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Naked Lunch (film)

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Naked Lunch
A person wearing a hat and a suit, their face entirely obscure by a typerwriter
Theatrical release poster
Directed byDavid Cronenberg
Written byDavid Cronenberg
Based onNaked Lunch
by William S. Burroughs
Produced by
CinematographyPeter Suschitzky
Edited byRonald Sanders
Music by
Distributed by
Release dates
  • 27 December 1991 (1991-12-27) (United States)
  • 24 April 1992 (1992-04-24) (United Kingdom)
Running time
115 minutes[2]
  • Canada
  • United Kingdom
  • Japan[4]
Budget$16–18 million[5][6][7]
Box office$2.6 million[8]

Naked Lunch is a 1991 surrealist science fiction drama film written and directed by David Cronenberg and starring Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, and Roy Scheider. It is an adaptation of William S. Burroughs's 1959 novel of the same name, and an international co-production of Canada, Britain, and Japan.

The film was released on 27 December 1991 in the United States by 20th Century Fox, and 24 April 1992 in the United Kingdom by First Independent Films. It received positive reviews from critics, but was a box office flop, grossing only $2.6 million against a $17–18 million budget due to a limited release. It won numerous honours, including the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Director and seven Genie Awards, notably Best Motion Picture. Naked Lunch has since become a cult film, acclaimed for its surrealistic visual and thematic elements.


In 1953, exterminator William Lee finds that his wife Joan is stealing his supply of insecticide to use as a recreational drug. Lee is arrested by the police, and he begins hallucinating due to being exposed to the insecticide. Lee comes to believe that he is a secret agent, and his boss, a giant talking beetle, assigns him the mission of killing Joan, who is allegedly an agent of an organization called Interzone Incorporated. Lee dismisses the beetle's instructions and kills it. Lee 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 to emulate William Tell.

Having inadvertently accomplished his mission, Lee flees to Interzone, located in a city somewhere in North Africa. He spends his time writing reports concerning his mission; these documents, at the insistence of his visiting literary colleagues, are eventually compiled into the titular book. While Lee is addicted to 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, a doppelgänger of his dead wife. There is a row at gunpoint with Joan's husband Tom, after Lee steals his typewriter, which is then destroyed by the Clark Nova insect. Lee also encounters Yves Cloquet, who is apparently an attractive young gay Swiss gentleman. However, Lee later discovers that Yves is merely disguised as a human, and that his true form is a huge monstrous shapeshifting centipede.

After concluding that Dr. Benway is actually secretly masterminding a narcotics operation for a drug called "black meat" which is supposedly derived from the guts of giant Brazilian centipedes, Lee encounters Tom's housekeeper Fadela, previously observed to be an agent of the narcotics operation. Fadela reveals herself as Dr. Benway in disguise. After being recruited as a double agent for the black meat operation, 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. When this proves insufficient for passage, Lee, now having realized that accidentally murdering his wife has driven him to become a writer, demonstrates his William Tell routine using a glass atop Joan Frost's head. He again misses, and thus re-enacts the earlier killing of his wife. The border guards cheerfully bid him welcome to Annexia, and his new life as a writer. Lee is shown shedding a tear at this bittersweet accomplishment.




The film is based on the works of William S. Burroughs and his biography.

Filmmakers, including Stanley Kubrick and Antony Balch, using a script from Brion Gysin, attempted to adapt William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch into a film, but were unsuccessful.[9] In 1981, Cronenberg was interviewed by Omni during the release of Scanners in the United States and stated that he was interested in making a film based on Burroughs' novel.[10] Producer Jeremy Thomas met Cronenberg at the 1984 Toronto Festival of Festivals and discussed making a film adaption of the novel. Burroughs, Cronenberg, Thomas, James Grauerholz, and Hercules Bellville met in Tangiers in 1985.[11] Grauerholz showed Cronenberg's films to Burroughs and Cronenberg stated that Burroughs felt he was the only one who could properly make the film.[9]

