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A Literary High: Cronenberg’s Unfilmable Authors Trilogy

The notion of an “unfilmable” book has existed ever since screenplays have been adapted from literature. For a time, a book could garner this reputation simply because of the limitations of filmmaking and particularly visual effects technology of the era (hard as it may be to believe now that it’s been 20 years since Peter Jackson’s versions were first released, but The Lord of the Rings was even considered virtually impossible to make as a live-action movie for a long time). Now with the relative accessibility of such advanced technology, that’s no longer a reason frequently given for a book being regarded as unfilmable, but of course there are other reasons a book may be labeled as such.

Another and still relevant reason related to what is portrayed or described in a book that can lead to it being labeled unfilmable is subject matter that is thought of as so explicit or lurid that it would be impossible to adapt it into a film without significantly toning it down. Although it should be noted that this is in most cases more of a limitation of the industry, not an artistic or technological limitation. Most movie theaters in the United States will not carry NC-17 movies, which severely limits the potential box office profit of any movie with that rating. Perhaps that will become less of an issue in the coming years as streaming and VOD will only continue to grow in viability as methods of movie distribution, and thus far no major streaming platform (with the obvious exception of Disney+) has barred NC-17 or unrated films. Regardless of what the future holds as far as that goes, censorship (which, let’s not mince words, is what it is) has been an issue preventing the cinematic adaptation of such “unfilmable” books for a long time.

And finally, a book may be deemed unfilmable simply because of its style. In every art form, there are works that rely so heavily on the techniques and aesthetics exclusive to that particular medium that it would seem incredibly difficult if not entirely impossible to effectively translate it to any other medium. How, for instance, would one go about conveying the same experience a Van Gogh painting provides through the written word? You can certainly explain the painting through words on an intellectual level, and writers who are especially creative can probably even arrive at a loose approximation of the feeling of the painting, but ultimately it’s a thankless task, as many paintings can only ever be truly appreciated as paintings. And while, granted, literature on the whole lends itself more readily to adaptation than painting does, there are certainly many examples of what might be called “pure literature,” i.e. literature so reliant on its specific use of language that the prose itself becomes as much or even more of the point than what the words are describing. I suppose it’s also worth noting that in addition to the technical and artistic difficulties that come with adapting such literature, there may also, as with the reason of explicit subject matter, be a business incentive to avoid such adaptations, because literature that belongs to this category doesn’t typically appeal to most casual readers and has an audience relegated primarily to other writers and serious literary academics. Which means, of course, that the prospect of promoting a movie based on such a book is a challenge most studio executives do not think is worth undertaking.

So because there are and have been books that were thought of as unfilmable, naturally there are some writers whose entire oeuvre fits one or more of the reasons I just outlined, and thus they are considered unfilmable authors. There are examples of such writers dating back as far as you care to go, although it’s probably a fair generalization that the rise of modernist literature in the first half of the 20th Century launched a whole wave of unfilmable authors given that modernism itself was in part based on experimenting with form. For this reason, it may not be a coincidence that the proliferation of modernist literature occurred at the same time as cinema and radio were moving into the forefront of popular entertainment, since modernism expressed in any art form can be viewed as a way to reevaluate that specific form and consequently distinguish it from other mediums.

The challenge of adapting the work of such an unfilmable author has not scared off every filmmaker, however. With varying degrees of success, directors and screenwriters have risen to the task ever since the idea was put forth of a book or writer purportedly being unfilmable. James Joyce — perhaps the quintessential modernist novelist — was and still is largely thought of as a writer of unfilmable literature, but John Huston’s 1987 adaptation of Joyce’s 1914 short story The Dead (which turned out to be Huston’s swan song, at that) shattered most critics’ skepticism in that regard and is widely considered among the most successful cinematic adaptations of a literary work that was thought to be unfilmable. Huston and his screenwriter, his son Tony, achieved this by mainly remaining faithful to the actual subject matter of Joyce’s story while finding ways to transpose his idiosyncratic prose to filmmaking techniques that conveyed similar tones and rhythms. Huston’s The Dead is not the same experience as Joyce’s The Dead, but it’s as close a translation from the written word to the moving image as one is likely to ever accomplish, and closer than many probably thought was even possible.

