Cinema and Media Studies David Cronenberg
Ernest Mathijs
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0086


David Cronenberg (b. 1943) is a filmmaker from Toronto, Canada. Between 1966 and 2012 he directed twenty-one feature films. He also wrote one novel and directed short films, episodes of television shows, and commercials. Cronenberg is regarded as the best-known filmmaker from Canada, and one of the most accomplished auteur-directors working today. The main theme of his films is the physical revolt of the human body (through disease, trauma, and mutation) against attempts to capture it in rational terms. Cronenberg’s films have often attracted controversy and censorship, especially during the 1970s and 1980s when he was associated with a wave of “body-horror.” This affiliation earned him the nickname “Baron of Blood.” Since the 1990s, Cronenberg’s oeuvre has gained respect and prestige, especially after he started adapting literary works. Even then, some controversy remained. Cronenberg first became an object of scholarly study in Piers Handling’s book The Shape of Rage: The Films of David Cronenberg (Handling 1983, cited under Anthologies), and, ever since, his films have attracted a steady stream of academic attention. By and large, the career and films of Cronenberg are discussed through three perspectives: (1) as a form of cinema aesthetics, (2) as an oeuvre addressing and expressing social and cultural themes, and (3) as a body of films that explore political and philosophical issues of the contemporary age. The first perspective contains discussions of Cronenberg’s films as part of the horror genre (and the subgenre of the visceral body horror film in particular) as well as studies of his films as “literary cinema.” It also includes most studies of the use of special effects in Cronenberg’s films. The methods of analysis most commonly employed under this perspective are formalist, textual, and comparative analysis. The second perspective consists of discussions of Cronenberg’s films in relation to their cultural contexts, most often as a kind of Canadian cinema or as a kind of cinema that has attracted moral commentary and censorship. The method of analysis most frequently used in this approach is a combination of reception study and cultural analysis. The third perspective studies Cronenberg’s films with respect to how they explore, and are reflective of, ideas and philosophical issues that circulate in the Western world today. The method most often used in this perspective is that of post-structuralist analysis. Across these three perspectives, one remarkable characteristic stands out: the almost unanimous acceptance by scholars of Cronenberg’s own interpretation of his films. A highly articulate speaker, Cronenberg has commented eagerly and eloquently on his films. This characteristic trait has had a significant impact on how academics have tended to study Cronenberg’s films, namely as a more-or-less unified body of work of which the author’s own vision equals the truth.

General Overviews

Cronenberg’s prolonged success, both critical and with audiences at large, has led to an abundance of general overviews, from cursory, useful little books for the popular and fan market to studious and comprehensive analyses of his entire corpus to investigations of capita selecta of his oeuvre. The overviews that have appeared since the early 1990s are diverse in number and cut across language markets, with a slight dominance of English-language books over French-language and German-language studies. The limited size of Cronenberg’s oeuvre (twenty feature films) and the coherence of themes across his career ideally fit the template of the monograph, allowing scholars and critics to devote detailed attention to each film while also discerning an overarching trajectory to the career. Most overviews sketch a trajectory that sees Cronenberg’s films move from art house to horror movies to auteur cinema, all the while maintaining a preoccupation with out-of-control bodies (many of them female), flawed and fatalistic heroes, fraught family and sexual relationships, and monstrosity as an expression of desperate attempts to “make reality” (often inspired by science). The earliest monograph study, Grünberg 1992, comes from the ranks of the leading film magazine Cahiers du cinéma, which had been praising Cronenberg’s films since the early 1980s. It follows the critical acclaim of Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch, two films that gave Cronenberg’s oeuvre respectability. In the wake of Grünberg 1992, several other European-based overviews were published, many of them by critics associated with prominent film magazines, such as Oetjen and Wacker 1993 and Canova 1993. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Canadian scholars started to publish overviews of Cronenberg’s work. Most of these efforts concentrate on offering textual interpretations of Cronenberg’s films, with more-or-less definitive English-language and French-language textual analyses, including Beard 2005 and Pompon and Véronneau 2003, respectively, issued within a few years of each other. Ricci 2011 and Wilson 2011 are excellent examples of recent overviews (up to A Dangerous Method). Only very few volumes break away from textual analysis, with the noteworthy exceptions of Morris 1994, a biography, and Mathijs 2008, a mix of reception study and textual analysis.

