Naked Lunch on Film: Filming The Unfilmable
by David S. Wills
The novel does not obviously lend itself to adaptation for the screen: it has dozens of characters, few of whom are developed from their initial appearance; the action is set in cities all over the world; it is composed of many small, fragmentary, kaleidoscopic scenes; and there is no traditional story line. It is a novel with a great deal of talk, and the rule of film is that movies move, with minimal talk.
William S. Burroughs, speaking in 1991
With the publication of Naked Lunch there immediately came the cries of “obscene!” from so many conservatives and critics. Nevertheless, the book won its obscenity trial and was released to the general public in the United States, becoming a notorious classic – one of the most depraved and perverse books in modern history, and more importantly a ferocious assault on society and government.
It seemed unlikely, then, that Naked Lunch would one day become a feature film. Yet, not long after the obscenity trial that declared the book of enough social value to be unleashed upon the public, William S. Burroughs was plotting its way into cinema.
From the late sixties until the mid seventies Burroughs tried to turn his literary masterpiece into a commercially viable film. He enlisted the help of legendary British director and producer, Antony Balch, and fellow cut up master and friend, Brion Gysin.
The three men formed a production company in 1970, called Friendly Films Limited. They reviewed screenplays, treatments and ran through ideas together on how to make Naked Lunch work as a movie.
Of course, there were myriad problems. For one thing, it had been a major headache releasing the book because of laws regarding obscenity. It wouldn’t be easy to put together such a pornographic project without incurring the wrath of the censors, or, once again, the law.
Furthermore, Naked Lunch isn’t comprised of a traditional narrative that would adapt well to the screen. The story jumps around wildly through time and space, with characters rarely developing, if at all. Its fragmentary composition would surely baffle film-goers.
This all made the project increasingly unlikely, especially given the cost of making films. Whereas as book could be written with no more wasted than the time and effort of the author (and perhaps a few hundred sheets of paper) a movie cost at least a few hundred thousand dollars to make. And Naked Lunch would have been no ordinary movie: the constant shift from city to city to city would demand filming on location on several different continents.
It is hardly surprising, then, that many considered Naked Lunch “unfilmable”.
Documents still exist in the archive of Terry Wilson – a friend of Burroughs, Gysin and Balch – that let us see what the three men had in mind for filming the “unfilmable” project. Through letters, screenplays and storyboards it is possible to examine the vision they had in attempting to bring Naked Lunch to the screen.
To get around the disjointed narrative the story was to be reordered around certain key points – “intersection points” – that Burroughs dictated. This would have given the plot a little more coherence. Additionally, characters would develop more than in the novel, in line with what Burroughs’ later works suggested would happen – switching quickly through a variety of possible scenarios. For example, Dr. Benway, who appears in several of Burroughs’ novels, would have developed according to his activities outwith Naked Lunch.
Of course, Naked Lunch was never an entirely fictional book. Certain elements were highly autobiographical, and it was possible to elaborate upon the text by simply looking at reality. Gysin- who was the primary screenplay writer for the project – only had to look back at people and places he and Burroughs had encountered together in Tangiers, to find inspiration for additional material. As Gysin said, “Interzone, of course, was Burroughs’ very personal vision of the Tangier scene in the 1950’s, here reinterpreted by me to include the cast of characters whom we both knew there at that time.” The result was a strange mix of fiction and reality.
It was also a challenge finding someone to play the role of William Lee, who would most likely have taken a larger role in the movie than in the book (as in fact was the case in Cronenberg’s movie, twenty years later). Burroughs wrote a confusing, frantic note to Gysin on May 6th 1971:
You see Lee in a sense is an idealized image of the writer able to do all sorts of things the writer can’t do well so maybe start would be possible writer I mean actor who could do a predistiginal you dig. You want somebody to shoot find somebody knows how to shoot just like we find somebody who knows how to hang for the hanging scenes. Just a thought. CAN WE MAKE OUR OWN LEE FROM THE C SCRIPT? It seems to me that the first essential for Lee is PHYSICAL PRESENCE BEING THERE. Love, William.
To get around the shifting and switching of time and space, Gysin proposed something called “Transvestite Airlines” – a device used to transport characters from one time/location to another in an instant.
Perhaps the least surprising element intended for use was that of wild and creative cuts to slice through the randomness of the text. One can’t help but observe that readers of Naked Lunch decades after its first publication probably perceive the book differently in part because of the developments of cinema, which have imposed upon our minds a framework of possibility – allowing present day readers to imagine such cuts as we read, applying some of the rules of experimental cinema to the text of an experimental novel.
