Columns > Published on November 25th, 2011

Behold! The Unfilmable: The Literary Adaptations of David Cronenberg

Since when did the king of venereal horror become the go-to guy for literary adaptations? Not counting the yonic throat slittings of Eastern Promises, I haven't seen a surrogate sexual organ in one of his films since the bio-port licking scene in eXistenZ, and that was over ten years ago. What happened? Has the man mellowed? Have the flagging testosterone levels inherent with age curbed his desire to see plunging armpit penises and gaping chest vaginas? I don't begrudge a filmmaker his artistic growth, but throw us a bone here, David. Preferably a phallic one that spits corrosive acid or something.

All joking aside, longtime fans know Cronenberg has been a lit man since the beginning. He graduated from The University of Toronto with a degree in the stuff, citing Burroughs and Nabakov as two of his major influences. He even won an Epstein Award for a short story he wrote. But then he got sidetracked by the siren song of film (not that I'm complaining) and put down the pen. Fast forward all the way to 2008. It looked like Dave Deprave might finally fulfill his literary potential when it was announced that the first 40 pages of his debut novel, Consumed, sparked a modest bidding war among London publishers. According to

[The novel follows] a married couple, who are investigative journalists working on two separate stories. The wife is in Paris, delving into a bizarre crime where a woman has been killed and possibly eaten, and whose husband has also apparently disappeared. The journalist's husband is elsewhere in Europe, writing about a new treatment for cancer devised by a renegade doctor. His unorthodox methods involve planting radioactive nodes near the cancerous cells.

Sounds distinctly Cronenbergian. The manuscript was supposed to be delivered in 2009 for a 2010 release, but here it is almost two years later and the information trail has long since grown cold. (If anyone has any info, hit me up!)

Maybe it's due to the fact that the man's been too busy with other people's books. You know, turning them into kick-ass movies. His latest, A Dangerous Method, is playing at a theater near you, if you are lucky enough to live in New York or LA. Method is based on a stage play called The Talking Cure, which in turn is based on the non-fiction book A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr. As you'll totally recall, Cronenberg is no stranger to the world of theater, having previously adapted The Crying Game precursor M. Butterfly for the silver screen. He also directed the Los Angeles Opera in a stage version of The Fly back in 2004.

But back to the books. He's currently finishing up an adaptation of Don Delillo's Cosmopolis, which is slated for 2012. Not the most unfilmable of novels, but definitely a challenge, considering more than half the action takes place inside a limousine. Also a challenge- getting a good performance out of Robert "Sparkly Pants" Pattison, who plays a rich douche driving across Manhattan to get a haircut (although, come to think of it, that doesn't really sound like much of a stretch).

But that's just a warmup for Cronenberg's next project, an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem's sci-fi romance, As She Climbed Across The Table. Table tells the story of a love triangle between two scientists and a laboratory created black hole named Lack. It's been described as Alice In Wonderland with quantum physics. As if coaxing a palatable performance out of Kiera Knightley and Robert Pattison wasn't challenge enough, Cronenberg will now be giving acting notes to a miniature gravitational singularity.

Think he can pull it off? To know your future is to know your past, and the man's got a storied past. Let's check his credentials, shall we?

