For decades after its publication, Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs was deemed "unfilmable" by movie studios. Yes, the book's episodic structure and overall theme would probably offend somebody in the audience. And filming the book as it was written would be a budget buster of no small means. But it could've been done!
However, more conservative and commercial minds felt all that was needed was the right spin. None of this stuff about the allure of drugs, the degrading agony of withdrawal, and how society ostracizes and punishes addicts and other "different" persons that don't tow the line. Instead, make any film based on Naked Lunch something everybody could relate to, while still retaining some of the author's original tone. Then in 1991, Canadian writer/director David Cronenberg (Scanners; Videodrome; the 1986 remake of The Fly; A History of Violence) unleashes to the public his Burroughs-sanctioned movie version.
As Cronenberg makes clear in the interviews and audio commentary on the sublime Criterion Collection's two-DVD set of Naked Lunch the movie, he had no interest in pursuing the social and political ramifications of the original novel. Cronenberg's main focus was on the art of writing, of what it's like to be creative, and the consequences (such as isolation and loneliness) that such talent carries. Subsequently, Cronenberg doesn't dwell on drugs ("bug powder" rather than heroin, is the movie's narcotic of choice) and Burroughs' homosexuality. There is gay content in the film, but it's underplayed and treated as more of a plot device than a defining/motivating characteristic.
The director, working from his own script (incorporating not only various themes, "routines" and characters from the original novel but also from Burroughs' other works and personal life), takes the audience along for a hallucinatory, almost nightmarish, journey into the mind and life of exterminator and ex-addict William Lee (Peter Weller), who, in 1953, imagines that agents of "Interzone Incorporated" (posing as typewriters!) are sending him out to perform an assignment involving his wife Joan (Judy Davis), the mysterious Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider), and a couple of expatriates (Davis in a dual role and Ian Holm) in Tangiers/"Interzone". Most of Burroughs' concepts from the book (the "talking you-know-what", "black meat"; the Mugwumps) from the novel appear (some in slightly different circumstances) along with situations from the author's own life.
Cronenberg touches on (as obliqely as possible) such things as the period Burroughs spent in Tangiers writing and having the couple played by Davis and Holm based on Burroughs' friends Paul and Jane Bowles. Then there's the characters "Hank" and "Martin", who try to help and support Lee, that are (painfully) obvious stand-ins for Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg; and of course, there's the infamous "William Tell Routine" that resulted in the death of Burroughs' wife, Joan. Burroughs himself was on record as noting that his wife's death "freed" him to pursue writing and that's the underlying message of the film. William Lee is liberated and can realize his artistic vision without any binding obligations (like a wife or family; incidentally, no mention is made of the tragic life of Burroughs' son William Junior) to hold him back. The whole film is about Lee's transformation from passive observer (his exterminator job is a dead-end) to active participant (via writing), through a bizarre odyssey of situations (trust me when I say that you will never look at sausage the same way again after the "black meat" segment) that will leave an unforgettable impact on him and the audience. Only the socio-political underpinnings of the novel -the real meat- have been deleted.
What remains is a nevertheless compelling paean to the lives and works of artists such as Burroughs. (Note the movie poster used as the cover for the DVD set; only a typewriter can protect you from the bugs.) In that respect, David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch succeeds. It's not bad -the acting, writing and directing are fine, Howard Shore's music score (with Ornette Coleman on sax!) evokes the time period well, the special effects are amazing!- but the film could've been so much more.
Criterion's two-disc set features a beautifully remastered version of the film, plus the aformentioned interviews (from a 1991 BBC TV program) and audio commentaries by Cronenberg and Weller (among other things, both discuss how the first Iraq war almost prevented production), plus audio of Burroughs himself reading excepts from the novel, a stills gallery, and an informative booket with essays by the likes of Janet Maslin and Gary Indiana, as well as Burroughs. You can reserve the set online here.