The Naked Lunch film adaptations
by Matías Bragagnolo
Excerpt from the book Pull my Daisy y otras experimentaciones. La Generación Beat y el cine, various authors / Matías Carnevale (coordinator) (Alción Editora, 2022). Translated from the Spanish original by the author.
The Apocryphal Version of Conrad Rooks
Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs’ idea of producing cinema can be traced back to the beginning of their intense lifelong friendship. That idea included, of course, the adaptation of Naked Lunch, a task that was both titanic and impossible.
In 1962, when a 27-year-old millionaire named Conrad Rooks showed up and offered William Burroughs 500 dollars in exchange for a temporary cession of the rights to the film adaptation of Naked Lunch, the author could not help but accept the money. Rooks, a spoiled child with a serious past of alcohol and drug abuse, had just become the heir to the Avon Cosmetics business empire after the death of his father. He had around three million dollars to spend, and it occurred to him to “invest” in the film business. He wanted to tell his own story of how he overcame substance abuse. After reading Burroughs’ second published novel, he considered it the perfect framework for his project.
As soon as Burroughs realized the project had been launched, he felt uneasy and decided to recover the rights. Besides, he did not trust Rooks’ ability to make a good adaptation: he foresaw a disaster coming along. On the other hand, his boyfriend Ian Sommerville (the scientific mastermind behind the cut-up technique) kept telling him Rooks was a fraud.
Burroughs was quick to inform the recent millionaire and dilettante filmmaker that the transfer of rights was cancelled. He admitted that he had spent the 500 dollars but said he would pay it back. Of course, he had no intention of paying it back — and never did.
Rooks decided to go ahead with the idea of recounting his adventures with substances and his eventual recovery with a sleep treatment at a clinic in Switzerland. The result was an experimental, surreal feature film he called Chappaqua, named after his hometown in New York. He scripted, produced, directed, and acted as the main character. Released in 1967, Chappaqua won a silver medal at the Venice Film Festival, with Robert Frank (the director of the iconic Pull my Daisy) as director of photography, cameos by Ornette Coleman, Allen Ginsberg, and his boyfriend Peter Orlovsky. On top of that, Burroughs was included as part of the cast.
Burroughs’ character Opium Jones was the personification of addiction to opium and its derivatives, something quite related to the writer’s biography. Opium Jones haunts the protagonist throughout the film and with his sinister presence accompanies him during detox at the clinic. The last words Opium Jones murmurs, before Rooks leaves the clinic on a helicopter, are “An unworthy vessel, obviously — I withdraw from the case.” That is one of the variations Burroughs used in his readings1 when he read an excerpt from “Shift Coordinate Points,” a chapter from Nova Express. Moreover, the line of dialogue was not a mere random choice. The one who says these words in Nova Express is none other than Dr. Benway, an expert doctor in interrogations, brainwashing, and control, perhaps the most paradigmatic character in Naked Lunch. In a way, the Avon heir had gotten away with his original plan.
“I think Chappaqua is as close as I can get to Naked Lunch,” said Rooks in 2000, being honest, although not avoiding his version of the facts: “One could never have distributed Naked Lunch. No studio would touch it in 1963. So what good would it have been to spend a lot of money and time when you knew that it couldn’t be shown?”
The Truncated Version of Antony Balch
Conrad Rooks was not the only person who dreamed of bringing Naked Lunch to the big screen.
In 1962, Burroughs met one of Gysin’s new friends, a 24-year-old man named Antony Balch, in Paris. Antony was then a distributor of films of dubious morality, someone with filmmaker aspirations and skills. He was living at the same place as the writer and the painter, in the mythical Beat Hotel at 9 rue Gît-le-Cœur, as he also dedicated his time to finding film locations and subtitling French films into English.
The three friends wasted no time, and over the next year, they shot the short film Towers Open Fire, an adaptation of the “Combat Troops in the Area” chapter of Burroughs’ newly released novel The Ticket That Exploded, the second one written using the cut-up technique. After that, Antony started working on Guerrilla Conditions, a 23-minute documentary on the lives of Burroughs and Gysin. It was never finished but by 1966 those tapes became The Cut-ups, another experimental short film.
