Too Extreme . . . Until Now : The 1959 novel ‘Naked Lunch'--labeled ‘literary sewage’ by a Supreme Court justice--has a champion in David Cronenberg


Ten years ago, David Cronenberg considered filming William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” and dismissed the prospect ruefully. “It frustrated me to realize how impossible that would be because of the restrictions on what is accepted on the screen. When you think of what’s in ‘Naked Lunch,’ how extraordinarily extreme it is . . . you’d be put in jail!” Still, he admitted then, “Some part of me would love to make that movie.”

Of course, part of him already had. Cronenberg’s first feature film, “They Came From Within,” featured venereal parasites that gained access to their victims through their genitals, as did Burroughs’ lecherous candiru, “small eel-like fish . . . long patronizing certain rivers of ill repute.”

The morphogenetically neutral skin graft that transforms Marilyn Chambers’ left armpit into a phallic syringe in Cronenberg’s second film, “Rabid,” has precedents in Burroughs’ “undifferentiated tissue . . . sex organs sprout anywhere.”

What, if not Burroughs’ Senders, were Cronenberg’s Scanners? By “a derangement of the synapses we call telepathy,” claimed their creator, psychopharmacologist Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) in “Scanners,” Scanners could annex the nervous systems of others, regulating their bodily functions, bending their wills. “The weapons capabilities of these telepathic curiosities,” he crowed, “is obvious.”


In “Naked Lunch,” Burroughs described Senders as gaining “control of physical movements, mental processes, emotional responses and apparent sensory impressions by means of bioelectrical signals injected into the nervous system of the subject. . . . The biocontrol apparatus is (the) prototype of one-way telepathic control.” “One Sender,” Burroughs wrote, “could control the planet . . . (although) control can never be a means . . . to anything but more control.”

Feeling today that sexual, if not political and religious, sensitivities have all but disappeared, Cronenberg is finally filming his adaptation of “Naked Lunch.” Due out early next year from Twentieth Century Fox--"Naked Lunch” is being shot in Toronto, where the director lives and where he has shot most of his films, including the 1986 remake of “The Fly” and the elegant and perplexing “Dead Ringers” (1988).

He conceded the similarities between his work and Burroughs'--their mutual fascination with all things biomedical, their delectation with the maniacal pandemonium that erupts behind pristine facades, their acknowledgement of the seductive power of a dangerous idea and their shared belief that the relentless search for self-awareness comes at the risk of self-destruction.

Cronenberg insisted, “I wasn’t thinking of Burroughs at all when I wrote those (earlier movies), not at all. But it’s certainly there, he’s certainly been an influence on my filmmaking. The more unconscious it’s been, the more profound, I would imagine.”


Burroughs’ work is notoriously difficult stuff, and “Naked Lunch,” his now-revered 1959 “novel,” partakes of science fiction, detective yarn, merciless political satire, autobiography and hetero- and homosexual pornography. Banned in Boston in the early 1960s, “Naked Lunch” was the first literary work to successfully test the standards of obscenity enunciated by the Supreme Court in the case of “Tropic of Cancer” in 1964, though it was excoriated by a dissenting justice as “a revolting miasma of unrelieved perversion . . . literary sewage.”

The narrative, to the degree that there is one, is disjointed and the language perplexing. The subject matter--heroin addiction, which the once-addicted Burroughs designates in a preface “public health problem number one"--makes the book, in the author’s own words, “brutal, obscene and disgusting.”

Behind owlish spectacles that make him appear more the literary scholar than filmmaker, David Cronenberg has clearly gained an encyclopedic knowledge of the life and literary oeuvre of William S. Burroughs. A single scene provides a case in point.

The location is a red brick warehouse west of town, built sometime near the end of the last century. Normally used as a garage for snowplows, there are no plows standing idle today. Vehicles from the late 1940s and early ‘50s--a Chevy that wails “Blue Moon"--line the alleyway outside. Extras in parkas huddle close by waiting for Cronenberg and Peter Suschitzky, his director of photography on “Dead Ringers” as well as “Naked Lunch,” to compose a crane shot that will establish them as exterminators queuing for the day’s supply of roach-killing pyrethrum.