  • The Dead Zone (1983) - Cronenberg's adaptation of the Stephen King novel was his first real mainstream effort (Fast Company doesn't count). It's not my favorite of his films, but at the time it was the most successful, so what the hell do I know? Either way, it's definitely one of the better King adaptations out there, thanks in no small part to a restrained performance by the one and only Crazy Chris Walken. The ICE is gonna BREAK!!!
  • Dead Ringers (1988) - Based on the novel Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland, this is a literate horror story of gynecological proportions. What makes it even scarier is that it is based on a true story. Just the mere mention of "tools for operating on mutant women" is enough to make any god-fearing woman cross her legs. I've personally never read the book, but the film is fantastic, so I'm assuming Cronenberg did a bang-up job. Fun fact: the title of the film had to be changed to Dead Ringers because of the Ivan Reitman flick starring Danny Devito and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
  • Naked Lunch (1991) - They said it couldn't be done, but Cronenberg knocked it out of the park with this one. Instead of trying to film a literal adaptation of the stream of consciousness, drug-fueled sex-nightmare, the director culled bits from ALL of Burroughs' fiction, as well as biographical material, and turned in a meta-movie about the writing of the novel itself. It is a resounding success because it created something completely new while staying true to the ideas and themes of the author.
  • Crash (1996) - Cronenberg took the cold, repetitive sex of Ballard's novel and turned in a film full of cold, repetitive sex. But hey, that's part of the point, and it works like gangbusters. Clinical, unerotic gangbusters. He injected just enough structure into the plotlessness of the original story to make the unfilmable filmable, going as far as including the infamous seminal wound irrigation scene, as if to say, "See? I told you I could do it." The man is a fearless filmmaker. 
  • Spider (2002) - Based on the 1991 novel by Patrick McGrath (who also wrote the screenplay), Spider features Ralph Fiennes in one of the most successful screen portrayals of schizophrenia ever (take that, A Beautiful Mind!) It is also one of Cronenberg's most assured pieces of filmmaking. The lack of scenery-chewing histrionics combined with the film's deliberate pacing make for a haunting look into the mind of a wounded child and the man he eventually becomes.
  • A History of Violence (2005) - Alright, this is technically an adaptation of a graphic novel, but I say count it. This is yet another case where I haven't read the source material, so I will once again apply Josh's Rule Of Qualitative Adaptation Analysis, which states: It doesn't matter if the source material is good or bad; if the resulting film is good, then the adaptation was obviously a success. The odd tonal shifts that were so jarring upon first viewing are actually an intrinsic part of the film, as it goes from brutal realism to caricature, literally mapping the history of violence in American film culture.

In addition to the adaptations that have actually made it to the big screen, Cronenberg has worked on a number of projects that either never made it past the script stage, or were taken over by someone of lesser talent. I present a few of the more interesting:

  • Total Recall - Verhoeven's film is fun and all (I loved it when I was 13), but imagine what could have been? For all those complaining that Philip K. Dick has never been done right (except for Blade Runner), this could have been the one. Based on the short story, "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," Cronenberg reportedly wrote 12 different drafts of the script before being told, "You’ve done the Philip K. Dick version... We want to do Raiders of the Lost Ark goes to Mars." Sigh. The only good thing to come out of this fiasco was the character of Quato, who originated with Cronenberg.

    This just in: apparently they are in post on a Total Recall remake that will adhere much closer to the original story. It stars Colin Farrell and was shot in Cronenberg's hometown burg of Toronto. Why the hell wasn't he hired?
  • American Psycho - You'd think David Cronenberg and this ultra-violent serial killer novel would be a match made in hell, but this might be one instance where the Canadian auteur wasn't the right man for the job. According to Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis, Croney didn't want to shoot any scenes in restaurants or clubs, and didn't want to shoot any of the violence, either. All that leaves us with is Patrick Bateman talking about designer suits and his morning shower routine. How did Ellis compensate? He went off and wrote a script that ended with a big musical number set to Barry Manilow's "Daybreak" that takes place on top of the World Trade Center. I shit you not.
  • Painkillers - This one isn't exactly a literary adaptation, but it is such a cool project, I had to include it. Based on Orlan's manifesto on L'Art Charnal, Cronenberg's first original script since eXistenZ details the French artist's many plastic surgeries and the use of her own body as self portrait. The film was to star Orlan as herself, alongside everyone's favorite over-actor, Nicolas Cage. This sounds batshit awesome! Unfortunately, for some strange reason, no studio wanted to fund this film. Go figure.

Based on the above track record, I'd say it's pretty obvious that Cronenberg knows a thing or twelve about literary adaptations. Crash and Naked Lunch alone- two literary titans long thought unfilmable (one due to it's graphic melange of sex and violence, the other due to everything about it)- should be enough to earn him the trust of book-lovers everywhere. Wouldn't you agree?  I say give the man books, give him money, and turn his imagination loose.

Are there any other literary properties you think Cronenberg should tackle? Geek Love? Throat Sprockets? The Bible? Sound off like you got a pair.

About the author

Joshua Chaplinsky is the Managing Editor of LitReactor. He is the author of The Paradox Twins (CLASH Books), the story collection Whispers in the Ear of A Dreaming Ape, and the parody Kanye West—Reanimator. His short fiction has been published by Vice, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Thuglit, Severed Press, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, Broken River Books, and more. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @jaceycockrobin. More info at and

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