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.[12] Cronenberg said it was necessary to "Throw the book away" as a direct adaptation would have been far too expensive and "would be banned in every country in the world."[5]

Burroughs was uninvolved with the writing of the film's script and granted his blessing to the first draft in December 1989. This version opened the film with a short story from Burroughs' Exterminator!.[13]

The shooting of Joan Lee is based on the 1951 death of Joan Vollmer, Burroughs' common-law wife.[12] 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".[14]

The film was initially backed by Japanese investors, but they withdrew and Thomas replaced them with financing from Telefilm Canada and the Ontario Film Development Corporation.[15]


Cronenberg intended the film to be shot in Tangiers, but the Gulf War prevented him from filming in North Africa[16] as they could not receive insurance.[15] Cronenberg massively rewrote the script a few days before filming due to being unable to shoot in Tangiers.[17] Cronenberg worked on the film while also starring in Nightbreed.[9] The film was shot on a budget of around US$17 million and shooting started on 21 January 1991 in Toronto.[15]

Chris Walas was hired to perform the special effects for the film. The film required fifty bug typewriters.[15]


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 led by Bachir Attar 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.[18]


Box office[edit]

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.[8]

Critical reception[edit]

On Rotten Tomatoes the film has a 70% rating based on 37 reviews, with an average rating of 7/10. The consensus reads, "Strange, maddening, and at times incomprehensible, Naked Lunch is nonetheless an engrossing experience."[19] On Metacritic, it has a weighted average score of 67 out of 100 based on reviews from 16 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[20]

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".[21] Janet Maslin of The New York Times 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".[22] Richard Corliss of Time gave a mixed review, calling it "way too colorful - cute, in a repulsive way, with its crawly special effects - and tame compared with its source."[23] In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe criticized what he felt to be a "lack of conviction".[24]

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".[25] 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".[26]

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".[27] 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".[28]

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.[29]

Naked Lunch received a Criterion Collection DVD release in 2003, the first film by Cronenberg to do so.[30]


At the 13th Genie Awards, Naked Lunch received 11 nominations and was perceived as being in an unusually tight competition with Jean-Claude Lauzon's Léolo.[31] The film also competed for the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.[32]

Award Date of ceremony Category Recipient(s) Result Ref.
Boston Society of Film Critics 26 December 1991 Best Screenplay David Cronenberg Won [33]
Genie Awards 22 November 1992 Best Motion Picture Gabriella Martinelli and Jeremy Thomas Won [34]
Best Direction David Cronenberg Won
Best Adapted Screenplay Won
Best Actor Peter Weller Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Monique Mercure Won
Best Art Direction Carol Spier Won
Best Cinematography Peter Suschitzky Won
Best Costume Design Denise Cronenberg Nominated
Best Score Howard Shore Nominated
Best Sound Peter Maxwell, Bryan Day, David Appleby and Don White Won
Best Sound Editing Richard Cadger, Wayne Griffin, David Evans, Jane Tattersall, Andy Malcolm and Tony Currie Won
National Society of Film Critics 5 January 1992 Best Film Naked Lunch 2nd Place [35]
Best Director David Cronenberg Won
Best Screenplay Won
Best Supporting Actress Judy Davis 3rd Place
Best Cinematography Peter Suschitzky 2nd Place
New York Film Critics Circle 12 January 1992 Best Screenplay David Cronenberg Won [36]
Best Supporting Actress Judy Davis Won


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.[37]

