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Naked Lunch (1991) is a film adaptation of the novel of the same name by William S. Burroughs, directed by David Cronenberg. The film is a tri-national co-production by film companies of Canadamarker, the United Kingdommarker, and Japanmarker, featuring Peter Weller as William Lee (Burroughs), Ian Holm, Judy Davis, and Roy Scheider.

Plot summary

William Lee (Burroughs' pseudonym for his first novel, Junky) is an exterminator who finds that his wife is stealing his insecticide for recreational purposes. When Lee is arrested by the police, he believes himself hallucinating because of bug powder exposure. Lee believes himself a secret agent, and Lee's controller (a giant bug) assigns him the mission of killing his wife, Joan Lee, who is, according to the bug, an agent of an organization called Interzone Incorporated. Dismissing the bug and its instructions, Lee returns home to find his wife sleeping with Hank, one of his writer friends. He soon shoots her while performing a William Tell routine.

Having "accomplished" his "mission", Lee flees to Interzone, where the Interzone Incorporated organization is based, and spends his time writing reports on his mission, which become the book Naked Lunch. While in Interzone, the typewriters Lee uses are themselves living creatures, usually giving Lee advice on his mission. Clark Nova, one of Lee's typewriters, tells him to find Doctor Benway, by means of seducing Joan Frost who is a doppelgänger of his dead wife, Joan Lee.

After finding out that Doctor Benway is the head of a narcotic harvesting operation, producing a drug called "black meat", derived from the guts of giant centipedes. Lee completes his report and flees Interzone to Annexia with Joan Frost. Upon meeting the Annexian border patrol, to prove that he is a writer as he claims, he shoots Joan Frost in the head, in the same manner that he shot his late wife, Joan Lee. After seeing this, the border patrol welcomes Lee to Annexia.



The screenplay for Naked Lunch is based not only on Burroughs' novel, but also on other fiction by him, and autobiographical accounts of his life. It can be seen as a metatextual adaptation, in that it depicts the writing of the novel itself. Several characters are loosely based on people that Burroughs knew: Hank and Martin are based on Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg (who assisted Burroughs in compiling the original novel), and Tom and Joan Frost on Paul and Jane Bowles whom Burroughs befriended in Africa.

The shooting of Joan Lee is based on the 1951 death of Joan Vollmer, Burroughs’ common law wife. Burroughs shot and killed Vollmer in a drunken game of "William Tell" at a party in Mexico City. He would later flee to the United States. Burroughs was convicted in absentia of homicide and sentenced to two years, which were suspended. Burroughs later said that he “would have never become a writer but for Joan's death.”

The film takes great liberties with Burroughs' novel. The only elements, characters and places taken from the book are "The Talking Asshole" routine, Dr. Benway, William Lee, the Mugwumps, the fictional drug called "the black meat", Interzone and Annexia, all of them arranged and related to each other in a completely different fashion as they appear in the book.

Tom Frost's typewriter is a "Martinelli", apparently named after co-producer Gabriella Martinelli. When he lends the machine to Lee, Frost says of the typewriter, "Her inventiveness will surprise you."


The film's score is composed by Cronenberg's staple scorer, Howard Shore and features free-jazz virtuoso Ornette Coleman. The music of the Master Musicians of Jajouka is also featured throughout the film, making it one of the few American releases to feature their music (along with The Cell).


Naked Lunch was released on December 27, 1991 in a limited release of five theaters, grossing $64,491 on its opening weekend. It went on to make $2.6 million in North America.


Critical reaction to Naked Lunch was mixed. It currently holds a 67% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 30 reviews (20 positive, 10 negative). Metacritic also reported an average rating of 67 out of 100, based on 16 reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, "While I admired it in an abstract way, I felt repelled by the material on a visceral level. There is so much dryness, death and despair here, in a life spinning itself out with no joy". In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "for the most part this is a coolly riveting film and even a darkly entertaining one, at least for audiences with steel nerves, a predisposition toward Mr. Burroughs and a willingness to meet Mr. Cronenberg halfway", but did praise Peter Weller's performance: "The gaunt, unsmiling Mr. Weller looks exactly right and brings a perfect offhandedness to his disarming dialogue". Richard Corliss of Time gave a lukewarm review, calling the film "tame compared with its source". In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe criticized what he felt to be a "lack of conviction". Newsweek magazine's David Ansen wrote, "Obviously this is not everybody's cup of weird tea: you must have a taste for the esthetics of disgust. For those up to the dare, it's one clammily compelling movie". Entertainment Weekly gave the film a "B+" rating and Owen Gleiberman also praised Weller's performance: "Peter Weller, the poker-faced star of Robocop, greets all of the hallucinogenic weirdness with a doleful, matter-of-fact deadpan that grows more likable as the movie goes on. The actor's steely robostare has never been more compelling. By the end, he has turned Burroughs' stone-cold protagonist — a man with no feelings — into a mordantly touching hero". In his review for the Village Voice, J. Hoberman wrote, "Cronenberg has done a remarkable thing. He hasn't just created a mainstream Burroughs on something approximating Burroughs's terms, he's made a portrait of an American writer". Jonathan Rosenbaum in his review for the Chicago Reader wrote, "David Cronenberg’s highly transgressive and subjective film adaptation of Naked Lunch, which may well be the most troubling and ravishing head movie since Eraserhead. It is also fundamentally a film about writing—even the film about writing".

Burroughs scholar Timothy S. Murphy found the film to be a muddled adaptation that reflects Cronenberg's mind more than the novel: he feels that Burroughs' subversive, allegorically political depiction of drugs and homosexuality becomes merely aesthetic. Murphy argues that Burroughs' social and politically situated literary techniques become in the film merely the hallucination of a junkie, and that by using the life of Burroughs himself as a framing narrative, Cronenberg turns a fragmented, unromantic, bitterly critical and satirical novel into a conventional bildungsroman.

The film has been selected for a Criterion Collection release, an organization that releases high quality DVDs for important classic and contemporary films.


Genie Awards for Canadian Film: 1992
  • Best Motion Picture
  • Best Director - David Cronenberg
  • Best Supporting Actress - Monique Mercure
  • Best Art Direction - Carol Spier
  • Best Cinematography - Peter Suschitzky
  • Best Overall Sound - Peter Maxwell, Brian Day, Don White, David Appleby
  • Best Sound Editing

ALFS Award: 1993

NSFC Award: 1992
  • Best Director - David Cronenberg
  • Best Screenplay - David Cronenberg

NYFCC Award: 1991
    • Best Screenplay - David Cronenberg
  • Best Supporting Actress - Judy Davis

See also


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