22 February 2014

Prose vs Pictures #3 | Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho vs Mary Harron’s American Psycho

There’s no point prevaricating here - the book wins. The purpose of this latest Prose vs Pictures piece is to explain why.

With his novel American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis succeeded in creating a work as deliberately superficial as the characters that drive it. Taking the form of a long monologue delivered by Wall Street yuppie Patrick Bateman, Ellis abandons any sense of narrative or even drama in favour of endless, soulless descriptions of a world without depth or heart: “big ideas, guy stuff, boy meets the world, boy gets it.” An insatiable, masochistic curiosity keeps the fingers of most readers glued to its pages as Bateman relays the horrors of an existence that he feels wholly absent from. And his nocturnal bloodlust, believe it or not, is the least of these horrors. “These are terrible times…”

Indeed, to read American Psycho is to stare into a large, empty hole. I have never come across a text in any genre that evokes the same sense of futility. Bateman is not only an vacant soul, but painfully aware of his own vacuity. When we meet him, he wants “to… fit… in,”; half a book later, and he’s introducing starved rodents to corpses’ vaginas and licking human brains in a quest to simply feel.

“I had all the characteristics of a human being – flesh, blood, skin, hair – but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being…”

In order to appreciate how far Bateman goes in his quest for sensation, or perhaps even existence, the reader has to be immersed in the sheer banality of his day-to-day life to a degree that borders upon absurd. As such, most of the novel’s word count is made up of meticulous descriptions of things and tedious encounters with people that are as hollow, cruel or flawed as our protagonist / antagonist - characteristics that Ellis delights in battering readers over the head with through a never-ending precession of pre-dinner drinks (usually spent fretting over not having reservations somewhere chic) and occasional luncheons.

A man of cold yet casual precision, the narcissistic Bateman describes in great detail the apparel of everyone that he encounters; the stream of labels only ever seems to be broken by the occasional aside about a haircut or gym workout. The same blithe, numbing style relays the minutiae of his every sexual encounter. Every so often, it even describes the torture, murder and dissection of his various victims, many of whose body parts take up residence in his freezer. And it is only at height of his murderous passion that Bateman even threatens to touch the reality from which he feels divorced, but any sensation that he does experience (beyond greed or disgust) inevitably fades as quickly as the life in his victims’ eyes, and seems to be that little bit harder to achieve the next time around. He’s constantly pushing the envelope of his amoral perversity; constantly upping the ante.  

“Last night I had dreams that were lit like pornography and in them I fucked girls made of cardboard. The Patty Winters Show this morning was about Aerobic Exercise.”

Confined to just a hundred minutes of film, Mary Harron’s cinematic adaptation was never going to be able to achieve the same effect as Ellis’s masterwork - it would have needed to be around twelve hours long to do that. What it does instead is to offer us snapshots of Bateman’s life, which in principle could have been very effective, but in practice falls foul of mainstream movie prerequisites – obligatory little things like structure, pace and narrative. Such things no doubt endeared the film to moviegoers not familiar with the book, but I feel that the film’s inevitable focus on Ellis’s more thrilling and contentious chapters upsets the fragile balance between tedium and terror, and as a consequence masks the story’s point (or, indeed, deliberate lack of one). This is incredibly frustrating as there isn’t a single scene in the film that’s badly done – quite the opposite, in fact.

Christian Bale, for instance, captures perfectly both the lead character’s “boy next door” façade and perplexed alien interior. So utterly convincing is Bale that almost every scene in the movie – which, as the sole voice of the piece, he must inhabit – is relentlessly gripping, at times actually surpassing Ellis’s text. Such moments generally juxtapose near-verbatim snippets of memorable monologue from the book with shots of Bateman exercising or shaving, enriching and embellishing the printed words. One image lingers especially – a delectable shot of Bateman peeling off his face pack as if were a second skin, as Bale’s voiceover factually states, “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there.”