Inside, the warehouse has been dressed as A.J. Cohen’s dispatching office, laboratory and chemical dispensary. This must be the dark age before OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration): Vats and coils for the distillation of poisons, pump-action spray guns, mousetraps that could snap a man’s hand in two, mortars, pestles and balances define the scene. Toxics lie in open cardboard drums that the production designer has meticulously labeled Warfarin Rat and Mouse Killer, Sure Death and Hi-Grade Fly Spray, each with the printed logo of A.J. Cohen, Exterminators. That was William Burroughs’ actual Chicago employer when he made his living calling door to door--"Exterminator! You got any bugs, lady?"--for eight months during World War II.

It is this episode that accounts for the most sustained sequence Cronenberg has taken directly from Burroughs’ writing. To this he has added the “dream cops” sketch from “Interzone,” a collection of Burroughs sketches and short stories from the mid-'50s, giving them the cops’ names, Hauser and O’Brien, of a pair of narcotics detectives from “Naked Lunch.” The final line of “Naked Lunch,” a brush-off attributed to Chinese pushers unwilling to supply Western junkies--"No glot . . . C’lom Fliday"--is spoken in the scene in the movie by “the fat, smiling Chinese” Burroughs recalls in his short story, “Exterminator!,” as the one “who rationed out the pyrethrum powder . . . and cautioned us to use fluoride whenever possible.”

In Cronenberg’s complicated adaptation, William Lee (Burroughs’ alter ego in a number of his works) becomes addicted to pyrethrum, the first of the dangerous substances that bring him into conflict with the law.

It is evident from this mixture that Cronenberg has something other than a literal transcription of the novel in mind.


“Those who are absolute Burroughs freaks will take some delight in noticing lines that come directly from Burroughs, as in the opening sequence, which is very much drawn from ‘Exterminator.’ Others will be looking for the things that are not Burroughsian, that are mine, and there are quite a lot of those as well. It’s a nice fusion of the two of us, I think.”

Peter Weller plays William Lee, and indeed, insists on being addressed as “Bill” or “Bill Lee” on the set. He claims to be a Burroughsian of several decades’ standing, and confirms that “David’s script is not the book verbatim. It’s his vision of the book, of William Lee a.k.a. Burroughs and how he comes to write ‘Naked Lunch’ and what are the forces troubling him and what was the impetus to write the book. The spirit of the thing or the madness of it, the beauty of it and a lot of the sadness of Burroughs’ life are also in this thing.”

“I’m not trying to do ‘Naked Lunch’ literally,” Cronenberg says. “I’m doing something else. I’m writing about writing, so in a way I’m writing about the process of writing ‘Naked Lunch.’ ” But even that is motivated by something Burroughs says in the book: “There is only one thing a writer can write about: what is in front of his senses at the moment of writing. . . . I am a recording instrument . . . I am not an entertainer.”

Cronenberg continues: “I’m trying to discuss the writing of a work and how it encompasses your life and how it becomes your life without being really literally biographical of Burroughs. The characters are fictional. Bill Lee does have a wife, Joan, in this script, so the immediate assumption will be she’s supposed to be Joan Burroughs. But then I say, ‘Well, not really.’ ”

Half a dozen characters in the film are writers, but Cronenberg contends that “the film draws no power from an identification of characters as actual historical figures.” Others on the set, including one veteran of several Cronenberg productions, were more forth coming about two characters: “Hank (Nicholas Campbell) and Martin (Michael Zelniker) are Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, but you didn’t hear it from me.”

“The word analogy is about as close as I would want to come,” Cronenberg says. “I’m not trying to re-create Joan Burroughs on the screen, but by analogy if Bill Lee is Burroughs--which he is not exactly; he doesn’t live the same life as Burroughs--then everything falls into place, and this one is that one, and this one is that one.