In this last movie, fragments can be seen of what are supposed to be Balch’s attempts to film scenes from Naked Lunch. One seems to be taken from the first scene of the chapter “Joselito,” where Burroughs himself, acting as a doctor, examines a half-naked young man known as “Baby Zen.” Another scene shows Burroughs packing in a seedy hotel room, a glimpse of what could have been the escape of William Lee, Burroughs’ alter ego in the novel, after killing police officers Hauser and O’Brien.
However, it was not until 1971, when the three friends lived in London, in different apartments of the same building, at 17 Duke Street, in the Saint James neighborhood, that Brion Gysin seriously began to work on the Naked Lunch script. He worked hard with the assistance of Burroughs (who typed, revised, corrected, and made suggestions), until the script was finished in 1972, approximately 80,000 words in length.2 Gysin suggested substantial changes, such as changing the name of the Interzone — the most significant territory of the novel (Tangier, in fact) — for the Neverzone. In addition, there was the inclusion of musical scenes, with songs of his own, to accentuate the burlesque tone of the routines. To justify the continuous jumps in time and space without any explanation in the novel (a true prehistory of the texts created with the cut-up technique), the painter proposed the existence of a transport company called Transvestite Airlines. Burroughs presumably disliked the result.
By the time the project was announced to the press in March 1971, the three friends had founded a film company, Friendly Films Ltd, to produce the script. Together along with a friend, the novelist Terry Southern, Burroughs traveled to Hollywood to meet Chuck Barris, the television producer, who was interested in reading the screenplay and discussing the further production, but the experience was a fiasco.4
While still looking for investors, 1973 arrived, and the first name for the role of William Lee in the film appeared: the one and only Mick Jagger, a confessed admirer of Burroughs. There were a few meetings, including a visit by Mick and his wife Bianca to the writer’s apartment. Nevertheless, director’s lust, apparently, was the reason why Jagger decided to distance himself from the project. Mick felt harassed by Balch and ended up rejecting both proposals.
Dennis Hopper was later considered for the same role, and Eartha Kitt (the legendary actress who played the African American Cat woman in Adam West’s Batman series) was proposed as Violet, a purple-bottomed baboon, but the project began to languish and by 1974 the dream of filming Naked Lunch became a perpetual state of affairs.
The Minuscule Version of Howard Brookner
In 1978, William Burroughs lived on the Bowery in New York in an apartment everyone knew as “the Bunker” because of the thickness of its walls and the absolute lack of windows. The building had belonged to the YMCA, and the home of the writer was nothing more than the recycled locker room. Meanwhile, Howard Brookner was a film student about to finish his degree at NYU. Howard had to present his thesis, and decided, with the help of his classmate Jim Jarmusch, as a sound technician, to film a documentary about Burroughs.
A friendship was born between the writer and the new director, and the project grew into a full-fledged documentary that premiered in 1983. Burroughs: The Movie became the only documentary feature film about Burroughs produced in collaboration with the protagonist himself.
The circumstances in which a scene from Naked Lunch was produced are unknown, but it was a surprise to early viewers of the documentary when Burroughs read one of the scenes from the “Hospital” episode and gave way to the scene itself.
Dr. Benway (Burroughs) is attempting to operate on a patient in a bathroom (the Bunker bathroom, in fact). There is a nurse and a doctor assistant. The nurse is none other than the transvestite Jackie Curtis, a member of Andy Warhol’s Factory troupe. After a bit of babble (“Did I ever tell you about the time I performed an appendectomy with a rusty sardine can?”), Benway, wielding a plunger he sterilized in the water of a clogged toilet, gives the patient an open-heart cardiac massage, splattering everything with blood.
Howard Brookner would die of AIDS complications in 1989, at the age of 34.
