Naked Lunch (film)

Naked Lunch (film)
Naked Lunch

Theatrical release poster
Directed by David Cronenberg
Produced by Jeremy Thomas
Gabriella Martinelli
Screenplay by David Cronenberg
Based on Naked Lunch by
William S. Burroughs
Starring Peter Weller
Judy Davis
Ian Holm
Music by Howard Shore
Cinematography Peter Suschitzky
Editing by Ronald Sanders
Studio Recorded Picture Company
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release date(s) December 27, 1991 (1991-12-27) (US limited)
April 24, 1992 (1992-04-24) (UK)
Running time 115 minutes
Country Canada
United Kingdom
Language English
Budget $17-18 million[1][2]
Box office $2,641,357

Naked Lunch is the 1991 Canadian/British/Japanese film adaptation, directed by David Cronenberg, of William S. Burroughs' novel of the same name. Featuring Peter Weller, Ian Holm, Judy Davis, and Roy Scheider, the film is a co-production by film companies of Canada, the United Kingdom, and Japan.



William Lee (Peter Weller) is an exterminator who finds that his wife Joan is stealing his insecticide for recreational purposes. When Lee is arrested by the police, he believes he is hallucinating because of bug powder exposure. He believes he is a secret agent whose controller (a giant bug) assigns him the mission of killing his wife Joan (Judy Davis), who is an agent of an organization called Interzone Incorporated. Dismissing the bug and its instructions, Lee returns home to find Joan sleeping with Hank (Nicholas Campbell), one of his writer friends. Shortly afterwards, he shoots her while performing a William Tell routine.

Having inadvertently accomplished his "mission," Lee flees to Interzone, where Interzone Incorporated is based, and spends his time writing reports on his mission, which become the titular book. 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 Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider), by seducing Joan Frost (Davis), who is a doppelgänger of his dead wife.

After finding out that Dr. 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. Stopped by the Annexian border patrol, and instructed to prove that he is a writer as he claims, he shoots Joan Frost in the head, re-enacting the murder of his wife. This proves he's a writer, since it's a recurrence of the inciting incident that started his writing, and he's allowed to enter 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 Tangier, Morocco.[citation needed]

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 expressed Joan's death as the starting point of his literary career, saying: “I am forced to the appaling conclusion that I 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 from the way 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.


Box office

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.[3]

Critical reception

Critical reaction to Naked Lunch was mixed. It currently holds a 68% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 31 reviews (21 positive, 10 negative).[4] Metacritic also reported an average rating of 67 out of 100, based on 16 reviews.[5] 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".[6] 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".[7] Richard Corliss of Time gave a lukewarm review, calling the film "tame compared with its source".[8] In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe criticized what he felt to be a "lack of conviction".[9]

Newsweek'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".[10] Entertainment Weekly gave the film a "B+" rating with Owen Gleiberman praising 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".[11] 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".[12] Jonathan Rosenbaum in his review for the Chicago Reader wrote, "David Cronenberg’s highly transgressive and subjective film adaptation of Naked Lunch ... 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".[13]

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.[14]

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
ALFS Award
Berlin Film Festival
NSFC Award
  • Best Director - David Cronenberg
  • Best Screenplay - David Cronenberg
  • Best Screenplay - David Cronenberg
  • Best Supporting Actress - Judy Davis

Cultural references

In The Simpsons episode "Bart on the Road", Bart, Nelson, and Milhouse use Bart's fake driver's license to get into the theatre to see an adult film. The film they choose, based on its rating, is Naked Lunch. When they exit, Nelson looks up to the marquee and says, "I can think of at least two things wrong with that title."[16]


  1. ^ Naked Lunch - Special Edition Double Disc DVD, Disc Two: The Supplements, "Naked Making Lunch" (1991), interview with David Cronenberg, 2003, ISBN 1-55940-947-9
  2. ^ Melnyk, George. Great Canadian Film Directors. University of Alberta, 2007, p. 88. ISBN 0888644795
  3. ^ "Naked Lunch". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2009-07-16. 
  4. ^ Rotten Tomatoes. "Naked Lunch". 
  5. ^ Metacritic. "Naked Lunch". Retrieved 2007-12-03. 
  6. ^ Ebert, Roger (January 10, 1992). "Naked Lunch". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2009-07-16. 
  7. ^ Maslin, Janet (December 27, 1991). "Drifting In and Out Of a Kafkaesque Reality". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-07-16. 
  8. ^ Corliss, Richard (December 30, 1991). "Santa Leaves a Six-Pack". Time.,9171,974559-4,00.html. Retrieved 2009-07-16. 
  9. ^ Howe, Desson (January 10, 1992). "Naked Lunch". Washington Post. Retrieved 2009-07-16. 
  10. ^ Ansen, David (January 13, 1992). "A Man With A Bug Problem". Newsweek. Retrieved 2009-07-16. 
  11. ^ Gleiberman, Owen (January 17, 1992). "Naked Lunch". Entertainment Weekly.,,309191,00.html. Retrieved 2009-07-16. 
  12. ^ Hoberman, J (March 4, 2008). "The Naked Truth". Village Voice. Retrieved 2009-07-16. 
  13. ^ Rosenbaum, Jonathan (January 17, 1992). "Sex and Drugs and Death and Writing". Chicago Reader. Retrieved 2009-11-25. 
  14. ^ Murphy, Timothy S (1997). "Wising Up the Marks". University of California Press. 
  15. ^ "Berlinale: 1992 Programme". Retrieved 2011-05-28. 
  16. ^ "Bart on the Road" episode capsule at The Simpsons Archive

External links

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