“The other thing about ‘Naked Lunch’ is that a lot of it has already been assimilated into North American culture. ‘Saturday Night Live,’ for example, was very Burroughsian, all its drug and sex humor that was quite outrageous for its time. One of the problems I thought that I would have, one of the things that kept me from wanting to do a literal translation of the book, was that it might seem like slightly pushed-to-the-edge ‘Saturday Night Live’ routines. National Lampoon: a lot of the dangerous aspects of that kind of humor comes from Burroughs and is now part of the American consciousness whether Americans are aware of it or not. Burroughs is alive whether they’ve read the bloody book or not.”

Are Americans reading the book? According to James Grauerholz, Burroughs’ longtime personal assistant and manager, they are certainly buying it. Since publishing the book in America in 1962, Grove Press has never let it go out of print. By the early 1970s, sales were averaging 20,000 to 30,000 copies a year. A recent printing of 12,500 copies brought the number of copies in print to 760,000.


Cronenberg suspects, however, that the book, like so many classics, may be more revered than read and recounts the circumstances of an event in Toronto in 1990. As a benefit for authors who find themselves political prisoners worldwide, PEN International had invited writers, including Margaret Atwood and Mordecai Richler as well as Cronenberg, to read from the works of those who had influenced them.

“There were six or seven hundred people in the audience,” Cronenberg recalls, “and when I said, ‘I’m going to read from “Naked Lunch,” ’ there were a few laughs because they thought, ‘This will be hot.’

“I read a section called ‘The Black Meat,’ which has no words in it whatsoever but is incredibly powerful and incantatory.

“When I’d finished, there was not a sound, and it certainly was not because of my reading. It was because of the words. Afterwards several writers said to me, ‘We’d forgotten about Burroughs. We’d forgotten how potent he is and how profound.’ That was very pleasing to me because everybody remembers the scatological stuff, but the writing is so fine.”

“Burroughs’ language,” says Weller, clearly awed, “is a combination of, like, street and jazz and otherworld and underworld and hipsters, slipsters, combined with this great, great intelligence and observation. You read that book, and it just flies.”

Cronenberg’s characters are often consumed by what they desire most. It’s a principle taken from the poet William Blake’s famous admonition that “the road to excess leads to the palace of Wisdom.” Cronenberg has identified this adage as the touchstone of horror. Accordingly, he has been at pains to establish that drug addiction and Burroughs’ accidental murder of his wife in 1951 were milestones along the road to his composition of his best-known work.

Far away in Tangier, from 1954-58, often working in a haze of drugs and remorse, Burroughs was not nevertheless thoroughly removed from the world and its day-to-day concerns. Topical events of the day shine through the ribald and fantastic images, none more clearly than the rising protest of homosexuals against the firing of homosexuals from the State Department. Not surprisingly, “Naked Lunch” has acquired the reverential aura of a prescient milestone on the path to gay liberation, and Cronenberg has been put on notice by The Advocate that tampering with that aspect of the book will not be kindly regarded.

“Burroughs loves the script,” Cronenberg responds. “I mean, that really helped. And I did talk to him about it. I said, ‘Look, I’m not gay. I don’t know what the sexuality of the film is going to be. It might be more heterosexual than you’re going to approve.’ ”

Burroughs appears unperturbed by this. “I think that (the explicitly gay material in the book) very definitely should not be included,” he said while visiting the location recently. “In the first place Cronenberg doesn’t want an X rating, and it’s not necessary at all in terms of his script, which is an entity in itself. It just doesn’t enter in. You don’t have to put sex in if it doesn’t fit the script. There’s a lot of sexual reference in there, but it doesn’t have to be explicit.”

“It’s interesting to notice,” Cronenberg adds, “that Burroughs in his letters (of the late 1950s) to Allen Ginsberg actually said--and it seems phenomenal to think of it--he thinks he has cured his homosexuality by writing ‘Naked Lunch,’ which means that even at that time . . . even these guys, the hippest of the hip, were still capable of thinking of themselves as sick guys who could be cured by some act of art or will or drugs of homosexuality.

“I’m anticipating being criticized for not having gayness be what it is in ‘Naked Lunch,’ although I think there are traces of that. But I’m also saying in a way I’m being truer to the human element as it existed in Burroughs and his friends at that time. I’m happy with the way it’s worked into the script. It’s complex, and it touches a lot of nerves and a lot of bases.”

