Now this is crazy, or, I’m not going to recommend this
Well, this is a new one for me, it really is. As someone who adores the written word, I’ve never found myself in the position on this blog that I find myself in here today. This is a book that I cannot, in all honestly, recommend to people if they haven’t read it. If you haven’t read it – don’t. Now, this isn’t to say the book isn’t possessed of any literary merit whatever, in fact quite the opposite as it may well be one of the best decade books ever written.
But I can’t. I can’t tell you to go out and buy this. Because this is American Psycho.
American Psycho is the only book that I’ve ever read that I couldn’t finish it one sitting. It is compulsively readable and impeccably written but this is the only book that despite the amount I was enjoying it I had to put down and walk away from it. It is the only book I have read – EVER – that made me feel physically sick, in a stomach churning sequence involving a woman, a rat and some cheese.
Allow me to provide a brief synopsis for those who haven’t read the novel. Set in the boom years of the 1980s the book focuses on the life of the twenty-six year old Patrick Bateman, a massively succesful yuppie who works on Wall Street alongside his friends and spends his time in exclusive restaurants and clubs. Bateman is obsessed with details such as cloths labels, restaurant menus and pop music. The conversation is banal and vapid and Bateman is riddled with existential ennui and angst as the materialistic world of that he exists in is so vacant of real substance that he often mistakes people he knows for others.
Well, that doesn’t sound too bad, surely? How can it can be something that I wouldn’t recommend?
Here’s why. Patrick Bateman is the most chilling and violent sociopath ever put into writing. A man who indulges in the darkest fantasies of torture, rape and some painfully hard to read murder scenes all described with a chilling amount of detail and frightening lack of affect. As the novel progresses everything slowly ramps up – his digressions on pop music and clothes stretch over pages and the attention to details and products becomes obsessive. Terrifyingly, the line that the book walks between reality and Bateman’s fragile grip on reality starts to blur. Then, he snaps entirely. The prose disintegrates into psychotic episodes as Bateman, and thusly, the books narrator, totally loses his grip on sanity. The genius of the book is that the whole thing is played so straight in its presentation but so graphic and unhinged in the events that the reader can never really be sure what happened, happened. The whole thing is completely ambiguous and deeply, deeply creepy.
The book was an overnight smash and immediately condemned as pornography designed to incite violence towards woman, and though the inevitable backlash got Bret Easton Ellis dropped by his publishers it also made him a literary mega star. Even now, it’s become one of the most analysed and talked about books by modern academics and critics desperate to explore and explain the transgressive and post modern aspects of the text. Or, if you prefer, it’s a cultural oddity that the guardians of taste are desperate to explain and in some ways legitimise the violence and transgression that the text contains, (if I can be pretentious with my language for a second…)
Ellis himself plays around with this idea with his own relationship with the media. Doing my reading into the background, this quote highlights the tensions within the author’s mind and the aims of the book;
‘[Bateman] was crazy the same way [I was]. He did not come out of me sitting down and wanting to write a grand sweeping indictment of yuppie culture. It initiated because my own isolation and alienation at a point in my life. I was living like Patrick Bateman. I was slipping into a consumeristkind of void that was supposed to give me confidence and make me feel good about myself but just made me feel worse and worse and worse about myself. That is where the tension of “American Psycho” came from. It wasn’t that I was going to make up this serial killer on Wall Street… Fantastic. It came from a much more personal place, and that’s something that I’ve only been admitting in the last year or so. I was so on the defensive because of the reaction to that book that I wasn’t able to talk about it on that level…’
In short Bret Easton Ellis succeeds but in a way that many (myself included) found and still find really hard to stomach. So onto the film and how does it compare?
Firstly the book was written in 1991 and the film didn’t come out untill 2000. Given that there were certain areas of the world that had a less than enlightened attitude to the book, selling it as pornography the decade between the two events is actually fairly impressive. As it went through various rumours many big stars were attached to either star or direct with eventually Christian Bale coming on as Bateman and the cult director Mary Harron running the whole show.
Let’s do the positives first – Christian Bale and the cast are just pitch-perfect. Bale in particular showing the method acting obsession in his character building that will eventually lead to him being Batman and starring in Werner Herzog movies. His Bateman is terrifyingly good, all dead eyed stares and explosive levels of violence and the dead eyed charm works well throughout the film, particularly in the amazing ‘business card scene’. It turns out that Bale spent a lot of time (up to three hours per day) working out alone to get into character and bulk up. As for his inspiration for the personality? Bale himself is on the record as being inspired by the dead behind the eyes friendliness of a little known actor called Tom Cruise and when you see the film the comparison makes a strange kind of sense.
The rest of the cast is very good indeed, especially Reese Witherspoon as Bateman’s vacuous fiance and Jared Leto as the business rival who makes the mistake of getting in Patrick Bateman’s way. The rest of the film follows the plot of the novel really very closely and manages to capture the tone and aesthetic of the book perfectly and most of the lines, especially Bateman’s voice-over, are lifted verbatim from the original novel.
So, this must be another great adaptation then?
No. But in this case, I think that this has to be a good thing.
Let me be utterly clear. To directly re-create the book into a film format is not possible. It just isn’t. The violence, sexism and brutal, tense prose could not translate to a film that anyone would want to see. Bateman, in that version, would be an unwatchable monster and some of the scenes that the book details just wouldn’t be possible to re-create on the big screen, or if they were I’m not sure whether you would want to see it, (the aforementioned rat scene springs to mind here.)
So, if I can call the adaptive process here a failure it would have to be on these grounds. The book is simply that far outside the norm of the horror/serial killer genre that the film could not be made when it was if it tried to copy the film. Yes it may be harsh to call it not a good adaptation but the Batman in the film is actually a well constructed character rather than the amoral void that Ellis creates. The book shows the utter degeneration that serious psychosis brings, Bateman looses all traces of his humanity and seems truly alien. Christian Bale’s Bateman is a monster, that much is true but seems much identifiable in the line of cinema serial killers.
So, no. This isn’t a great adaptation. But in all honesty? That is nothing but a good thing – it allows the film to be one of the finest cult horror thrillers of the last twenty years rather than something that would get you a ten stretch inside for owning and some serious psychological damage for viewing. There were some rumblings some Ellis’s Twitter feed about a month ago that he was looking at the possibility of a sequel and to be honest I’m none too sure – Bateman seems like such a product of the vapidity of the 1980s that I can’t imagine him walking around today – though maybe that says more about me than him.
There’s my two cents then ladies and gents and I hope I haven’t put you off the film as it is well done and really worth watching. And for those who still haven’t been dissuaded from seeking out the book, nothing more I could say would make any difference, but one final piece of information. One of the first lines from the book is a famous quote from Dante’s inferno; ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.’
So read it if you must, but remember – you were warned.