metaphoric abstractions”.
Narrative repetition visualises the protagonists’ attempts to conceal sexual desire, which conversely erupts through obsessive repetition. ‘Baboons’ are repeated throughout the text as we read, “purple-assed baboons”,“baboonsasshole”, “my baboon assistant” and “baboons always attack the weakest party”. This operates as a crude metaphor for sexual over-indulgence and sodomy. This thematic focus on the anus and/or red bottoms is perhaps indicative of Freud’s concept of ‘anally-expulsive’ behaviour. This is defined by Freud as a character who is “generally messy, disorganized, reckless, careless, and defiant”. An anal-expulsive individual draws pleasure from disarray and anal-expulsions. Lyndenberg also argues that “the aesthetic mode pursues the “pleasures of the text” and in this way, we can deduce that the text’s protagonist gains pleasure from the radical unpacking of the narrative form. References to “The Man” allude to paranoia, oppression and distrust as we read, “The Man is never on time” “there is The Man on a cane seat throwing bread to the swans” “waiting on The Man”. This differentiates between the common, lower-case man as well as communicating a sense of systematic oppression, surveillance and entrapment as ‘The Man’ is synonymous with authoritative forces. Conversely, whilst one can consider these repeated phrases or images to hold symbolic value, Robin Lyndenberg argues that the narrative disruption and heavy repetition triggers the eruption of textual materiality, “reducing language to isolated phrases and signifiers”. Furthermore, when asked whether the passages of repetition in the text were intentional, “Burroughs replied they were all by mistake, caused by the rush to get the text to Girodias”. Nevertheless, the stylistic narrative devices still stands as it recreates the disturbed psychology of an individual on narcotic drugs.
Burroughs parallels the disintegrating body and psychology of the addict with the thriving state of late capitalism which benefits from exploitation. As the addict and their psychological state deteriorates, so do perceptions of reality along with conventional form, chronology and narration. This underscores the absurdity of modernity and Burroughs further satirises the farce of Western democracy and tradition through “the President is required by custom to crawl across the garbage on his stomach”. Whilst the text is presented as a series of vignettes with equal narrative weighting, the order of the text as it was conceived was crucially important for Burroughs, writing “the form can not be altered without loss of life”. This illustrates the extended metaphor of the text’s form as holding “life”, mirroring the body of the addict. The opening sequence ‘and start west’ foregrounds the abject consequences of addiction and plunges the reader into a community of users, all victims of their settings. The contextual scares of the 1950s lose their significance in the face of junk, as Burroughs writes “but what does she care for the atom bomb, the bedbugs, the cancer rent, Friendly Finance waiting to repossess her delinquent flesh”. One must not take Burroughs’ writing literally, and the satirical tone of Burroughs’ style alludes to his distrust of aggressive capitalism which conditions “the presiding powers of our world- the media conglomerates, the vast political and commercial bureaucracies, and profit-driven medical science”.
Cronenberg draws on the literary “cut-up” method through his cinematic style of piecing together fragments of the book and meshing them with biographical aspects of Burroughs’s own life. In this way, one can consider that both author and director have a similar creative process through their use of bricolage. Tom Graham writes on Cronenberg’s adaptation and he claims that, “rather than attempting to adapt the book in a literal sense, Cronenberg treats Burroughs’ schizoid prose as a secondary source. He gave it structure”. Whilst Cronenberg engages with Burroughs’s narrative fragmentation, the film relies on structure not found in the text. Cronenberg’s engagement with the cut-up method is not exclusive to Burroughs’s text, and Cronenberg refers to widely known figures of the cinematic canon through stylising Bill Lee with a striking resemblance to Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep (1946). Bill’s hat, tie and trench coat are coordinated through a colour palate of muted browns. This draws on the organic colour palate of the novel’s tapestry, drawing on blues, greens, and primarily the colour grey. The visual echo of Bogart alludes to a righteous, hyper-masculine protagonist as well as one who “gets the girl”. Conversely, the champion of Naked Lunch is an anti-hero who is addicted to narcotics and delusional sexual fantasies.