Huston’s melancholic, reflective swan song, The Dead (1987)

Impressive a feat as it is (and it is very impressive), The Dead at least had the advantage of only having to overcome one of the reasons for perceived unfilmability, as the story contains nothing either too visually elaborate to film or too explicit to get by censors. It was only Joyce’s style that had to be conquered. But what of authors who not only have highly idiosyncratic prose but also use their ostensibly untranslatable styles to write about subject matter that almost no movie studio would even want to touch? Writers like, for instance, the iconoclastic, proto-Beat, somewhat Surrealist, somewhat Dadaist, entirely in a class of his own William S. Burroughs? Or the psychosexual, often fetishistic, frequently bordering on dystopian, and to most of the general population physically nauseating and morally repugnant works of J.G. Ballard? Or the unrelentingly dense, unapologetically formalist, quite simply impossible to categorize works of Don DeLillo?

Enter David Cronenberg.

William S. Burroughs and David Cronenberg (and some mugwumps)

Yes, the mild mannered, well spoken Canadian auteur who made a name for himself as the undisputed master of body horror in the ’70s and ’80s with films such as Shivers, Scanners, Videodrome, and The Fly took it upon himself to adapt not just one of the aforementioned “unfilmable” authors, but all three. And while I have never seen anyone refer to these films collectively as a trilogy (which is not to say I’m the first to do so, so please direct me to other sources out there who may also be making this case), I think that for their sheer audacity alone, we should be giving a little more attention to Cronenberg’s unofficial Unfilmable Authors Trilogy.

Cronenberg was already something of a cult icon in the horror community by the mid ’80s, but the release of The Fly in 1986 brought him new mainstream success (without compromising at all in the body horror department, it should be noted) as well as an elevated stature among critics and film scholars. His follow-up film, 1988’s Dead Ringers — itself somewhat of a body horror film as well, albeit of a much different variety — didn’t come close to matching the box office success of The Fly but further cemented him as a thrillingly unique and highly regarded auteur among cinephiles. He was already celebrated as a truly singular voice in cinema before this loose, unofficial trilogy got underway.

Despite of his reputation (or maybe because of it in some respects), his next movie was not financed by a major Hollywood studio. In the ’80s he was able to get the likes of 20th Century Fox, Universal, and Paramount to finance his movies (which itself seems nearly miraculous in retrospect), but none of them wanted anything to do with the first film he had in mind entering the new decade of the ’90s. That’s because he had the gall to announce he was setting out to make a movie of William S. Burroughs’s infamous 1959 novel Naked Lunch, which very well might have been considered the single most unfilmable novel ever written. Written in a series of loosely connected surreal vignettes littered with an overabundance of sex, drugs, grotesque imagery, and general perversion and depravity, it remains extremely controversial to this day for its unflinching depiction of the graphic subject matter alone, if not quite as much anymore for its daring style that some initially found to be almost inscrutable. In fact, it was banned in many places, including some cities in the United States like Boston and Los Angeles, which wasn’t overturned until after a court ruling in 1966 found it didn’t violate obscenity laws. Yes, there was an actual trial held to determine whether or not Naked Lunch should be legally available to the American public. That’s how controversial it was.

Luckily, Cronenberg was still able to work out a deal with 20th Century Fox to distribute the movie, but it was on independent British studio RPC (Recorded Picture Company) to foot the bill for the production. RPC was not a studio that shied away from either controversial material or iconoclastic filmmakers, having greenlit projects such as Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing (1980), Nagisa Ōshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987), the latter of which earned them unprecedented attention and accolades. So Cronenberg was all set to do what most people thought couldn’t be done and even more thought shouldn’t be done. Naked Lunch was in the works.

The approach that the film took was probably not what you’d expect, but then again I suppose expectations are irrelevant when it comes to something like Naked Lunch. Incorporating elements not just from the novel but also from other Burroughs works as well as his personal life, the film is not strictly an adaptation in the traditional sense, but that’s likely the key to its success if you do view it as successful, which admittedly most people don’t: it knows that the source material is unfilmable. It doesn’t even attempt to faithfully and accurately translate it from the page to the screen. It can, in this regard, be considered not so much an adaptation of Naked Lunch but a film about the book and its author. And not in a biopic sort of way either. It seems very much like an attempt to capture the creative drive behind the novel, to understand what Burroughs set out to accomplish and in its own way explore those issues and themes in a cinematic form that takes its inspiration from Burroughs’s style but is also unmistakably Cronenbergian.

