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Film / Naked Lunch

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"Exterminate all rational thought."
Naked Lunch tagline

David Cronenberg released a 1991 film adaptation of Naked Lunch that used very little of the book's material, claiming a literal adaption would be not only impossible, but "banned in every country in the world".

Instead, he creates a heavily fictionalized biopic about William S. Burroughs, in which Burrough's long time avatar, William Lee (Peter Weller), is working as an exterminator and gets high off his bug powder. He later flees to Interzone after the now-legendary shooting of his wife, Joan Vollmer, where he becomes tangled in a world of surreal espionage, through contact with several giant bug-shaped, alien typewriters who talk out of their asses. You read that right. It's a really weird movie.


This film provide examples of:

  • Author Avatar: William Lee is the Avatar of William S. Burroughs. Throughout the movie he's actually writing Naked Lunch.
  • Bury Your Gays: Played straight in one example, averted in another:
    • The Camp Gay Kiki is eaten by a giant centipede Julian Sands.
    • The equally camp Allen Ginsberg stand-in makes it out alive.
  • invokedCreator Breakdown: Burroughs always said that he would never have become a writer if not for Joan's death. This is portrayed in the film... sort of.
  • Creepy Crossdresser: Benway. He doesn't really wear women's clothing so much as wear a woman.
  • Creepy Monotone: William S. Burroughs's legendary voice, imitated by more than one character in the movie (mostly the beetles and the Mugwump.)
  • Depraved Homosexual: Yves Cloquet is initially impressed by the young men William Lee manages to attract. Later, he arranges a sexual thryst with Kiki before Lee walks in on Cloquet having turned into a giant centipede and in the process of raping Kiki to death. One interpretation is that Lee is hallucinating this deranged scene because of internalized homophobia.
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  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: In the movie, the Mugwumps' semen is sort of a metaphor for Burroughs' own narcotics use. It gives him brilliant creative ideas, yes, but it's also destroying him.
  • Eccentric Exterminator: William Lee, making this Truth in Television in the case of William S. Burroughs. He is chronically addicted to the bug powder he uses in his line of work as a poor man's drug, and even gets his wife hooked on to the stuff.
  • The Film of the Book: Naked Lunch is un-adaptable, for a variety of reasons. (Chief among them; semi-obscene, no coherent plot.) Cronenberg's solution when doing the film adaptation was to graft a few scenes and ideas from the novels onto a Roman à Clef version of author William S. Burroughs' life.
  • Forging Scene: Played with, as it's done with a typewriter instead of a sword. Lee's writing machine is taken back a gunpoint by the guy he borrowed it from and his old one gets smashed to pieces. Kiki then takes him to a blacksmith who uses the old pieces to forge a new one.
  • G-Rated Drug: The drug-fueled, hallucination-laden madness that is Naked Lunch (the film, at least) revolves around Lee's addiction to... extermination powder? Granted, it was meant as an indirect adaptation of the original novel, in which heroin was the culprit.
  • Identical Stranger: These show up throughout the film with a lot of the actors portraying supposedly unrelated characters. Given the mindbending nature of the plot, it's hard to tell if they're actually the same people or not. For instance, Joan Lee (Bill's wife) and Joan Frost (Tom Frost's wife) are physically identical. The two NYC policemen near the start of the film reappear at the end as two Annexian border guards. The actor who voices the bugs (and sounds a lot like William S. Burroughs, for that matter) has a small role as an exterminator colleague whom Lee questions on the subway.
  • I Just Shot Marvin in the Face: Subverted. In the film, Clark Nova explains that Lee was 'programmed' to shoot his wife, Joan. Although this is based on a tragically straight Real Life example.

    Burroughs went on to write the book for The Black Rider, a stage musical (with songs by Tom goddamn Waits) whose plot also revolves around a man being supernaturally manipulated into shooting his own wife. In the opera on which it's based, Der Freischütz, the bullet is deflected by the wife's wedding wreath and there's a happy ending. In the Burroughs' version... not so much.
  • Interspecies Romance:
    • Cloquet transforms into a giant centipede during his thryst with Kiki. Cloquet looks human enough... at first.
    • Lee and Joan almost have a threesome with their insect-like typewriter before Fadela interrupts them.
  • Latex Perfection: Doctor Benway disguises himself as Fadela with a perfect bodysuit to remain incognito in Interzone.
  • Mad Doctor: Doctor Benway, a random general practitioner that Lee visited once in New York, turns out to be the Diabolical Mastermind behind an international drug ring operating out of Interzone. This incredulity is one of the many reasons why Lee might be insane.
  • Mind Screw: The film is a lot less disgusting than the book it's named after (it actually borrows from a large part of the works of William S. Burroughs), but only slightly less confusing.
  • Mockspiracy: There's a "conspiracy" involving fantastic monsters and talking typewriters that exists only in the drugged mind of the protagonist.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: William Lee becomes a writer, as is his creator Burroughs.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Lee is an obvious stand-in for Burroughs himself. The film also includes two characters who are pretty clearly Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.
  • Organic Technology: Bill's contacts in Interzone are giant bug-shaped typewriters that he writes his reports on.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: Cronenberg's adaptation of the unfilmable Naked Lunch took story elements from the book and melded them together with parts of William S. Burroughs' biography.
  • Ruritania: In the brief bit of it we see in the film, Annexia's border guards are wearing little fur hats and speak in Russian accents.
  • Straight Gay: William Lee.
    "I remembered the simpering female impersonators I'd seen in bars. Could it be that I was one of those sub-human things?"
  • Surreal Horror: What you get when you combine Burroughs with Cronenberg. Homosexual rape by giant centipede mutants, anyone?
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: It's strongly implied that Lee is fairly off his rocker. He hallucinates about giant insects compelling him to shoot his wife and traveling to Interzone, and the bizarre plot twists make no sense unless he's insane. Near the end it's implied that the events that he visualizes are simply things he's writing down on paper.
  • Title Drop: Naked Lunch turns out to be a novel Lee is writing throughout the film.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The film isn't as much based on the book, as it is based on Burroughs's own life with elements of the book incorporated. Then again, Burroughs very heavily drew on his experiences traveling abroad and that's the scary part.
  • What Do You Mean, It Wasn't Made on Drugs?: This is referenced in the movie, where Lee has no memory of writing his manuscript, and suspects that it may not have even been him. Reportedly, Burroughs himself had no memory of writing the book.
  • William Telling: William Lee is shown shooting a glass of whiskey off of Joan Lee's head in what they called their "William Tell act." That's... basically how it happened in real life. He does it again at the end, with similar results.

"Welcome to Annexia."


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