Cronenberg foregrounds the text’s themes of psychological repression and homosexuality, warning of the dangers of the creative process which may liberate the ‘true’ self and their organic desires. A liberated creative process is signposted in the opening credits of the film which replicating the novel’s editorial interludes. with the inclusion of a free jazz soundtrack, composed by Ornette Coleman, and the visual abstraction of colours and shapes, rotating and intersecting. It is interesting to consider Freud’s writing on his psychological notion of repression here. In his book The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud writes, “We shrink back [from the primeval wishes of our childhood] with the whole force of the repression by which those wishes have since that time held down within us”. Looking to the opening scene of Cronenberg’s film at the exchange between Bill, Hank and Martin; Martin suggests “Why don’t you try your hand at writing pornography?”. To this, Bill responds “I gave up writing when I was ten”. This conversation illustrates Bill’s learned control of repressed desires in his adult life which is moderated by his unwillingness to engage with creative processes. Bill’s response to whether rewriting is an act of censorship is simply “Exterminate all rational thought, that is the conclusion I have come to”. Cronenberg’s Bill at this early stage in the film is therefore psychologically repressed as a character.
Once Bill enters Interzone he is encouraged to write and can reconnect with his repressed homosexual impulses. The metaphor of the creative process as purging unconscious desires is also visualised through the animated typewriter which encourages Bill to consciously embrace his homosexuality as a ‘cover’, as he advises; “Homosexuality is the best all around cover an agent ever had […] These are words to live by Bill”. In Burroughs’s text there is an overt discussion of homosexuality within society in the exchange “”A functioning police state needs no police. Homosexuality does not occur to anyone as conceivable behaviour.””. This metaphor alludes to the power of heteronormativity which does not require people to enforce it due to it being conditioned as the normative sexuality. The character of Yves Cloquet introduced by Cronenberg into the text’s narrative is visually depicted as Bill’s antithesis. Cloquet is softly spoken with an English accent, dressed in a white suit, a white shirt and a white tie with an angelic face, juxtaposing Bill’s bleakly coloured hat and hung head. “I’ve seen you around but I’d no idea you were Queer” positively frames Bill’s homosexuality within the context of their breakfast table discussion. Lee’s articulation of his Queerness is hyperbolically pessimistic (“Queer. A curse, it’s been in our family for generations […] I shall never forget the unspeakable horror that froze the lymph in my glands when the baneful words seared my reeling brain- I was a homosexual.”) Due to Cronenberg’s directorial tradition of body horror films, the metaphor of repressed sexuality is crudely and brutally executed. This culminates in the scene where we see a man mutilated by a large insect whilst simultaneously having sex with it, blurring the distinctions of pleasure and pain. This physical torture illustrates the psychological torture of repressed homosexual desires. Bill finally acknowledges his true self as a writer where he announces “I write reports. I’m a writer, I tend to write reports on life”. When the officials ask for confirmation of this, Cronenberg recreates a scene from Burroughs’s own life in which he allegedly accidentally shot his wife whilst enacting a ‘William Tell’ act. Burroughs has been often cited as saying that this incident was the “genesis of his becoming a writer” and so we may consider that the film charts Bill’s own journey in liberating his true self and becoming a writer. Cronenberg’s use of narrative bricolage here contributes towards the film’s resolution and illustrates a character arc which is not present within the original text.
Cronenberg’s film draws on the text’s narrative confusion and themes of deception and distrust of authority through opening the film with a quote by Hassan I Sabbah. This reads; “Nothing is true; everything is permitted”. The inclusion of this quote by the Nizari missionary highlights theological and spiritual ideas, as well as casting doubt on perceptions of reality and governance. Furthermore, the second quote used in the film’s introduction is taken from Burroughs’s text and emphasises notions of deception and concealed identities. This quote reads, “Hustlers of the world, there is one Mark you cannot beat: The Mark inside…”. The ‘Mark’ is typically the victim of a con job and thus, Burroughs’s notion of the “the Mark inside” would be the act of lying to oneself. Deception and illusion are explored through discussions of conscious and unconscious actions and telekinesis in the film. The film’s climax is centred around the deceptive presentation of the character of Doctor Benway, who reveals himself to have been disguised as the female servant Fadela in 1:40:30. This name is aurally and etymologically similar to the Latin ‘fidelis’, meaning truthful and loyal, which is ironic given the use of this character as a disguise. Benway’s dramatic removal of Fadela’s prosthetic exterior in this scene is sexually charged and Benway primarily exposes his artificial breasts to Bill before tearing the costume apart. This is ironic given Bill’s lack of sexual attraction to female bodies and Bill actively substitues the female body for male bodies whilst indulging in sexual fantasies. The pervading deception of Cronenberg’s film indulges in fulfilling the protagonist’s most paranoid fears. This is further explored through his casting of the police officers as the border control officers; bracketing the film’s distrust of authority figures. We are reminded once more of the opening quote “Nothing is as it seems, everything is permitted.”