Moreover, in print, beyond mergers and acquisitions murders and executions, the only real passion in Bateman’s life seems to be music appreciation. Sandwiched between chapters on exercise and the latest Patty Winters Show, you might find an impromptu review of a Whitney Houston LP, apparently vested with an ardour that you won’t find in any other aspect of Bateman’s musings. Sure, he gets obsessive about the purity of bottled water and the rules of wearing worsted navy blue blazers with grey pants, but such matters are always tempered by a revolted cynicism that seems to elude his musical musings. In the movie, as he prepares to cleave the drunken Paul Owen’s head in two with an axe, he’s playing “Hip to Be Square” on his CD player, while at the same time discussing the aesthetic merits of the album Fore! Later, as Bateman entertains two prostitutes, his barked commands to them are interspersed with his articulate reflections on Genesis, and Phil Collins’ subsequent solo career. In combining these two disparate elements, Harron and her co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner cleverly tie together the only two things that seem to give Bateman any real sense of self – music and masochism.

Another huge strength of the film is its overwhelming period flavour. Though it was made within a decade or so of its setting, when I watched the movie again for the purposes of this article, I was struck by how incredibly ’80s it feels, particularly in its score. I really got the sense that it had been made contemporaneously, which of course helps to evoke the sense of rampant consumerism and gaudy vacancy that the novel captures so marvellously.

Unfortunately though, the movie’s unwelcome shifts in emphasis and catastrophic imbalance render it far less satisfying than the much bolder and more intriguing novel that it was based upon. Even its perfectly-played climax is ruined by its suggestive positioning, which carries a much heavier implication than the novel’s careful ambiguity. By ending her film on the moment that she does, viewers tend to draw a much more concrete inference about Bateman’s reliability (I was tempted to use the word ‘sanity’ here, before thinking better of it) from Harron’s interpretation than readers of Ellis’s novel are likely to. This, in itself, completely distorts one’s impression of the tale.
“Intellect is not a cure. Justice is dead. Fear, recrimination, innocence, sympathy, guilt, waste, failure, grief, were things, emotions, that no one really felt anymore. Reflection is useless, the world is senseless. Evil is its only permanence. God is not alive. Love cannot be trusted. Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in…”

American Psycho the novel is an epic, nihilistic thing that contrasts the monotony of a yuppie’s life in of the late 1980s with the illicit thrills of his depraved power plays that invariably end in maiming or murder. In its finest moments, you can all but feel the scratches of Bateman’s fingernails as he desperately tries to cling to his last vestiges of self after the trappings of a materialistic world have washed away any sense of identity or perspective that he might have once had. Some see it as a sage satire on the go-go years, but I think that it’s much broader than that – it’s a satire on modern life in the Western world, and all the avarice thereto. American Psycho the film, on the other hand, is an alluring trailer for the novel at best. At worst, its shifting of weight and adherence to convention rob Ellis’s work of its sharpest edge, threatening to turn the most deadpan satire ever devised into a nostalgic farce. The book, perhaps, goes a bit too far on occasion, both when it comes to the dreadfulness of its many torture / rape / murder sequences, and when it comes to the sheer numbness of the nothingness in between. The movie, however, doesn’t go anything like far enough in either respect - but at least there’s some irony to be found in a book about a society in which “surface became the only thing” being transformed into a film that consciously sells out to superficiality.

 “I imagine running around Central Park on a cool spring afternoon with Jean, laughing, holding hands. We buy balloons, we let them go.”

Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho novel is currently available in paperback (best price online today: £4.44 from Play) and digital formats (£1.99 from Amazon’s Kindle Store or £5.99 from iTunes). Don’t be confused by the digital edition’s “Fortieth Anniversary” tagline – it’s the publishing house’s anniversary, not the novel’s!

Mary Harron’s American Psycho movie is difficult to find in 1080p HD at a decent price on disc in the UK, and the British iTunes Store doesn’t have it to download either - anyone would think that it’s a contentious title to stock! The standard-definition DVD, however, is commonplace, and can be picked up for just a few quid – today’s cheapest online price is £3.23 from Play.