This was an approach endorsed by Burroughs himself, incidentally, and I suspect the only approach he would have approved of. With this film, Cronenberg showed that there was a completely alternative method to adapting a work of literature, which is to make a film that is in dialogue with the source material rather than serving as a mere translation of it. Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch — and it is very much Cronenberg’s vision — is a surreal dissection of the creative process that identifies its influence but isn’t beholden to it. It borrows freely from the novel but feels no obligation to present any of it with faithfulness or indeed even approximation, as it is quite open about its freewheeling nature. Adaptation is ultimately a form of rewriting, and as Cronenberg’s screenplay states, “You can’t rewrite, ’cause to rewrite is to deceive and lie…to rethink the flow and the rhythm, the tumbling out of the words, is a betrayal, and it’s a sin.”

It’s another quote from the screenplay that sums up the film’s approach instead. The central character of Bill Lee (played by Peter Wellers and based on William S. Burroughs himself) asks his wife Joan (played by Judy Davis) who has just described injecting insecticide into her veins as a “literary high,” “What do you mean, ‘it’s a literary high?'” She responds, “It’s a Kafka high. You feel like a bug.” That exchange, for all its weaving together of drugs, insects, literary allusions, and the high of the creative process, can really be viewed as the mission statement of the film, along with of course its tagline (which was taken from a quote by Burroughs), “Exterminate all rational thought.” This was Cronenberg’s attempt not to adapt a book that influenced him for film, but to reconcile his conscious influences with his unconscious artistic impulses in order to present a more experimental look at the creative process. To reach that literary high, as it were. Because whatever aversions to or criticism of the film you may have (and again, a lot of people have both), this is such an openly subjective work that such responses are inevitable and perhaps even the point. People like to act like there is an objective approach to engaging with art, and even putting aside for a moment that there is not, the prevalence of this attitude makes the act of open subjectivity all the more personal and daring. Burroughs dared to be subjective, to make his writing an extension of himself. Cronenberg dared to engage with it subjectively, to make a film about what he got out of it and how it influenced his own artistic philosophy.

A talking, insectoid typewriter: one of the many strange sights in Naked Lunch (1991)

Being synonymous with body horror as he is, Cronenberg even plays on the notion of the art being a physical extension of the artist, as there are not only frequent references to the physicality of the text itself and comparisons to the creative process and the physical sensation obtained from drugs, but the instrument of writing — in this case, a typewriter — is anthropomorphized as a living, speaking, ejaculating (yes) being. To tie in with the visual motifs of the film, it’s also made to be an insectoid creature, but nonetheless, both the act of writing and the finished product themselves are given physical attributes in the film, so it’s clear that Cronenberg does not view literature or more broadly art as something that exists only in a theoretical sense but very much in a physical one as well.

That ties in directly to the very notion of being unfilmable in the first place, because through this perspective, every work of literature is unfilmable. The words themselves and how they are ordered and structured constitute the soul of a piece of writing. There’s a tendency among a lot of audiences to interpret a work of art as a conceptual provocation of something, as an ethereal force that doesn’t exist independently of its creator or audience and can thus be edited, reshaped, and reinterpreted accordingly. What Cronenberg asserts in Naked Lunch is that a piece of art is a physical being whose very nature changes when it is altered, much like our bodies are altered in amputation or surgery. Art has a body. It is a living, breathing entity. And not only that, but the act of creating art is another physical manifestation in and of itself. There may not be another filmmaker in history who has shown to be more concerned with physicality as a state of being than Cronenberg. With Naked Lunch, he proposed that when we create art, it is not a release of theoretical information that we pull from our imagination and into the ether, but the physical merger of separate bodies to create an additional body that we call art. The act of creating art is sexual (hence the ejaculating typewriter) because it is, in a sense, giving birth, if we are to view a work of art as something that exists physically as well as theoretically.

Those particular themes — the merging of our bodies with another form of physicality, the impossibility of removing our physical, sexual urges from the creation process — are also prominently featured in the next film in this unofficial trilogy, 1996’s even more controversial Crash. Like Naked Lunch, this was another adaptation that was only partly inspired by its namesake novel and expanded upon with other works from the same author as well as, of course, Cronenberg’s own sensibilities. J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel about people who derive their sexual gratification from staging car crashes was, also like Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, a much challenged and sporadically banned work, as was his prior 1970 novel The Atrocity Exhibition of which Cronenberg also incorporated elements into his screenplay (chapter titles included “Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy” and “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” just to exemplify why it was controversial). But clearly the controversy was not a deterrent for Cronenberg.

