Rewind film: Naked Lunch, directed by David Cronenberg (1991)
Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm
Director: David Cronenberg
Cinematic history is filled with black marks where incredible egos thought they could improve on a literary opus for the silver screen. Still, there exists a small class of filmmakers who realise that the correct adaptation means measure for measure, not page by page.
Examples include Stanley Kubrick's epics, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and, of course, the films of David Cronenberg. The Canadian has essayed the works of cult writers such as J.G. Ballard, Don DeLillo, Philip K. Dick and John Wagner, but it is his big-screen version of William S. Burroughs' surreal novel Naked Lunch that has cemented his reputation as a director who truly understands the adaptation process.
Burroughs' novel, published in 1959, was penned in such a stupor of narcotics he didn't even remember writing most of it. It's incredibly epic, an over-the-top tale that follows junkie William Lee as he travels around the world - but with asides into homosexuality, drug culture, psychotherapy and even the cold war, a faithful adaptation would have been impossible.
Yet Cronenberg convinced a studio to finance his version. His Naked Lunch is a collaboration between the two creatives, liberally lifting choice cuts from the novel alongside scenes from Burroughs' own life story, including the "William Tell" incident that left his wife dead and inspired the author's descent into drug madness. And through that inspired but divisive approach, Cronenberg captures the essence of the book.
By "exterminating all rational thought", the book channels the self-imposed terrors that appear after a creative outpour; the inner conflicts, emotional turmoil and self-destructive behaviour. Rather than transplanting all of that, Cronenberg threw in his two cents.
It's a free-wheeling attitude and often improvised, melding the director's trademark body-horror tricks with the Beat writer's bizarre blend of hallucinations and reality. Naked Lunch becomes an imaginary behind-the-scenes comic exercise in the madness of film adaptation - long before Charlie Kaufman made that brand of cinema fashionable.
None of it should work, but to an audience with the right mindset, it often does, made all the better with re-readings of the book, followed by repeat viewings.
The film, like the book itself, is a piece of art forever at odds with itself, and all the better because of it.
Whether it's the ideal adaptation is debatable, but where it succeeds is in creating a strange middle ground, where the book, the movie, the author and the director all meet, and shines a new light on the concept of "unfilmable".