Therefore, Burroughs and Cronenberg share a similar approach to their creative processes. As Tom Graham writes, “They share a flair for the grotesque met with perfect nonchalance and bone-dry wit.” Cronenberg rejects Burroughs’s pornographic leanings and favours the disquieting exercise of body horror to communicate Bill’s repressed desires, rather than revelling in the pleasures of sex. For Burroughs, there is a pervading anxiety of language and expression of meaning which cannot ever incorporate the psychological essence of existence or a lived narrative. This is encapsulated as he writes, “You were not there for the beginning. You will not be there for the end. Your knowledge of what is going on can only be superficial and relative”. Burroughs strives for a narrative which incorporates the fragmented psychology of an individual under the influence of narcotic drugs and repressed thoughts which textually erupts through the repetition of Freudian slips. Both text and film share a united creative vision in their representations of psychological disunity, repression and abstracted realities, manifesting through literary and cinematic employment of the cut-up method. Whilst Cronenberg’s adaptation has structural and narrative alterations, these alterations are what Eikhenbaum names ‘stylistic principles’ which facilitate the text’s filmic translation and creates a character arc in Cronenberg’s Bill which is necessitated by the filmic medium.
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Bleu, Christopher. “The Novel Enfleshed: "Naked Lunch" and the Literature of Materiality”, Twentieth Century Literature, Vol 57, No. 2 (Summer 2011) pp.119-223
Burroughs, William S. Naked Lunch: The Restored Text (London: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005)
Cronenberg, David (director). Naked Lunch, Universal Pictures (1991) DVD
Eikhenbaum Boris. in Kamila Elliott, Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003)
Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams, (London: Courier Dover, 2015)
Ginelle, Leela. “Great Artist Kills His Wife: Not it’s Just a Quirky Footnote in his History”, Bitch Media, 27 Mar 2014. [accessed: 12/02/18]
Lydenberg, Robin. “Word Cultures: Radical Theory and Practise in William S. Burroughs’ Fiction”, American Literature, Vol. 60, No. 3 (October 1988) pp.498-500
Pulver,. Andrew “Interzone Revisited: David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991)” The Guardian, 31 July 2004. [accessed: 03/02/18]
Schwartz, David. “A Pinewood Dialogue with David Cronenberg”, History of the Moving Image. January 11 and 12, 1992 [accessed: 02/02/18]
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Hawks. Howard (director). The Big Sleep. Warner Bros, 1946. DVD.
 William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch: The Restored Text (London: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005) p.236
 Boris Eikhenbaum in, Kamila Elliott, Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003) p.184
 Burroughs, p.236
 J. Dudley Andrew, Concepts in Film Theory (Oxford: Oxford UP 1984) p.100
 Burroughs, p.12
 Burroughs, p.13
 Burroughs, p.14
 Burroughs, p.154
 Robin Lyndenberg, “Word Cultures: Radical Theory and Practise in William S. Burroughs’ Film”, American Literature, Vol. 60, No.3 (October 1988) p.205
 Burroughs, p.37
 Ibid., p.34
 Ibid., p.27
 Ibid., p.26
 Sigmund Freud, in Theories of Counselling and Psychotherapy: An Integrative Approach, Elsie Smith-Jones. (London: Sage, 20p.324
 Lyndenberg, p.205
 Burroughs, p.26
 Ibid., p.35
 Lyndenberg, p.204
 Burroughs, p.245
 Ibid., p.153
 Ibid., p.341
 Ibid., p.120
 J.G. Ballard, “Introduction”, Naked Lunch: The Restored Text (London: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005)
 “In praise of Naked Lunch- the weirdest studio film ever made” Little White Lies, Tom Graham, 15 June 2016 [accessed: 28/01/18]
 David Cronenberg, Naked Lunch, Universal Pictures (1991) (01:12:34)
 Cronenberg, (00:05:15)
 Burroughs, p.31
 David Cronenberg, Naked Lunch, Universal Pictures (1991) 46:02
 Cronenberg, (00:46:40)
 Ibid., (01:30:35)
 Ibid., (01:44:40)
 Leela Ginelle, “Great Artist Kills His Wife: Not it’s Just a Quirky Footnote in his History”, Bitch Media, 27 Mar 2014. [accessed: 12/02/18]
 Cronenberg, (00:02:09)
 Ibid., (00:02:15)
 Ibid., (00:43:30)
 Tom Graham, “In praise of Naked Lunch- the weirdest studio film ever made” Little White Lies, 15 June 2016 [accessed: 28/01/18]
 Burroughs, p.168