As Burroughs himself, reflecting on the inevitable need to condense and omit material in adapting a book to the screen, points out: “It’s a very complex novel. You could have 10 or 15 films, completely different, made from the book. You could take one chapter and make a film out of it. David had to make a choice,” Burroughs continues, “and I think his choice was very good: to work in the areas he had been working in, like in ‘Scanners’ the exploding heads and in ‘The Fly’ these insect mutations . . . and the mugwumps are fantastic.”

Mugwumps? “Yes, yes,” Cronenberg reports, “we have mugwumps in the movie. A mugwump is something in ‘Naked Lunch,’ a kind of a humanish sort of lizard-like thing that drinks honey from a goblet and has acolytes who are addicted to its bodily fluids. It’s generally not very nice, a rather sinister creature and might in some sense represent your worst spirit, the worst side of you. If you are a writer, let’s say, maybe you’re separating that from yourself and putting it into your literature, but then it comes alive, and it might visit you one day.”

A frightening prospect, but one, like the notion that the act of creation entails danger, that unites Burroughs and Cronenberg and might indeed have attracted Cronenberg to Burroughs, not just to the filming of ‘Naked Lunch,’ but to the inclusion of so much that is, in Cronenberg’s word, Burroughsian.

A visitor to the set of “Naked Lunch” had better be a Burroughsian. The challenge keeps coming up. “Are you a Burroughsian?” “You’ve read the book. Right?”

Weller himself goes nowhere without a well-thumbed paperback, not the hardbound first edition autographed for him by Burroughs in a tete-a-tete a year ago. When he’s not performing, he’s listening to tapes of Burroughs reading or reading to himself or to others. “Listen to this,” he says, and quotes yet another passage.

Weller is best known for his performances as “RoboCop.” It was on the set of “RoboCop 2" that the actor learned of the project.

“I’m sitting on the set in half of my RoboCop outfit in the RoboChair. Mark Irwin, the director of photography, was standing next to me. I knew he’d worked with Cronenberg a couple of times. I was a huge fan of Cronenberg’s--even a bigger fan now that I’ve worked with him--and I said, ‘What’s your friend Cronenberg up to?’ He said, ‘He’s doing a movie of this American novel, ‘Naked Lunch.’

“I leaped as best I could out of the RoboChair, carrying about 30 pounds of stuff, and Irwin says, ‘What’s the deal?’

“I said, ‘I need his address!’

“He gives me his home address; I write him this letter. First of all, before I suck up to the job, I tell him honestly that the book is one of my favorite works of literature ever and has been hugely influential. I don’t know if he’s cast William Lee, but if he hasn’t, would he consider me? This is September, 1989. I don’t hear anything.

“In May I get a call at my home on the machine: ‘This is David Cronenberg. Call me back.’

“I call him up. He said, ‘I didn’t have a script when you wrote. Now we’ve got a script. If you’re serious, I’ll mail you one.’

“I said, ‘Serious, man? Yeah, I’m serious.’

“Sometimes,” Weller philosophizes, “all you have to do is make requests in the world, and things happen.

“ ‘Naked Lunch’ is a book that I read in the ‘60s. I was a soul searcher. The book was great.”

Weller and Cronenberg had “many, many conversations about it, one long meeting and many long conservations, like two- or three-hour phone calls, six or seven of those. Meanwhile, I was getting hit on to do some other things, a lot of other things, including ‘RoboCop 3' and a lot of other stuff. There were a lot of irons in the fire to direct and, you know, just a lot of money. . . .

“Then one night at a restaurant I get this mad phone call, and David says, ‘Look, I know the deal’s not done yet, but we’re shifting the start date from November to January. We don’t want to lose you. We don’t know if we have you. What are you going to do?’

“Well, it wasn’t even a choice because I felt truly that God had rung my bell here. Look, (since) I’d been a fan of the novel since 1967. . . . So I said, ‘It doesn’t matter when you start the movie. I’m in.’ ”