I always feel slightly ashamed when I tell people that my favourite author is Bret Easton Ellis. Even the man himself laughed at me when I told him I’d written my dissertation on his work. These days, it seems he’s given up on novels to concentrate on deriding trigger warnings and making near universally derided erotic thrillers. So for now it seems the closest Easton Ellis will get to involvement in a decent film is the Mary Harron directed adaptation of his 1991 novel, American Psycho. Ironic really, given his insistence that women don’t make good directors (lack of male gaze blah blah too emotional blah blah.)
Actually, the best thing about Harron’s adaptation is the lack of tangible emotion. By skipping the melodrama she manages to capture the essence of Easton Ellis’ trademark blank prose, without creating obvious, robotic characters. The stark apartments filled with Mies Van Der Rohe furniture, the identical expensive haircuts and the tiny dishes served in pretentious restaurants are oppressively tasteful and devoid of individuality.
It would be easy with a film like American Psycho to go for a heavy-handed moral approach to the subject matter. Apparently this is the treatment that Oliver Stone had in mind whilst he was briefly attached to the project. Harron trusts the audience to draw their own conclusions about meaning. And so she should. Do we really need Patrick Bateman to stand up and tell us “I am a terrifying product of the brutal society free market capitalism creates”? Nothing about the plot is subtle enough to warrant that kind of spoon-feeding. But remaining faithful to the novel in this way is a brave choice. Novelists are allowed a level of moral ambiguity that filmmakers often aren’t.
And filmmakers certainly aren’t allowed to show women being repeatedly maced and then nail-gunned to the floor before being mutilated by a power drill. Which is just as well really. Because of this, Harron is forced to commit the ultimate movie sin of telling rather than showing. She uses this to her advantage by amping up the satire and black comedy elsewhere, in brilliantly effective set-pieces. The business card scene in particular distils the coldness and fear that simmers away throughout the book, without having to show us somebody being eaten by a rat from the inside out. Obviously there’s still plenty of on-screen brutality (Paul Owen being axed in the face to a soundtrack of Huey Lewis and the News is a highlight) but its hyper-real quality plays on the idea of the unreliable narrator, reminding us that we’re on uncertain ground.
Mary Harron’s light touch and sense of style made for a great movie, but it was Christian Bale’s performance as Patrick Bateman that turned it into a cult classic. Beneath the abs, the Valentino suit and the face mask, he seethes with rage and alienation, making it impossible to relax when you’re watching him. And when Bateman goes Texas Chainsaw on us, Bale goes with him. All at once, we’re beyond the surface, surface, surface of his world, somewhere startlingly primitive. When I was writing my dissertation on the novel, it was Bale’s face that haunted my anxiety-fuelled nightmares.
Several other Bret Easton Ellis novels have been adapted for the screen. Rules of Attraction was only mildly diverting, Less Than Zero couldn’t even be saved by Robert Downey Jr., and the less said about The Informers the better. In fact, American Psycho is the only successful adaptation to have been made of one of his novels. It’s that rare thing: a film adaptation that does justice to the novel it’s based on. It must really piss Bret Easton Ellis off that it was a woman who made it.
Our guest poster Lydia is London based and describes herself as here for Girl Gangs and Full Communism. Which is awesome.