Writing, Reviewing and Criticism In The Internet Age

Tag: Bret Easton Ellis

Classics Month III, or, Contentiously Classical?


There are times when it seems that things have not moved on in society and especially in the reaction of certain aspects of society to cultural or artistic expression. You know what I’m referring to – here in the UK it usually gets labelled the ‘Daily Mail Handwringing dance’ otherwise known as that charming middle class battle cry – ‘Won’t somebody think of the children!’

To be honest this is not anything new so I should really stop being surprised that we as a species haven’t gotten beyond the point of fearing the art that our own culture produces. This problem is literally thousands of years old; researching this column I remembered that Socrates was effectively murdered by the state because they thought his books would turn people into atheists, and though the government hasn’t forced Richard Dawkins to take poison, things don’t seem like we’ve moved on all that far as books are still condemned today as being corrosive, dangerous and needing to be censored. The twentieth century was rife with instances of censorship, people facing arrest and even imprisonment for selling on the works of authors from DH Lawrence to Bret Easton Ellis and even this week’s book, Anthony Burgess’s novella ‘A Clockwork Orange.’

For those of you who have read all of my blogs thus far it may have become apparent that I have a small fondness for dystopia novels and this definitely falls into this category. Written in just three weeks, Burgess wrote the book in Hove, a few miles away from Brighton which was in the middle of the now infamous mods vs. rockers fighting, and then – as now – the country was in the midst of bemoaning its feral youth.

As usual I’m trying to avoid any major spoilers but the book and, as we’ll see later, the film has become so much a part of the popular consciousness I will be surprised if all of this is completely new. So, the story follows Alex and his friends in a near future dystopia vision of Britain, one under a totalitarian government. Alex and his friends, or ‘droogs’, speak mainly in ‘nadsat which is a dense and Russian influenced slang. The gang of friends wander around looking for sex, drugs and what Alex terms, ‘ultra-violence.’ After an adventure goes wrong Alex is left bloodied and arrested for murder. Whilst in prison he is subjected to the Ludivico Technique, an aversion technique that is designed to make him violently sick whenever he sees or thinks of violence.

A broken man he leaves prison and the novella closes with him considering if he ever had a child, how they would turn out. The story is all first person and thus rests entirely on the characters of Alex as to whether it succeeds, and it is this part of the book that helps cement its reputation as a classic. Simply put, Alex is one of the most interesting and well-drawn teenagers in fiction. He never explains or attempts to justify his behaviour and actions but he is sympathetic -intelligent, articulate and fond of classical music. These little traits not only make him seem more human, but also more terrifying. He isn’t a mythical monster but in the world created here, Alex is just a normal teenager.

The book was successful and the adaptation soon appeared on screen, written, produced and directed by one of the greats of modern cinema –Stanley Kubrick. The film along with the book it now regarded as a classic and it isn’t hard to see why. The cast, particularly Malcolm MacDowell in a star making turn as Alex, all big eyes, broad smiles and complete sociopathic swings in mood. Alex feels both attractive and dangerous. Just as with the book the film attracted a lot of negative attention – especially one memorable and horribly creepy scene that will ensure the song ‘Singing In The Rain’ is forever scarred in your imagination…

Without re-hashing the elements of the plot too much there are a few minor changes that don’t really affect things too much and the ending is left a little differently. One of the things that have made this a film to be considered a classic is the look and the design of the world that the film evokes. Even if you haven’t already seen the film the poster has become a part of cinematography and design history and the rest of the films photography and design fits with this iconic, nightmarish aesthetic that an adaptation of the book would need.

Aside from the look and the execution of the film there is something slightly more abstract, yet more important that the film understands about the source material. The book is wrestling with a fairly large philosophical and theological problem behind the initially simple plot. Namely, is it better to allow someone to choose evil freely, or, through control make them be good? Anyone who reads the book will quickly get on which side of this debate Burgess sides – namely that by controlling Alex the government turns him into a ‘clockwork’ orange, something still beautiful, yet now no longer free.

The film, I feel, really understands the questions that Burgess was trying to explore – the issues of society and youth. On top of this things like control, freedom and power and how these things are used and abused by governments, religion and psychiatry. If you have never seen the film or read the book I really hope that you’ve been persuaded to seek them out and give them a watch or a read. The issues that they raise are still as prescient as ever and whilst the dystopia setting is still thankfully way off these are things that society is still talking about here and now. And if there is a better argument for reading this than that, I can’t think of it…

Think I’m wrong? Think I’m right and want to agree with me? Then join in the conversation in the comments or find me on Twitter.

Next week will be the end of Classics Month so I had better pick something that EVERYONE agrees on…



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.