The Biographical Version of David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg‘s attempts to bring Naked Lunch to the cinema date back to 1981, when he met English producer Jeremy Thomas at the Toronto International Film Festival in Canada. One conversation was enough to convince Thomas to acquire the rights to the novel. It was followed by the first visits paid to Burroughs, who was already living in Lawrence, Kansas, the home where he would spend the last years of his life. In 1985, director, producer and author traveled to Tangier to soak up the atmosphere of the novel. Paul Bowles was the only one of Burroughs’ friends who still lived in the Interzone.
Burroughs declined to take on the script. From his point of view, writers tend to believe that they can write a movie script, not realizing that movie scripts are not meant to be read, but to be acted and photographed. This was a lesson he had learned after the arduous path undertaken to write The Last Words of Dutch Schultz .
The years kept passing and Cronenberg, who seemed to be the last man standing, still had not written the script. The creative outburst came just in 1989, in London, while he returned to acting for the role of the psychotherapist in Nightbreed, the second film Clive Barker directed.
The filming was scheduled to start on August 7, 1990, and locations would be mostly those of Tangier, but the start of the Persian Gulf War five days earlier forced a change of plans. Seven hundred tons of sand were poured into the assembled scenography in an old ammunition factory in Toronto, in order to recreate the North African territory of the Interzone. Burroughs attended part of the filming process.
In the film, premiered in 1992, William Lee (Peter Weller) is an employee in a fumigation company, a plot aspect taken from both the chapter “The Exterminator Does a Good Job” and the short story that gives its name to the 1973 collection called Exterminator! In fact, these texts are mostly autobiographical since Burroughs himself worked as an exterminator when he lived in Chicago in 1942. He used, as in the film, a yellow powder known as pyrethrin. In the film, William Lee’s wife Joan (played by Judy Davis) becomes addicted to the powder, thus making pyrethrin a stand-in for heroin. It does not take long for William Lee to start injecting it too. He looks for help and finds Dr. Benway, who recommends a cure with black meat powder, from giant aquatic centipedes, one of the many creatures that populate the novel. This powder is nothing more than an analogue of apomorphine, a synthesis achieved by the English doctor John Dent by boiling morphine and hydrochloric acid. The result was a metabolism-regulating emetic substance, ideal for recovery from alcoholism or drug addiction. Burroughs underwent this experimental cure for the first time in 1956, with encouraging results.
Back to the movie, William Lee is arrested by detectives Hauser and O’Brien — a passage in the novel based on a true event suffered by the writer in 1945 — and this is when he has the first contact with one of the creatures Cronenberg designed. A cockroach the size of a neutered cat that speaks through an anal sphincter under its wings. This could well be assimilated to the Ugly Spirit, since it would not take long for William Lee to kill his wife, as Burroughs did with Joan Vollmer in real life — where the caliber of the pistol was .380 and not .32, like the one Peter Weller wields. Unlike Brion Gysin’s script, which respected the novel by placing Lee’s entry into the Interzone after he kills the two detectives, in Cronenberg’s film Joan’s death is the turning point.
Despite the alterations in time and space — Cronenberg situates the events in 1953, between New York and the Interzone — the script ends up containing an important biographical component, not only taken from Burroughs’ other works but from Ted Morgan’s book Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs. As characters, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac appear under other names. There is also the couple of Paul and Jane Bowles — Paul is Tom and Jane is Joan. Joan’s character not only shares a name with William’s wife but she is also played by Judy Davis.
The inclusion of the Bowles couple is not merely biographical. The first thing Burroughs wrote for the Naked Lunch is supposed to be the moment when Mohammed Temsamany, Paul Bowles’ chauffeur — whom he calls Aracknid, while Bowles is Andrew Keif, “keif” being the pronunciation Burroughs gave to kif, the potent Moroccan variant of cannabis — runs over a pregnant woman. Seriously injured, she gives birth to her bleeding fetus in situ to what Mohammed, not worried at all about the gravity of the facts, sits down to stir the blood with a stick. On its own, the association between the names Jane and Joan had a precedent (known to Cronenberg or not) when in the first chapter of the novel Burroughs wrote “In Cuernavaca or was it Taxco? Jane meets a pimp trombone player and disappears in a cloud of tea smoke.” It could well be referring to the time that Joan, while living with Burroughs in Mexico (January 1951), went to Cuernavaca to prepare legal papers for a divorce; or it could also be alluding to some of their mutual infidelities. The basis of this assumption lies in the first manuscript of the novel, where she was not called Jane, but Joan.
