Naked Lunch (film)

Naked Lunch

Theatrical release poster
Directed by David Cronenberg
Produced by Jeremy Thomas
Gabriella Martinelli
Screenplay by David Cronenberg and Bill Strait
Based on Naked Lunch
by William S. Burroughs
Music by Howard Shore
Ornette Coleman
Cinematography Peter Suschitzky
Edited by Ronald Sanders
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release dates
  • 27 December 1991 (1991-12-27) (United States)
  • 24 April 1992 (1992-04-24) (United Kingdom)
Running time
115 minutes[1]
Country Canada
United Kingdom
United States
Language English
Budget $17-18 million[2][3]
Box office $2.6 million[4]

Naked Lunch is a 1991 Canadian-British-American-Japanese science fiction drama film written and directed by David Cronenberg and starring Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, and Roy Scheider. It is a film adaptation of William S. Burroughs' 1959 novel of the same name. It was made as a co-production by film companies of Canada, the United Kingdom, and Japan.


William Lee is an exterminator who finds that his wife Joan is stealing his insecticide (pyrethrum) to use as a drug to get high. When Lee is arrested by the police, he begins hallucinating because of "bug powder" exposure. He believes he is a secret agent with two handlers in the forms of a talking insectoid typewriter and an alien "Mugwump". The bug assigns him the mission of killing Joan. She is allegedly an agent of an organization called Interzone Incorporated. Lee dismisses the bug and its instructions and kills it. He returns home to find Joan having sex with Hank, one of his writer friends. Shortly afterwards, he accidentally kills her while attempting to shoot a drinking glass off her head in imitation of William Tell.

Having inadvertently accomplished his mission, Lee flees to Interzone, a city somewhere in North Africa. He spends his time writing reports for his imaginary handler, and it is these documents which, at the insistence of his literary colleagues who later visit him, eventually become the titular book. Whilst Lee is under the influence of assorted mind-altering substances, his replacement typewriter, a Clark Nova, becomes a talking insect which tells him to find Dr. Benway by seducing Joan Frost, who curiously is a doppelgänger of his dead wife. After coming to the conclusion that Dr. Benway is, in fact, the secret mastermind of a narcotics operation for a drug called "black meat" which is supposedly 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, Lee produces a pen. As this is insufficient proof for passage he inexplicably offers a demonstration of his William Tell routine using a glass atop Joan Frost's head. He again misses badly and thus re-enacts the earlier killing of his wife. The border guard cheerfully bids him welcome to Annexia. Lee is shown shedding a tear at this bittersweet accomplishment.



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.

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 stated in the introduction to his book "Queer" that Joan's death was the starting point of his literary career, saying: "I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for Joan's death". [5]


The film score is composed by Cronenberg's staple composer, Howard Shore, and features free jazz musician Ornette Coleman. The music of the Master Musicians of Jajouka is also featured throughout the film. The use of Coleman's composition "Midnight Sunrise", recorded for his Dancing in Your Head album, is relevant, as author William S. Burroughs was present during the 1973 recording session.[6]


Box office

Naked Lunch was released on 27 December 1991 in a limited release of 5 theaters, grossing $64,491 on its opening weekend. It went on to make $2,641,357 in North America.[4]

Critical reception

Critical reaction was positive; it currently holds a 71% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 31 reviews.[7] Metacritic reported an average rating of 67 out of 100, based on 16 reviews.[8] 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".[9] 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 Weller's performance: "The gaunt, unsmiling Mr. Weller looks exactly right and brings a perfect offhandedness to his disarming dialogue".[10] Richard Corliss of Time gave a lukewarm review, calling the film "tame compared with its source".[11] In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe criticized what he felt to be a "lack of conviction".[12]

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".[13] 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".[14]

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".[15] 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".[16]

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.[17]

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


13th Genie Awards for Canadian Film
ALFS Award
Berlin Film Festival
NSFC Award

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."[19]

Bootsy Collins' 1993 funk metal album Lord of the Harvest contains samples from the film in the track "Exterminate".

In 1994, Bomb the Bass released the single "Bug Powder Dust" which opens with the quote "I think it's time to discuss your, uh, philosophy of drug use as it relates to artistic endeavour" and closes with the quote "I think it's time for you boys to share my last taste of the true black meat: the flesh of the giant aquatic Brazilian centipede." The song also includes various other quotes, items and themes from the film woven into the lyrics.[20] Additionally, the album as a whole, Clear is stylised to be reminiscent of the film's advertising material.

The extended EP of Psykosonik's song "Welcome to My Mind" features samples from the movie.

See also


  1. "NAKED LUNCH (18)". First Independent Films. British Board of Film Classification. 27 January 1992. Retrieved 31 August 2013.
  2. 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
  3. Melnyk, George. Great Canadian Film Directors. University of Alberta, 2007, p. 88. ISBN 0-88864-479-5
  4. 1 2 "Naked Lunch". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 16 July 2009.
  5. Schjeldahl, Peter. "The Outlaw: The extraordinary life of William S. Burroughs". The New Yorker. The New Yorker. Retrieved 24 May 2016.
  6. Ranaldo, Lee (2012). "Interview with William S. Burroughs". In Colin Fallows & Synne Genzmer (Eds.), Cut-ups, cut-ins, cut-outs, p. 48. Vienna: Kunsthalle Wien. ISBN 3869843152.
  7. Rotten Tomatoes. "Naked Lunch".
  8. Metacritic. "Naked Lunch". Retrieved 3 December 2007.
  9. Ebert, Roger (10 January 1992). "Naked Lunch". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 16 July 2009.
  10. Maslin, Janet (27 December 1991). "Drifting In and Out Of a Kafkaesque Reality". The New York Times. Retrieved 16 July 2009.
  11. Corliss, Richard (30 December 1991). "Santa Leaves a Six-Pack". Time. Retrieved 16 July 2009.
  12. Howe, Desson (10 January 1992). "Naked Lunch". Washington Post. Retrieved 16 July 2009.
  13. Ansen, David (13 January 1992). "A Man With A Bug Problem". Newsweek. Retrieved 16 July 2009.
  14. Gleiberman, Owen (17 January 1992). "Naked Lunch". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 16 July 2009.
  15. Hoberman, J (4 March 2008). "The Naked Truth". Village Voice. Retrieved 16 July 2009.
  16. Rosenbaum, Jonathan (17 January 1992). "Sex and Drugs and Death and Writing". Chicago Reader. Retrieved 25 November 2009.
  17. Murphy, Timothy S (1997). "Wising Up the Marks". University of California Press.
  18. "Berlinale: 1992 Programme". Retrieved 28 May 2011.
  19. "Bart on the Road episode capsule". The Simpsons Archive.
  20. "Bomb The Bass - Clear review". Retrieved 6 January 2012.
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