Bringing Books to Life, David Cronenberg Style

David Cronenberg/Photo © cinemafestival
David Cronenberg/Photo © cinemafestival

David Cronenberg’s upcoming film, “Maps to the Stars,” is acquiring  a prolific cast. John Cusack, Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson, and Olivia Williams have all been added to the roster of a film described as a “complex look at Hollywood and what it reveals about Western culture.”

The Canadian-born director has been working since 1966, whose first big break came in 1975 with the film “They Came From Within.” While progressing steadily through the next few years with films like “Rabid,” “Shivers,” and “The Brood,” he quickly attained a reputation for showcasing the horrors that the human body could go through. Throughout his five-decade span as an auteur, Cronenberg has brought eight books to the big screen, and next to Stanley Kubrick, whose career was entirely centered on adapted work, he may be one of the most literary directors.

"The Dead Zone" (1983)
“The Dead Zone,” based on a novel by Stephen King, was released, fittingly, right before Halloween in 1983. The film follows Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken), who awakens from a five-year-long coma to find he's acquired a psychic ability. The film delivers tense dread steadily throughout. It was again adapted in the 200s as a successful television series starring Anthony Michael Hall in the lead role.

"The Fly" (1986)
Loosely based on George Langelaan's 1957 short story-- and previously adapted in 1958 with Vincent Price -- “The Fly” tells the story of Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), a scientist whose recent invention of a teleportation device accidentally has him swap DNA with a fly. As with most body mutation stories, Brundle’s fly-like abilities start with advantages (increased strength, stamina, sexual potency) that quickly spiral into a downward horror story (increased violent temperament, the loss of various body parts). His gradual devolution into what is known as the Brundlefly is a shocking and entertaining ride, and probably Cronenberg’s most successful and well-known film to date.

"Naked Lunch" (1991)
In 1991, Cronenberg turned William S. Burroughs's controversial, allegedly “unfilmable,” beat generation sci-fi tome into a cult classic. The movie is semi-autobiographical in its depiction of actual events from Burroughs's life. The result: a trippy, deadpan film about an exterminator (Peter Weller) and his wife (Judy Davis), who has a predilection for her husbands's bug powder. But, after accidentally shooting her in the head, William Lee has to hide out in an alternate reality of talking bug typewriters and limber amphibian-like creatures known as Mugwumps. The film is definitely more accessible than Burroughs's writing, but may be a little too weird and grotesque for someone not acquainted with Cronenberg’s style.

"Crash"  (1996)
Not to be confused with the 2004 Oscar-winning film of the same name, Cronenberg’s "Crash" is based on J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel. James Spader stars as a man whose head-on car collision opens him up to an underground current of people who reenact famous car crashes for sexual thrills. The highly explicit and fetishistic nature of both the book and the novel was highly controversial. A publisher famously said, "This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do Not Publish!” The film was banned theatrically by the Westminster Council, prohibiting it from being shown in the entire West End of London, but did win a Special Jury Prize at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival. While not for everyone (which is a good way to sum up Croneberg’s entire body of work), the film does make for a dark, twisted, and interesting watch, with solid performances by Spader, Holly Hunter, Rosanna Arquette, Elias Koteas, and Deborah Kara Unger.

"Spider" (2002)
Based on the novel by Patrick McGrath, “Spider” follows Dennis Cleg (Ralph Fiennes), a man living in a halfway house after recently leaving a mental institution. While there, he begins to piece back the fractured memories of a childhood with his mother (Miranda Richardson). The film’s dizzying, fragmented style is like watching another person’s dream. As Cleg begins to go further and further into his memories, his present-tense shifts as well, confusing both realities. The cost of the production was so low that Cronenberg, Fiennes, and Richardson all waved their regular salary fees to donate towards the financing of the film.

"A History of Violence" (2005)
Based on the 1997 graphic novel by John Wagner and illustrated by Vince Locke, Cronenberg’s adaptation details a small-town family man whose dark past is revealed during a hold up at his diner. The film is a riveting, white-knuckle suspense piece. One of his most well-received pieces, the film was nominated for two Oscars, including Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (William Hurt). The work is a mix of dark comedy and hair-raising suspense, and was one of the most highly applauded movies of 2005.

"A Dangerous Method" (2011)
Cronenberg tackles Freud and Jung’s psychoanalytical morals in this adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s play, the basis of which was John Kerr’s book A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud and Sabina Spielrein. When Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) sees to the recently admitted Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) for reasons of “hysteria”, he begins an affair with her. Interested in psychology, Spielrein is afforded the opportunity to help out with Jung's experiments. Jung’s friend and fellow analyst Sigmund Frued (Viggo Mortensen) disapproves of Jung’s methods and urges him to stop. Though it’s a bit of an off ramp in Cronenberg’s style, his strong direction shines through with his keen visual eye.

"Cosmopolis" (2012)
Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel is about Eric Packer, a twenty-eight-year-old multi-billionaire, who is privy to various odd occurrences on his way across town to get a haircut. Cronenberg’s film version received mixed reviews. The favorable ones boasted of a strong performance by Robert Pattinson as Packer, calling the film psychologically complex and precisely directed. The negative reviews referred to the film as lifeless and lacking a palpable subversive pulse. This writer, unfortunately, agrees with the negative reviews. But judge for yourself.