The Cronenberg approach

By Editor on June 25, 2008 2:06 pm

The idea of using literary texts to illuminate film is not new. But there remains a stubborn Leavisite tendency that implicitly values literary writings as superior on the grounds of being the more established art form. Mark Browning examines David Cronenberg’s works in this context. 

FOR MORE THAN 25 years, Canadian director David Cronenberg has adapted the literary works of others, including Naked Lunch (1991) from William Burroughs’s 1959 experimental novel, Crash (1996) from J G Ballard’s 1973 cult text, Spider (2003) from Patrick McGrath’s dark 1990 account of a mental patient’s subjective universe and A History of Violence (2005), based on John Wagner and Vincent Locke’s 1997 graphic novel.

Even films not seemingly adaptations draw on previously-written material. For example, Dead Ringers (1988) derives directly from Twins (1977), a novel by Jack Geasland and Bari Woods. Cronenberg’s literary awareness is present in abandoned projects, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho and Total Recall, based on Philip K Dick’s short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.

It is also apparent his own acting career, in films such as Nightbreed (1989), where he shares Clive Barker’s celebration of monstrosity and in potential future projects, such as Martin Amis’s London Fields (1989). Looking closely at such texts reveals fascinating features of Cronenberg’s work – his frequent use of a perpetual present tense, narrative structures that might be described as spiral or centripetal, and the direct and unattributed ‘borrowing’ of images, plotlines and dialogue from a range of literary texts.

The idea of using literary texts to illuminate film is not new. In 1969, Peter Wollen asserted that “we need comparisons with authors in the other arts: Ford with Fenimore Cooper, for example or Hawks with Faulkner” and it could be argued that, as Leonard Bernstein believed, “the best way to ‘know’ a thing is in the context of another discipline”.

However, there remains a stubborn Leavisite tendency that implicitly values literary works as superior on the grounds of being the more established art form, that film can only be visual, whilst literature is linguistic, and that film cannot emulate fiction’s ability to convey the profundity of human thought. Theoretical discussion of adaptation is often bogged down in repetitive case studies, partly due to what Brian McFarlane terms ‘the fidelity issue’. Notions of remaining faithful assume that there is an irreducible core meaning to an original source text but it is not always obvious as to precisely what the film-maker should be faithful. More precisely, as Neil Sinyard reminds us, “adapting a literary text for the screen is essentially an act of literary criticism”, which should serve to illuminate both source text and filmic version drawn from it. By drawing on literary texts that are by reputation infamous and experienced primarily on Higher Education courses, and by choosing to retain their titles, Cronenberg appears to seek the endorsement of the very cultural establishment against which he seems to rebel.

Largely missed by critics, in 2005 he produced a coffee-table book, Red Cars, a history of the 1961 Formula One Championship battle between Ferrari rivals Phil Hill and Wolfgang Von Trips, including a script for an unmade movie. The book, hand-bound with an aluminu cover and limited to only 1000 copies, is a self-conscious object d’art and Cronenberg describes how it is a “way for me to create my film without actors and film crew this book linked to a website and to an exhibition”. However, even here the multi-media ‘Red Cars’ project, including lectures and a Cronenberg retrospective, echoed very similar activities by Ballard in the 1970s. Cronenberg likes to cite Borges’s statement that “a phenomenon like Kafka actually creates his own precursors, linking together strings of writers not seen to be connected before”, but it is highly debatable to what extent Cronenberg does create his own precursors and to what extent his work is ever truly free of influence from source texts.

Mark Browning is the author of David Cronenberg: Author or Film-maker? He can be reached at

This article first appeared in the IQ Magazine Spring 2008, published by Intellect, an academic book and journal company based in Bristol, UK. For more info, log on to News from Intellect.


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