20
Mar
16

Movies > Books: Naked Lunch

William S. Burroughs was a writer and a drug addict. He was good at one and not so good at the other. Why don’t you take a guess as to which he excelled at?

The book Naked Lunch is the ramblings of a heroin junkie. There is no story. There are no themes. Hell, there aren’t even any characters. Not really. Sure, people get mentioned here and there, but they don’t have through-lines, and there certainly isn’t anything remotely resembling a plot in which the people can function.

People have lauded Naked Lunch as a literary masterpiece. I’m sorry, but, no, it’s a piece of shit. I’ve spoken with plenty of people high on shit. They all ramble like Burroughs. Perhaps not quite as uniquely, but there is commonality between them.

The only reason this book is even considered “literature” (and I use that term loosely) is because there’s nothing else like it. If literary critics got a chance to sit down and chat with some real junkies high on heroin or cocaine or whatever, they’d soon see that Burroughs is just another junkie, albeit one with a typewriter.

The book goes on and on, jumping around incoherently from scene to scene. The narrator gets chased by a cop, then suddenly he’s meeting with a Dr. Benway who’s talking about doing bizarre homosexuality experiments (which goes on for pages), and then he’s in someplace called Interzone, and he’s dreaming up some weirdo creatures called Mugwumps that have no livers and secrete jissom that gets people high, and the book gets totally whacked out, nigh incomprehensible until it just stops.

It isn’t literature. As Truman Capote said of Burroughs, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”

Clearly, Burroughs was high the entire time he was “writing” Naked Lunch. Whatever came to his delirious mind, he wrote down. And people praised him for it. Why don’t we just throw out all the world’s great literature and replace it with the ravings of junkies?

And believe it or not, there’s a movie version of Naked Lunch. People called the book unfilmable, and they were right. Fortunately, the movie is quite a bit different from the book. It does have a lot of the key ingredients such as Interzone, Dr. Benway, drugs (of course), and even Mugwumps, but it is able to combine everything into a delightfully bizarre and coherent narrative.

Burroughs’ alter-ego, William Lee, is played by Peter Weller. He goes on a crazed adventure from New York City to Interzone to Annexia. Weller is completely deadpan throughout the entire film. He barely even reacts to the insanity going on around him, like talking with giant, intelligent insects, seeing grotesque monsters, and accidentally shooting his wife in the head, twice. The deadpan performance is actually brilliant, because no one could believably react to all this craziness. His complete dissociation from the events allows the viewer to project their reactions onto him.

The movie drops hints along the way that things are not as they seem. Most likely, all the crazy things he sees (like a talking insect that is a typewriter and a secret agent – yes you read that correctly), are manifestations of his drug abuse. Weller has been shooting up bug powder (a stand-in for heroin), because he’s an exterminator and has easy access to it. The bug powder causes vivid hallucinations, which fuel his wild ride.

The storyline is pretty baffling, and that’s actually a good thing. It’s fun to watch it and try to unravel what is real and what is a hallucination. The key difference between the movie and the book is that the movie actually has a story that you can follow from beginning to middle to end. There is a purpose behind it. The book, on the other hand, is complete drivel.

Creature effects in the movie are fantastic. We have the aforementioned giant insects that transform into typewriters, a hugely grotesque monster played by Julian Sands, and, of course, the Mugwumps. All of the creatures are made with practical effects (rubber, puppetry, and juices – you’ll see what I mean if you watch it), and they are executed perfectly. They colorfully populate the world of Naked Lunch, and one of the insects is so important he becomes a central character.

Much of the events of the movie are apparently based on the real-life experiences of Burroughs, including the drug abuse and the accidental shooting of his wife. In a sense, the movie Naked Lunch is the greatest biopic of all time. It includes the key points of his life, and shows how Burroughs lived through them in a drug-induced fever-dream.

David Cronenberg expertly directed the film. It’s hard to believe that such a unique and wonderful movie could have come from such a shitty book.

Verdicts:

Book: Shitty

Movie: Awesome

Check out these other entries in the Movies > Books series:

True Grit

Casino Royale

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5 Responses to “Movies > Books: Naked Lunch”


  1. March 20, 2016 at 1:06 pm

    I tried watching parts of Naked Lunch when it was on TV, very weird stuff. I might go back and try to watch it from beginning to end some time. There’s some other Cronenberg films I’d like to watch too. Good Review.

    • March 21, 2016 at 11:29 am

      It’s definitely one to watch with your full attention, otherwise you will be completely lost. Cronenberg has done some good stuff, and some more mainstream films lately. This is probably my favorite film of his.

  2. 3 chee
    April 5, 2016 at 5:35 pm

    Whenever people bitch about a movie sucking due to being an unfaithful adaptation, I like to use this and The Shining as exhibit A as reasons why their argument is bad and why they should feel as bad as possible for making such a bad argument, and that they are terrible.


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