In a 1996 episode of The Simpsons, "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 title and R rating, is Naked Lunch.[38] When they silently exit the theatre, Nelson looks up to the marquee and says, "I can think of at least two things wrong with that title."[39]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Naked Lunch". Library and Archives Canada. 12 May 2015. Retrieved 28 September 2021.
  2. ^ a b "NAKED LUNCH (18)". First Independent Films. British Board of Film Classification. 27 January 1992. Retrieved 31 August 2013.
  3. ^ "Naked Lunch (1991)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 12 December 2021.
  4. ^ Boyd, Susan C. (2009). Hooked: Drug War Films in Britain, Canada, and the U.S. University of Toronto Press. p. 210. ISBN 978-1442610170.
  5. ^ a b Regina Weinreich (17 January 1992). "Naked Lunch: Behind the scenes". Entertainment Weekly. His adaptation came in at about $16 million, under budget and a modest sum for a film with lots of special effects.
  6. ^ 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
  7. ^ Melnyk, George (2007). Great Canadian Film Directors. University of Alberta. p. 88. ISBN 978-0-88864-479-4.
  8. ^ a b "Naked Lunch". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 16 July 2009.
  9. ^ a b c Rodley 1997, p. 161.
  10. ^ Rodley 1997, p. 157.
  11. ^ Rodley 1997, p. 159.
  12. ^ a b Seymour, Gene (5 January 1992). "MOVIES : Out to Lunch With the Guru of Gross-Out : David Cronenberg says the only way he could be faithful to William S. Burroughs' celebrated 'Naked Lunch' on film was to betray it". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 10 April 2017. Retrieved 9 April 2017.
  13. ^ Rodley 1997, p. 163.
  14. ^ Schjeldahl, Peter (26 January 2014). "The Outlaw: The extraordinary life of William S. Burroughs". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2 April 2022.
  15. ^ a b c d Rodley 1997, p. 166.
  16. ^ Rodley 1997, p. xxii.
  17. ^ Rodley 1997, p. 168.
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ "Naked Lunch". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved 2 April 2022.
  20. ^ "Naked Lunch". Metacritic. Retrieved 1 April 2022.
  21. ^ Ebert, Roger (10 January 1992). "Naked Lunch". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 1 April 2022.
  22. ^ Maslin, Janet (27 December 1991). "Drifting in and Out of a Kafkaesque Reality". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 18 November 2010. Retrieved 1 April 2022.
  23. ^ Corliss, Richard (30 December 1991). "Santa Leaves a Six-Pack". Time. Archived from the original on 22 November 2007. Retrieved 1 April 2022.
  24. ^ Howe, Desson (10 January 1992). "Naked Lunch". The Washington Post. Retrieved 16 July 2009.
  25. ^ Ansen, David (13 January 1992). "A Man with a Bug Problem". Newsweek. Retrieved 16 July 2020.
  26. ^ Gleiberman, Owen (17 January 1992). "Naked Lunch". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 1 April 2022.
  27. ^ Hoberman, J (4 March 2008). "The Naked Truth". The Village Voice. Retrieved 16 July 2009.
  28. ^ Rosenbaum, Jonathan (17 January 1992). "Sex and Drugs and Death and Writing". Chicago Reader. Retrieved 25 November 2009.
  29. ^ Murphy, Timothy S (1997). "Wising Up the Marks". University of California Press.
  30. ^ Mathijs 2008, p. 174.
  31. ^ Ayscough, Suzan (14 October 1992). "'Lunch,' 'Leolo' to battle for top '92 Genie honors". Variety. Retrieved 25 August 2016.
  32. ^ "Berlinale: 1992 Programme". berlinale.de. Retrieved 28 May 2011.
  33. ^ "Past Award Winners". Boston Society of Film Critics. Archived from the original on 8 October 2014. Retrieved 9 April 2017.
  34. ^ Murray, Karen (22 November 1992). "'Lunch' eats up 8 Canadian Genies". Variety. Retrieved 26 August 2016.
  35. ^ Fox, David J. (6 January 1992). "'Sweet' Takes Honors From Film Critics". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 9 April 2017.
  36. ^ Maslin, Janet (18 December 1991). "Film Critics Honor 'Silence of Lambs'". The New York Times. Retrieved 9 April 2017.
  37. ^ "Bomb The Bass - Clear review". Retrieved 6 January 2012.
  38. ^ Martyn, Warren; Wood, Adrian. "Bart on the Road". BBC. Archived from the original on 11 April 2004. Retrieved 6 March 2008.
  39. ^ "Bart on the Road episode capsule". The Simpsons Archive.

Works cited[edit]

External links[edit]