An example of the above techniques and ideas can be seen in the following excerpt of a synopsis, one of many versions of many possible plots:
Some say that A.J. is the real controller of the world. A.J. kept Dentway alive to use his genius, hidden in his secret fortress in the heart of Africa in Interzone. Lee travels on a very strange airline to Interzone, determined to find Dentway and get his secret. However, on arrival in this strange land he finds that no one has ever heard of A.J. or his fortress . . . no one that is, except for a small boy. The Shoe Shine boy tells Lee he knows the hideout and will take him there. On arrival at the fortress they are met by Salvador O’Leary Chapultapec, A.J.’s right hand man who was expecting them. Inside the fortress, Salvador shows Lee the hospital wing where the captured Dr. Benway, who has gone mad, is perfecting his newest and even more hideous technique for A.J. A secret meeting for heads of state and visitors from space will be held to demonstrate Dentway’s latest horror. The show is so frightening that Lee, helped by the Shoe Shine boy, sets fire to the fortress and escapes. Nick’s hand extinguishes the fire which is in the ashtray on the Everhard bar and hands Lee his junk. Lee leaves the bath at dawn and buys an old typewriter . . .
One of the more interesting things to note from this excerpt is the cut that keeps the story flowing in spite of the massive jump in time and space. They intended to move as smoothly as possible from an image of a fire in a jungle fortress into a gay bar ashtray.
In 1963 Burroughs, Gysin and Balch collaborated on the short film Towers Open Fire. Directed by Balch, the film featured Moroccan music performed by Gysin, and voice-overs by the unmistakable sardonic Burroughs.
Perhaps of most interest to us are the shots of Burroughs and Gysin performing their cut-up technique, by slicing up a piece of writing and then reading the disjointed results. We also see the “Dreammachine,” Gysin’s zoetropic device that is watched through closed eyes…
In 1966 Burroughs and Gysin worked together to create the short film, The Cut Ups. Whilst filmed before they began plotting a movie of Naked Lunch, The Cut Ups nonetheless came from their collaboration in the aftermath of the publication of Naked Lunch and thus may be able to tell us a little about what we could have expected from the doomed project.
In a word, The Cut Ups is weird. It is a highly experimental film, with a soundtrack of the words “Yes” “Hello” “Look at that picture. Does it seem to be persisting?” “Good” and “Thank you!” run together over a series of seemingly disconnected images that feels very much like an odd dream sequence.
The clips that accompany the unusual soundtrack are mostly of Gysin and Burroughs. When Gysin appears we see him wearing a sweater with a calligraphic design of his own creation, walking through the street. In another scene he is working on paintings. We also see his “Dreammachine.” These scenes often begin with a roller painting a grid.
Burroughs is usually seen looking for or hiding something or things. He is going through a large collection of objects.
All of this is cut together extremely fast, with some of the action sped up. An image is barely on screen for more than a second or two, but then we return moments later and see another brief glimpse of whatever seemingly random thing it was that we were being shown.
These films can both be seen on Towers Open Fire and Other Films by Antony Balch. They also collaborated on other projects, which can be viewed freely on www.ubu.com along with a great many other Beat resources.
In 1991 Naked Lunch was finally committed to film by the director David Cronenberg, and with Burroughs’ permission. Cronenberg acknowledged the book’s label of being “unfilmable”, saying that a straight forward adaptation would “cost 100 million dollars and be banned in every country in the world.” Indeed, that’s not hard to imagine.
Instead of filming the events and characters of the book, Cronenberg merged the book with the life of Burroughs, and even with some of his other works. It is metatextual in as much as the film depiction the creation of the book.
Interestingly, Cronenberg decided to blur the lines between reality and hallucination. What transpires the in novel and what actually happened to Burroughs in life are all viewed as a hazy drug-trip. One is never entirely sure what is going on.
Many well known friends and associates of Burroughs are depicted in the movie, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, as well as events that formed part of the Beat consciousness, such as the shooting of Joan Vollmer.
In fact, one could view the movie less as an adaptation of the book than as a biopic with elements of Naked Lunch thrown in to represent the perpetual junk haze in which Burroughs spent most of his life.
The movie featured some of the book’s most memorable moments, including the characters William Lee and Dr. Benway, as well as the Mugumps and the talking asshole, and the locations Interzone and Annexia. All of these were used very differently in the movie than in the book.
With the release of Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, Burroughs distanced himself somewhat from previous attempts to film the “unfilmable.” He said that “the late Brion Gysin and Antony Balch, set out to adapt it for film,” failing to mention his own input. Also, Gysin’s screenplay had been “long on burlesque . . . a series of music-hall comedy songs that he composed.” He appeared content with the result of a twenty year pursuit for a silver-screen version of his literary classic.
It should be noted, however, that Burroughs scholar Timothy S. Murphy made some very interesting points in criticising the movie. He argues that whereas Burroughs’ depiction of drug abuse and homosexuality were politically and socially charged, Cronenberg’s proved merely for show, a heartless portrait of something without any meaning. Moreover, the literary techniques Burroughs used for his devastating social and political critiques become merely the ramblings of a junky in the movie, rather than something to be respected and studied.
Indeed, fans and critics seemed generally sated by Cronenberg’s effort. Whilst many complained about a lack of faith to the original text, many realised that it had indeed been “unfilmable” in its true form. Cronenberg had certainly achieved something spectacular by coming this close.