24 February 2016

Opium in Literature and Film

Opium: A Portrait of the Heavenly Demon by Barbara Hodgson, 1999, Excerpts

Novelists and poets elevated opium in all of its incarnations to the status of muse, crediting it for releasing them from the tedium of banal thoughts and words. The spirit of adventure and curiosity that gave the nineteenth-century mind the freedom to experiment with the unknown provoked a reaction that manifested itself in the art and literature.


The Dividend [1916] a young son, upset that his busy father ignores him, visits an opium den and becomes addicted to the drug. Hollywood’s sensationalized portrayal of women in opium dens fuelled the outrage of righteous citizens.

Broken Blossoms [1919] by D.W. Griffith, the film was a great success.

1919 Silent Film

Bits of Life [1921]

Human Wreckage [1924]

The Man Who Came Back [U.S. 1930] about a man who finds his drug addicted friend in Hong Kong starring William Holden.

Charlie Chan in Shanghai [U.S. 1935] about opium smuggling in China.

The Letter [1940] set in Southeast Asia with Bette Davis.


Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincey, 1821. English author and philosopher Thomas De Quincey [1785-1859] opened the drug literature floodgates with his Confessions of an English Opium Eater. The book made it the big screen in 1962 as Confessions of an Opium Eater. Set in 1890s San Francisco with Vincent Price starring as De Quincey, this movie had virtually nothing to do with the published work.

Richard Dillon, author of The Hatchet Man, 1864 was, for San Francisco, “The Year of Opium,” marked by the arrival of the first large shipment of opium on the Derby. By 1896 the number of opium dens in San Francisco was estimated to be in the neighborhood of 300. Tours of San Francisco’s opium dens became a must, attracting writers like Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain. Twain took great pleasure in writing that “the stewing and frying of the drug and the gurgling of the juices in the stem would wellnigh turn the stomach of a statue.”

Dicken’s half-finished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood [1870], sensationalized the East End opium dens by depicting sordid scenes. Dickens spares no mercy in his description of the smokers, each of them incoherent and helpless under the effects of the drug.

In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray [1891], Dorian smokes opium as his life crumbles, remarking, “As long as one has this stuff, one doesn’t want friends. I think I have too many friends.”

Black Opium by Claude Farreres, 1904, series of short stories linked thematically by opium.

Limehouse Lights by Thomas Burke, 1917, is a collection of stories that are loaded with atmosphere and revolve around thwarted love, revenge and opium. The Limehouse of legend covered an area of East London that included Limehouse.

The Diary of a Cure by Jean Cocteau, record of his opium withdrawal in 1928-1929 in a Paris clinic

 “I had always wanted to be an opium addict.” Emily Hahn, traveled to Africa in 1930 and then to Asia in 1935 after graduating as the University of Wisconsin’s first female mining engineer. Hahn stayed on in China during the Second World War and wrote a number of articles, many for The New Yorker, including her drug experiences, “The Big Smoke”.

In the twentieth century, drug literature in the United States grew up alongside the criminalization of opium, morphine, heroin and cocaine. The streetwise writings of William Burroughs’s Junkie and Naked Lunch, Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm, William Irish’s Marijuana, David Hulburd’s H is for Heroin, David Dodge’s It Ain’t Hay and Frank Kane’s The Guilt Edged Frame immortalized the language and culture of these drugs more savagely than anything that had been previously written on the subject.

The Ludlow Library


Reaping the Whirlwind by Michael Griffin

The Ghost Wars by Steve Coll – reports that the Taliban also received contributions for the trucking mafia, heroin traders, the ISI, and other Arab donors.

Book: Merchant of Death – detailing Victor Bout’s smuggling empire from Africa to Asia.

Capitalism’s Achilles Heel by Raymond Baker

Opium Season by Joel Hafvenstein – memoirs in Helmand Province

Yves Saint Laurent perfume 'drug simulation' ad ban
01 Feb 2011
An Yves Saint Laurent (YSL) perfume advert has been banned for appearing to show a woman simulating drug use, the Advertising Standards Authority said. The TV advert for Belle D'Opium showed a woman running her finger along the inside of her forearm and lying on the floor as a voiceover said: "I am your addiction. I am Belle D'Opium."  The ASA ruling stressed that it did not see any problem with the perfume being named after opium, saying it was a well-known designer brand. YSL said its research showed consumers had not interpreted the ad in that way. The company also said it had not intended to use drug imagery.

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