  • Beard, William. The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg. 2d ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

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    Complete and thorough, offers the most in-depth academic insight into Cronenberg’s feature films until 1996 (Crash). Organized chronologically. Written by the world’s most prominent Cronenberg scholar. Focus is on the internal meanings of the films. Contains bibliography. A first edition was published in 2001. The second edition has new chapters on eXistenZ and Spider.

  • Canova, Gianni. David Cronenberg. Milan: Editrice Il Castoro, 1993.

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    Thoughtful overview of Cronenberg’s films up to Naked Lunch (including Fast Company). One of the first studies to “normalize” Cronenberg, treating his work not as an exception (to horror, to adaptations, etc.) but as an oeuvre worth exploring in its own right. Chronologically organized. Contains a detailed plot synopsis and a bibliography per film.

  • Grünberg, Serge. David Cronenberg. Paris: Éditions de l’Étoile, 1992.

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    First book-length single-authored study of Cronenberg’s oeuvre by Cahiers du cinéma critic and editor (and William Burroughs specialist) Grünberg. Organized around themes in Cronenberg’s oeuvre (virus, hallucination, organism, machine, sex). Heavily influenced by literary and philosophical inspirations (Burroughs, Kafka, postmodernism).

  • Mathijs, Ernest. The Cinema of David Cronenberg: From Baron of Blood to Cultural Hero. London: Wallflower, 2008.

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    Comprehensive academic overview. Focuses on the reception of Cronenberg’s films (criticism, fandom, festivals). Organized chronologically. Covers feature films (up to Eastern Promises), short films, television shows, and ancillary work. Contains illustrations, filmography, and exhaustive bibliography. Initially published by Wallflower Press; later distributed by Columbia University Press.

  • Morris, Peter. David Cronenberg: A Delicate Balance. Toronto: ECW Press, 1994.

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    Slightly dated but still the most definitive biographical account of Cronenberg’s life from a scholarly angle. Especially insightful when discussing Cronenberg’s early career and start in filmmaking (almost half of the book). Contains a wealth of information on his personal life, including rare pictures. Includes a timeline of events, bibliography, and filmography.

  • Oetjen, Almut, and Holger Wacker. Organischer Horror: Die Filme des David Cronenberg. Meitingen, Germany: Corian Verlag, 1993.

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    Generalist introduction to Cronenberg’s films up to Naked Lunch. Valuable for its agenda-setting attention to Cronenberg’s themes of body-horror and the clash/fusion between the human body and modern technology (the so-called new flesh). Contains filmography and selected bibliography.

  • Pompon, Geraldine, and Pierre Véronneau. David Cronenberg: La beauté du chaos. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 2003.

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    Well-balanced, highly useful overview. Ideal for college students. Organized chronologically. Contains bio-filmography that also includes useful a list of documentaries about Cronenberg. Exhaustive, thematically ranked bibliography (referencing interviews, essays, and film-by-film overviews). Appeared in long-running book series Septième Art, directed by Guy Hennebelle (editor of Cinémaction).

  • Ricci, Stefano X. David Cronenberg: Umano e post-umano: Appunti sul cinema di David Cronenberg. Rome: Sovera Edizione, 2011.

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    Balanced overview of Cronenberg’s feature films, up to A Dangerous Method, by a prominent Italian scholar. Concise, superb introductory text to the dominant themes and motives across Cronenberg’s career. Refrains from overly theoretical considerations and avoids debating other scholarly works yet digs deeper than many overviews of similar length.

  • Wilson, Scott. The Politics of Insects: David Cronenberg’s Cinema of Confrontation. London: Continuum, 2011.

    DOI: 10.5040/9781628929119Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Solid career overview of Cronenberg. Argues persuasively for the continuity between Cronenberg’s films across three interrelated topics: Cronenberg as auteur, Cronenberg and the film industry, and Cronenberg’s audiences. Balances theoretical views with critical descriptions.

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