1. Archive


Published Oct. 10, 2005

By Kristine Kelly

Countryside High School


Naked Lunch is definitely not Wayne's World.

For more than 30 years, the book version Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs has been regarded, especially by its younger readers, as a classic of the American underground literary scene. The film version by David Cronenberg, unfortunately, lacks a great deal of the novel's spirit. To me, it came across as simply too grim and tedious to be on the level of brilliance of Burroughs' work.

But it can still be one piercing cinematic experience. You just have to concentrate and be truly interested to appreciate it, whether you're a teen or an adult.

Naked Lunch offers a dry, dark study of William Lee (Peter Weller), a frustrated writer working as a bug exterminator, whose wife Joan (Judy Davis) shoots up such excessive amounts of his bug poison that when she breathes on a roach, it dies instantly.

"It's a literary high, a Kafka high," she tells Lee. "It makes you feel like a bug." Lee, in turn, becomes addicted to yellow poison and from here on, much of the story becomes illustrated by his revolting hallucinations.

In one of those, a mammoth beetle orders Lee to kill his wife. He goes home to his New York City apartment, where a game of William Tell ensues. Joan places a glass atop her head and Lee shoots and misses the glass, utterly detached. And so begins the bizarre, disturbing journey through hell via Lee's subconscious.

What makes this even more affecting is the fact that this is not fictional. William S. Burroughs actually was a junkie who killed his wife and fled to Tangiers to escape and write about it.

In the movie, Lee flees to Interzone, where he convinces himself bugs have employed him as a spy. His typewriter transforms itself into a beetle and Lee begins to write what it dictates to him. Here, excerpts from the novel are introduced, and this is where I realized that there really is just no comparison.

Burroughs writes with such striking brilliance that no screen adaptation in the world could match it. Cronenberg's comes close, but remains too distant and disciplined to convey accurately the novel's aspects: absolute spinning madness, riveting adventures, reasoning gone wild.

Just understand that this is a cold story full of cynicism and drug addiction, but also a story of triumph. Lee overcomes his painful burdens to become a writer; audiences can overcome some of the movie's obstacles to understand Naked Lunch's value.