He was in the West Nineties. A long block of brownstone rooming houses. Here and there a holy wreath in a clean black window. Danny's senses registered everything sharp and clear, with the painful intensity of junk sickness. The light hurt his dilated eyes.
The Short Story
The story appears in William S. Burrough's Interzone, a miscellany of his writing from the 1950s, edited by James Grauerholz. Many critics have identified the book as a primer for the writer, a relatively accessible collection which covers the major themes of his career, often in highly entertaining form.
"The Junky's Christmas," written in a style reminiscent of the hardboiled detective genre, tells the tale of Danny the Carwiper, a heroin addict. He gets released from the holding cell on a 1950s Christmas morning, and spends the day trying to score. The New York City Danny experiences seems almost deserted, and he himself plays as an empty human being. Friendless and quietly desperate, he seeks money for drugs rather than food, and he doesn’t think twice about trying to steal someone’s present from a car. He meets an old friend; they leave with dull "hatred of disappointment" because neither can provide information on where to score, now that their favourite source has been arrested.
Eventually, after a grim discovery–- a suitcase containing a pair of severed legs (dropped off in another of Burrough's short stories)-– Danny collects some funds and, lacking a connection, walks to a croaker’s to get prescription narcotics which will dull his edge.
Danny next heads to a "six dollar a week room" where he intends to process his narcotic pill into liquid form.
Then something happens that will change his life.
Burroughs has peopled this story with entirely convincing lowlifes. Danny himself is sympathetic, but not glamorous. Nothing about his odyssey makes substance abuse seem appealing. Danny's life is wretched without the saving grace of martyrdom or resistance to oppression. He has made the prison in which he lives, and Burroughs, experienced junkie himself, has no illusions about this fact. Danny's morals diminish when it comes to scraping together a score. His voice shoots up to "a hysterical grating whine" when he fears he won’t be successful. Only at the end does he achieve the possibility of redemption, in a conclusion which, despite its ironic ambiguity, proves powerful.
The 1993 claymation adaptation of William S. Burrough’s short story may be the least-shown animated seasonal special in history, but it also ranks among the best–- provided you’re not a child.
Directors: Nick Donkin, Melodie McDaniel
Writers: William S. Burroughs, James Grauerholtz
Producer: Francis Ford Coppola.
A very literal adaptation of the short story, "The Junky's Christmas" begins and ends with black and white footage of Burroughs. In the prologue, he opens his old book, Interzone and, sitting beneath a Christmas tree, begins to read. We fade into a model Manhattan, where stop motion figures act out the story as Burroughs narrates a slight variation of the original text (some lines have been deleted; the opening of the stolen suitcase occurs in a specific setting). Simply animating the story while the author reads should have been a disaster. Instead, the filmmakers have wrought something unusual and wondrous.
The short film creates a sense of Danny’s world that live actors probably could not-- without seeming utterly repulsive. The claymation also nicely recalls old Christmas standbys like Santa Claus is Comin' to Town and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but is actually of superior quality. The figures have believable, emotive expressions. Only once, when Danny begs from the croaker, does his face become distractingly, hyperbolically distorted.
The sets of mid-twentieth century Manhattan are extraordinary; a lot of work went into creating the world of this film. In additional to Burrough's reading, a soundtrack created by the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy plays along. Varying from hip-hop to traditional carols, it underscores the mood throughout. With its problematic redemptive ending, "The Junky's Christmas" plays like every Christmas special you've ever watched-- but it’s entirely different.
The film's epilogue shows Burroughs closing the book and heading into the next room, where he celebrates with friends. If we view Burroughs as the recovered and elderly Danny, then the film becomes, in the end, hopeful indeed.