Despite the small portions of the novel included in the script, the film could not be called an adaptation if it did not include mugwumps, beings that “have no liver and nourish themselves exclusively on sweets. Thin, purple-blue lips cover a razor-sharp beak of black bone with which they frequently tear each other to shreds in fights over clients. These creatures secrete an addicting fluid from their erect penises which prolongs life by slowing metabolism.” The design of these creatures and the Clark-Nova, a cross between a typewriter and the giant cockroach described above, are true examples of the dialectic between writer and director.
In addition, Kiki is a character in the film (performed by actor Joseph Scoren), a teenage lover whom Burroughs met in Tangier, and who would appear and reappear both in his later works and in his memories and dreams. Kiki’s real name was never known, beyond a reference to a certain Henrique in Nova Express, but it can be said that the writer was really in love with him. Kiki left Burroughs in 1955, and in 1957 was stabbed to death in Madrid, in a fit of jealousy, by a Cuban singer after finding him in bed with one of the girls from his band — an episode mentioned in the Word Hoard. In the film, Kiki is killed by a humanoid bug conceived by Cronenberg’s mind.
In 1965, Conrad Rooks had commissioned the legendary jazz musician Ornette Coleman for the Chappaqua soundtrack , but for unclear reasons he was replaced by Ravi Shankar (the former one was supposed to be “too good”). This time, with Howard Shore in charge of the soundtrack of Naked Lunch, the saxophonist had his revenge. It included, of course, the piece Midnight Sunrise, which Coleman had recorded with the Master Musicians of Joujouka, the Moroccan ritual music collective that Brian Jones popularized posthumously in 1971. Burroughs, a fan of the Master Musicians of Joujouka (they were in Tangier as the house band of the restaurant run by Brion Gysin), had officiated the link between the jazz musician and them, and was even present during the recording sessions in January 1973.5
As the final titles of Cronenberg’s adaptation appear on screen, it is clear that the film is more the story of how Naked Lunch was written than an adaptation of the novel itself. The mere fact of seeing the character that represents Allen Ginsberg reading a fragment of the novel, or William Lee telling, as anecdotes, certain routines that in the original text come from the mouth of Dr. Benway — specifically, that of the ventriloquist with the “talking asshole” and that of the neurology professor whose hemorrhoids get caught in the rear wheel of the car transporting him — reaffirms this feeling. The adapted characters, creatures, elements, and routines turn out to be, in honor of the truth, scarce in relation to the novel’s heroin-fueled Garden of Earthly Delights. No doubt, as Cronenberg himself told Burroughs: “you could make two or three hundred movies from Naked Lunch“.
(NB: Some of the footnotes in the original book have been converted to hyperlinks.)
1. In the original text it reads: “An unworthy vessel, obviously — So I have now decided that junk is not green but blue”. The variation used in Chappaqua could be heard, for example, in the reading at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, on August 9, 1983.
2. Fragments of the script would be published in 2002 in the retrospective book Back in No Time: The Brion Gysin Reader (Wesleyan University Press). Also in The Third Mind chapters (The Viking Press, New York, 1978).
3. Some of these storyboards can be seen in the documentary Naked Making Lunch (Chris Rodley, 1992).
4. According to the anecdote told in With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker, Victor Bockris, Vermilion, 1982.
5. W.S. Burroughs interviewed by Lee Ranaldo, as published in Cut-ups, Cut-ins, Cut-outs: The Art of William S. Burroughs, Collin Fallows & Synne Genzmer (publishers), 2012.