To nobody’s surprise, the film version of Crash sparked intensely divided reactions when it premiered at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival. Somewhat notoriously, jury president Francis Ford Coppola was allegedly one of the film’s most adamant detractors. When several members of the jury elected to give the film a Special Jury Prize because other members (presumably including Coppola) refused to consider it for any of the traditional prizes, by Cronenberg’s own account, Coppola declined to even personally hand him the award onstage. Elsewhere, there was a movement in the U.K. to ban the film on obscenity charges despite it –and this was rare for a Cronenberg film — not containing any explicit violence (which was the primary reason the BBFC had used in the past to ban films, e.g. the “video nasties”). It received the dreaded NC-17 rating in America, and while it thankfully was able to be released uncut with the rating intact, the reception stateside was still quite negative on the whole. It was to the point that all the studio could do was try to capitalize on its controversial and divisive nature by specifically promoting it as a shocking movie that most audiences wouldn’t be able to stomach.

A poster for Crash (1996): the controversy in bigger letters than the title

Cronenberg’s obsession with the body is again on full display here, although it should be noted that while Crash has often been labeled an erotic thriller, the eroticism is less an expression of desire than of fascination. I’ve seen numerous people describe the film’s tone as detached (Roger Ebert described it as being “like a porno movie made by a computer”), and while I understand where that assertion comes from, I’m not sure I fully agree with it. Especially when viewed in the context of Cronenberg’s entire body of work (pun very much intended), it strikes me as being a tone not of emotional detachment in the way that, say, the tone of a Kubrick movie might have, but one of clinical curiosity. There is a definite pulse in this movie, but it’s not a pulse that increases when viewing the sexual and violent elements like we’re used to experiencing in most other films. The pulse remains fairly steady throughout as it refuses to either judge the characters or become excited by their actions. It is, appropriately (and I’m certain intentionally), a film that views human sexuality in a mechanical context.

This unorthodox approach might make it more difficult for the audience to become emotionally invested in the film as, by extension of Cronenberg’s clinical tone, the kinetic energy and emotional orchestration through cinematic techniques employed by most movies is largely absent. But this is yet another example, as he did with Naked Lunch, of Cronenberg treating the text as a physical specimen rather than a theoretical source of interpretation. The film itself — and I mean the literal film, as in the physical celluloid — has a distinct tone and character all its own, in many ways even separate from the movie it contains but also intrinsically linked to it. Many of the car crashes staged by the characters are recreations of famous movie star crashes (James Dean’s fatal car crash is regarded as the sort of Holy Grail among the community portrayed in the film), so there is even a direct link made between cars and film.

Crash is a movie about people who fetishize car crashes and the merger of flesh and mechanics, but on another level, it’s also about fetishizing cinema and the merger of flesh and film. As in Naked Lunch, it is ultimately about how the creative process (the car crash enthusiasts in this film do indeed view it as an art form) is not just an imaginative but also a physical act, one that requires merging one’s physicality with another physical force to create a third body. For Cronenberg, adapting these unfilmable writers is something that can only be done with this philosophy in mind. Crash — the physical film itself, not just the theoretical existence of the film — is the physical offspring of Cronenberg’s and Ballard’s creative bodies merging — or crashing together.

The mechanical eroticism of Crash (1996)

Naked Lunch and Crash were made only five years apart (with M. Butterfly being Cronenberg’s only film made in between), but it would be 16 years after Crash before this unofficial Unfilmable Authors Trilogy would see its final entry. And in the time in between, Cronenberg made what was his most critically acclaimed film to date in 2005’s A History of Violence as well as four other films that further established him as a filmmaker worthy of high praise and intent study, eXistenZ (1999), Spider (2002), Eastern Promises (2007), and A Dangerous Method (2011). So by the time Cosmopolis arrived in 2012, Cronenberg’s stature in the world of cinema had reached an all-time high. No longer considered “just” a horror director (and I’ll talk about my disdain for dismissing filmmakers on the basis on their preferred genres another day), he had finally become one of the most admired, studied, and revered directors in the world, period.

