Sunday, 18 May 2014

Crash of the Titans: Adaptation and Authorship in the Films of David Cronenberg

It is like making a child, you need two people, and the film turns out looking a little bit like both of its “parents”.
—Cronenberg on Cosmopolis (2012)[1]

It’s like Burroughs and myself fusing in the telepod of The Fly.
—Cronenberg on Naked Lunch (1991)[2]

How fitting it is to consider these adaptations in terms so Cronenbergian: like the demented psychokinetic child projections of The Brood (1979) and the disfigured human-insect hybrid of The Fly (1986), Cronenberg’s reconfiguration of others’ work has made for a cinema as potent as it is perverse. Across twenty features, the Canadian director has not so much carved a niche as conceived it, earning acclaim as the originator of the body horror subgenre and crafting an aesthetic of singular proportions. That his style has remained so recognisable across a distinct diversity of subject matter would seem to position him as the ideal auteur, yet the equal division of his oeuvre along a line of original and adapted scripts penned by a plethora of other writers poses a problem of authorship only exacerbated by the fidelity with which his ten adaptations have been mounted. Across an array of original work from authors as varied as Stephen King and Sigmund Freud, Cronenberg has adapted novels, plays, graphic novels, epistolary correspondences, and even other films to his specific vision, all the while—or often, at least—preserving the peculiarities of his source. Toward an appreciation of this duality on which Cronenberg’s cinema is founded, and the questions of authorship and adaptation it raises, this essay will consider three films adapted from the work of authors as thematically and stylistically distinctive as he: Naked Lunch, from William Burroughs’ book (1959); Crash (1996), from the novel by J.G. Ballard (1973); and Cosmopolis, based on the book by Don DeLillo (2003).