Hollywood has always had a relationship with novels and novelists that is spotty at best. Sometimes the results are a travesty, and other times the work becomes a wonderfully realized adaptation – there are probably hundreds of examples of books being translated into films that have gone on to great success, either through critical acclaim (just how many Academy Award-winners can trace their origins to a novel or short story?), or by raking in billions of dollars and becoming the envy (or bane) of studio bean-counters.
While Hollywood loves a good story that comes with a built-in audience, there are still those works like 'Naked Lunch' that earned the author great adulation and praise, and maybe went on to sell untold millions of copies, or wound up as "required" reading amongst burgeoning thinkers, writers, and poets, or even became a feature within a certain niche or portion of the counterculture but never progressed into a life beyond the printed page, never existed outside the varied imaginations of those rapt with the lyrical beauty of the prose.
Occasionally, this can just be chalked up to the fact that Hollywood couldn't see the work attracting a large enough audience to justify the untold millions of dollars it would take to see said film come to fruition. Other times, it's simply because the work in question has been dubbed unfilmable, or the content too unlike what Hollywood normally puts out to rationalize the effort of making such an adaptation. Most recently, Ang Lee's Academy Award-winning adaptation of Yann Martel's 'Life of Pi' comes to mind with this notion of unfilmable books being brought to life, but there are countless others such as Bret Easton Ellis' 'American Psycho,' Vladamir Nabokov's 'Lolita' (which has been made twice, by the way) and Hunter S. Thompson's 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,' just to name a few.
The best in these cases, however, are something more; not mere adaptations, but a clear inspiration from one artist to the next that in turn creates an entirely new work, destined to be scrutinized and picked over by fans and critics alike for decades to come. One of the best examples of something different, strange and fascinating begetting another work that's just as distinctive, off-putting and yet enticing is David Cronenberg's freewheeling adaptation of William S. Burrough's surreal 1959 novel 'Naked Lunch.'
The novel's claim to fame was undoubtedly the colorful, sometimes nightmarish fever-dream prose of the author, but the genius of Cronenberg's work with the film is that it manages to integrate not only Burroughs' prose, but also aspects of Burroughs life into the dense, seemingly incomprehensible narrative. In that sense of impenetrability, the novel and the film are nearly identical, but Cronenberg's meta-textual maneuvering at once makes 'Naked Lunch' a fantastic peek into the mind of its author, and a head-spinning discourse on the tribulations of trying to put thoughts into words and words onto paper.
But even though Burroughs does a sort of inadvertent double-duty here (that is: he's the subject and the originator of this work), it would be a mistake not to see 'Naked Lunch' as a kind of stunning creative success for Cronenberg. Why else would we still be discussing the film more than two decades since it first perplexed audiences by putting Peter Weller behind a pair of glasses and a typewriter so soon after they'd come to appreciate him as the man behind the metallic visor and the stiff movements more commonly associated with Disneyland animatronics, in ''Robocop'?
With its familiar faces aplenty – a pre-Bilbo, but post-'Brazil' Ian Holm; Judy Davis in a twisted Mobius strip of a dual role; and the 'Warlock' himself, Julian Sands, haunting the fringes of Interzone with his skeletal frame serving as the perfect accompaniment for Yves Cloquet's overly-taxidermied household companions – 'Naked Lunch' takes one massive drug-fueled leap into the abyss and never looks back. In that sense, perhaps Cronenberg's vision is most like – or most understanding of – Burroughs'.
The plunge the film makes early on hints at the depths of Burroughs' struggles with his own creative endeavors, and, in a way his inability to fit in. But at the same time, it's a perfect analogy for Cronenberg's work as well. The transformation of Bill Lee's typewriter into a giant bug, replete with a chatty back-sphincter, and gooey glimpses of addictive discharge squirted into a ceramic mug point toward the director's well-known fixation with body horror, while changing a tale of paranoia and writer's woe into something fans of 'The Fly,' 'Scanners' and 'Videodrome' know all too well.
Interzone is a place between two worlds; it's the bridge connecting the everyday mundane where novels as American as football sell like hotcakes, to the place that breathes life into the discordant style of a man who puts on an unfortunate "William Tell" act with his wife. It's a place that filmmakers like David Cronenberg sometimes take their audience to tell a sordid, frequently repulsive tale that takes as much guts to recount as it does talent. In the case of 'Naked Lunch,' Cronenberg had plenty of both on display.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Naked Lunch' comes as a single 50GB Blu-ray disc in the now-standard clear Criterion keepcase, with the spine reading No. 220. Aside from the wonderful cover art, the disc also includes a fantastic 40-page booklet that reprints pieces from film critic Janet Maslin, critic and novelist Gary Indiana, filmmaker and writer Chris Rodley and a piece by Burroughs himself.
Criterion's 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer for this release of 'Naked Lunch' is certainly impressive. This is by far the most notable iteration the film has seen since it was released in theaters, and even then it's hard to imagine an image as sharp and pristine as the one presented on this release.
Aside from the incredible amount of depth, detail, and the incredibly warm, lifelike hues that the image presents throughout, there is a shocking amount of clarity and richness in the transfer that is at first underscored by the grainy, ragged looking 20th Century Fox logo, which precedes the movie. But once the picture gets going, it is impressive through its entirety. For a film that's over 20 years old, the director-approved transfer has made 'Naked Lunch' look as though it was shot yesterday. There are still some telltale signs of its age lingering in some areas of the film, but overall, this is a remarkable transfer.
Facial detail is present in nearly every shot, regardless of whether the camera is planted at the tip of the actor's nose, or if they're just sitting around, taking up space in the background. Textures are present virtually everywhere as well, making the period-specific clothing worn by Weller, Holm and Sands look particularly convincing and, in some cases, well-worn. Perhaps most impressive is the unforgiving detail of the horrific creations – the bugs, both large and small – that occasionally litter the screen. Their soft, latex skin shines with a patina of slime or Interzone filth that really helps sell their presence in a way that even the most expensive CGI still seems unable to manage.
Overall, the reduction of film grain, the enhancement of the detail and the wonderfully handled rich and vibrant colors make the image on this disc one of the best in recent memory. With the possible exception of a few moments where some noise and distortion are visibly present, this transfer is virtually pristine.
In addition to its impressive picture, 'Naked Lunch' was also given a lush DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track that offers up some truly spectacular sound. The 2.0 mix is remarkably well balanced, with rich sound that really shines during the moments where the film's jazzy soundtrack from Howard Shore and the occasional riffs of other musicians takes center stage.
Still, this is a film that's filled with dialogue (opaque though it may sometimes feel) and the mix here does an extraordinary job of making sure all the actors' lines are delivered with the utmost clarity possible. There's never a hint of distortion in any of the voices, nor are there any signs of popping, hissing or cracking that can sometimes happen with tracks this old. Even the sound effects resonate wonderfully here.
'Naked Lunch' isn't a bombastic film, so there's no need for the audio to go overboard and cover elements that really don't exist. What's important is that the mix focuses on the wonderful jazz score and the dialogue, and this one does it spades.
Cronenberg's work is the kind that often requires viewers to go back and analyze again and again, and this Criterion edition is the perfect way to do that. 'Naked Lunch' may stand as one of the director's most impenetrable works, but it benefits greatly from its unique approach to a similarly dense literary effort that has endured for many decades. Chances are, if people have been willing to discuss Cronenberg's "adaptation" of Burroughs' work for over 20 years now, they'll continue to do so for some time to come. This release is jam-packed with excellent extras and contains the best transfer the film has seen since it was in theaters. Highly recommended.