Yet Cosmopolis was effectively a demotion back to square one as far as its critical appreciation was concerned. While it had its supporters, the consensus seemed to be that it was a step back from the strides taken in his more recent, more acclaimed work. On the commercial front (not that it matters at all, frankly), it helped that it starred Robert Pattinson in the lead role concurrently as the Twilight movies were still being released. That may have only hurt its response, however, as undoubtedly Cosmopolis is nowhere in the same universe of intended audience as those films. This was solidly of a piece with Naked Lunch and Crash. Maybe not as explicit in terms of the subject matter it depicts (but still with a fair share of both sex and violence), but formally, tonally, aesthetically, conceptually, philosophically, and yes, physically, this is the third and final entry in Cronenberg’s Unfilmable Authors Trilogy.

In what I infer was a bit of intentional stunt casting, Pattinson’s performance as sociopathic billionaire Eric Packer comes across as though he’s playing a vampire. And while he may not be a literal vampire, this character is most certainly a metaphorical vampire. Cold, calculating, cruel, and emotionally inhuman, he even looks the part of a vampire with his deathly pale complexion and debonair style. Since the film was released less than a year after the Occupy Wall Street movement started, it was impossible to avoid the political subtext, and a Manhattan currency speculator be portrayed with such vampiric overtones was surely a part of the statement it was making.

But aside from its political dimension, which is not a significant point in either Naked Lunch or Crash, the film also contains many thematic and aesthetic elements consistent with those two earlier films. Cosmopolis again isn’t exactly a faithful adaptation of its source novel, but its deviation is once more intrinsic to the process. The film is mostly a series of extended dialogues and monologues that serve as philosophical diatribes about the nature of money and the culture it creates. The majority of these conversations take place inside of a limousine, and the movie is shot with a similarly mechanical eye as Crash, appropriate considering the importance of automobiles to each film. The act of creating art is yet again a major theme, but this time it’s not writing or car crashes that serves as the outlet; as Eric Parker’s Chief of Theory (played with laconic otherworldliness by Samantha Morton) explains, these characters view capitalism as an art. It’s something they’re creating, affecting, and altering in their own image.

While the film is certainly critical of the late-stage capitalism it satirizes, there nonetheless seems to be an acknowledgement of the creative process within these ghoulish characters. Just as he refused to adopt a tone of either judgment of or excitement in the fetishistic actions of the characters in Crash, Cronenberg doesn’t frame Eric Parker through a lens of either judgment or admiration, despite the vampiric energy conveyed by the character. Again, this is more of a clinical study of this person, one performed more out of fascination than contempt. And the framework of the creative process as laid out in the earlier films is still present in him: his artistic outlet is capitalism — money, currency, economics — and there’s a sexual gratification that comes with the process (he has sex repeatedly in between and sometimes during the conversations that make up the bulk of the film), while the finished project — his art, as he sees it — is something that is both of himself and a separate physical entity (money, in this case).

While the film does buy into (pun again intended) its characters’ philosophy just enough to understand them, the implication is that while money is something created by people, the mere act of its creation necessitates that it is its own physically separate body now, and while we can manipulate and control money, so too can money manipulate and control us. The relationship between the fetishized capitalism in the film (just as fetishized as the cars in Crash, you could easily argue) and the characters doing the fetishizing is more symbiotic than they seem to realize.

Robert Pattinson in Cosmopolis (2012)

In all three of these films, David Cronenberg offered his own subjective approach to adapting supposedly unfilmable literature that is not so much an interpretation or a translation, but rather a convergence. In order to truly engage with a work of art in a way that makes the adaptation process meaningful, it is necessary to acknowledge that the text is a physical being of sorts, and it is impossible to transpose it to another medium. The solution, then, is to merge your own sensibilities and creative drive with those of the original artist in order to create an entirely separate, third body of art. To admit that a work so subjective and personal as Naked Lunch, Crash, or Cosmopolis is indeed unfilmable as far as accurately translating it to the moving image goes, so all that can be done is to take a similarly subjective, personal approach and — not to mince words here — have sex with the art. Figuratively, yes, but also physically in a way. Films are physical entities, after all. Whether the comparison is to sex or to a drug that gives you that literary high, creating them is a physical process as well. The result is a trilogy of films that are equally their respective authors and David Cronenberg; the offspring of merging artistic bodies.

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