Film vs Book #6: American Psycho
This week, American Psycho, written by Brett Easton Ellis in 1991, and directed by Mary Harron in 2000. It’s always strange to read about controversy when the dust has settled. What can lead to persecution or prosecution in its own time can seem ridiculous, and quite frankly rather twee, even twenty years later. Lady Chatterly’s Lover, The Catcher in the Rye, even The Dandy has flirted with controversy in their time, and yet raise the issue associated with them today and we can find something just as 'offensive' sitting next to it on the shelves. American Psycho is another on that list. The plot follows an American banker named Patrick Bateman; a quiet conformist by day, a serial killer by night. The graphic description of torture and abuse in the novel led to hate mail and death threats for its author Brett Easton Ellis, who was apparently utterly astonished by the response. There is no denying that the book is absolutely shocking. Its scenes of violence couldn’t be more explicit, and it's a difficult read. Taken by themselves, the more gruesome scenes seem nothing but misogynist exploitation, but when put in context, they are clearly satirical. Patrick’s daily life shifts in content and tone massively. It feels very sterile in places, and a whole chapter that is nothing but a review of Whitney Houston’s work can seem very oblique. Crucially, it means the most evocative pieces of writing come with the violence. It all becomes one big comment on the sterility of Bateman’s life, and no matter what you think of his killing, it feels more important than anything else in his life. But what of the film?
A lot has been made of female director Mary Harron taking on a so called misogynist novel, but for me this is neither here nor there. Clearly the biggest choice (and indeed the biggest change) she and the screenwriter have made is reducing the gore, something I will get into later. This effectively shifts the tone from a pitch black comedy to something more dark grey, and although not exactly a family film, most audiences over fifteen can stomach what remaining nastiness there is. In a story that follows one character so closely, whoever plays Bateman must pull it off with absolute confidence, and Christian Bale is Patrick Bateman. His performance is spot on, and manages to be funny, scary, tragic and simply the perfect fit. Combined with spot-on costume and make-up, this is one of the best examples of bringing a character to life. A superb supporting cast including Willem Dafoe, Chloe Sevigny and Jared Leto, alongside great set design and solid direction really bring this world to life. Although it doesn’t feel like an eighties movie, it feels like the eighties, and from soundtrack to sunglasses a world is born.
Yet no matter how hard you try, by losing the violence you will inevitably lose some of the satire. If the gore cannot be represented by film, then there is only so far a movie can go. American Psycho displays one of the strength of the written word over the silver screen. Both are great pieces of work, but there is just more to the book. It is entertaining, but is a serious literary text, whereas the film is a piece of entertainment with a strong message. Verdict: The film is vastly more enjoyable, and worth a watch at least once. But despite being almost unreadable in places, every line of the source material can be studied for a higher truth. Just imagine what happens when it is all put together. Ignore the controversy. Book.