A how-to manual on the torture and dismemberment of women. That’s how one activist described Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, released in the midst of great controversy in 1991. Needless to say, she wasn’t a fan. And she wasn’t alone: feminist groups were up in arms over the book’s graphic depiction of violence against women. Nevertheless, the novel survived the backlash, and before long the film rights had been snapped up. And at the helm of this woman-hating travesty? Canadian filmmaker Mary Harron, directing from a script that she co-wrote with writer and actor Guinevere Turner.
Putting two women in charge of the adaptation was not an accident – while Harron’s vision was appreciated, the producers admit hiring female filmmakers could help take some of the heat off what was, even before shooting began, already a controversial project. But Harron and Turner didn’t sign on simply to quell critics’ dissent; both had a clear vision of what the film needed to be. Unlike American Psycho’s detractors, the two writers felt that there was a feminist vein running underneath the graphic sex and violence. But could they make others see in their film what they saw in Ellis’ book? And could the two writers, who had never written an adaptation before, create a compelling piece of cinema from a novel that is by design largely without direction, consequential action, or a single sympathetic character?
With its heavy reliance on Bateman’s internal monologue, an unreliable narrator, and chapters consisting entirely of its protagonist’s views on various 80s pop artists, American Psycho is, in many ways, a novel that could only have been a novel. In others, it is a story that lends itself to the screen; the choice to use some of the novel’s narration as voiceover allows for layers of meaning that cannot be conveyed in text alone, as is the case in the early scene in which lead actor Christian Bale uses his best advertisement voice to recite Bateman’s morning skincare routine, underscoring the shallow and consumerist attitude lambasted throughout both the novel and the film.
As for restructuring the almost 400-page novel into a film just over 90 minutes long, Harron and Turner manage to condense the narrative in a way that adds clarity to the story and excludes little that would be missed. The seemingly endless chapters of inane conversation between Bateman and his contemporaries are condensed into barely a handful of scenes which convey the men and their culture with twice the clarity in half the time. The best example of this is the opening scene of Bateman, McDermott, Van Patten and Bryce talking in an upmarket restaurant. In under four minutes, we are introduced to their views on various New York eating establishments, their annoyance at being unable to get into Dorsia (the holy grail of New York restaurants), their shared cocaine habit, McDermott’s anti-semitism, Bateman’s insincere objections to it, the Fisher account, the Platinum AmEx cards, and the men’s continual inability to correctly identify their peers.
This streamlining of the story allows it to take a clearer structure, and elements that get lost in the novel are given greater significance. Detective Kimball seems more of a threat to Patrick than he ever does in the book, in large part due to his earlier appearance; cutting extraneous scenes from the back end of the novel allows the film to craft a compelling climax from the surreal police chase that has little of the same impact in its original form.
The portrayal of the much-discussed violence is itself a significant departure from the book, swapping Ellis’ detailed, visceral descriptions of torture and mutilation for a ‘less is more’ approach that leaves much of the violence implied rather than shown onscreen. In her commentary track, Turner explains that this decision stemmed largely from the public’s desensitisation to onscreen violence, and that she and Harron agreed that Bateman’s violence would be scarier if most of it were left to the audience’s imagination. By having ‘one big violent scene’ (‘Christie’s thwarted escape from Paul Allen’s apartment) and leaving the rest largely to the imagination, the film heightens the threat of this sequence and ensures there is a building of tension as the story heads towards its climax, again allowing the film to take a more conventional structure than the novel.
The violence in American Psycho cannot be properly discussed without addressing the most controversial element of the book, its depiction of violence against women. By reducing (and toning down) the onscreen depiction of Bateman’s killings, the adaptation largely avoids the accusation of using gendered violence in a way that is exploitative or fetishistic, but this exclusion is not all the film does to subvert the criticism levelled at its source material. The aforementioned ‘one big violent scene’ is perhaps the best example of this: from the beginning of the chase sequence (and indeed, for much of the preceding scenes) the camera follows Christie, not Bateman, and the audience is forced to follow events from her point of view, to empathise with her and feel her fear the way we have not been asked to with any of Bateman’s previous victims. The scene not only deviates from, but reverses the perspective taken throughout the novel and much of the film, with the protagonist we have been watching becoming, for one scene, the antagonist to Christie’s heroine. It isn’t that the film up to here has been sympathetic towards Bateman – indeed, it actively encourages its audience to laugh at him as well as be disturbed by his actions – but the switch of focus from killer to victim takes him from his position of the ‘morbid curio’ protagonist and places him firmly in horror-villain territory.
The representation of women in American Psycho would be an interesting topic even without the controversy that plagued both novel and film from before the former was even published. Liberated from Bateman’s narrow point of view, the story’s female characters take on a humanity that was never seen in the book. While their dialogue remains largely the same, and their roles are, for the most part, no larger, simply seeing the women’s expressions as they speak, hearing their intonation, gives them another dimension that Patrick never sees – but, thanks to the natural third-person perspective of the medium, film viewers can. A subtle, but particularly poignant example comes when Courtney, newly engaged to closeted homosexual Luis Carruthers, tries to open up to Bateman as he dresses himself after the two have sex. Like everyone in Bateman’s social group, Courtney is not a deep thinker, nor has much of an obvious personality, but the way the camera lingers on her as she wrestles with what to say to him suggests an inner life never hinted at in the novel. Unlike in the source material, it is clear that when a woman refrains from saying something, it isn’t necessarily because she has nothing to say.
The end of Ellis’ novel leaves open the question of whether some, or all, of Patrick’s crimes were simply fictions invented by a man filled with hatred and boredom. This begs the question: if the murders weren’t real, what else was simply Patrick’s imagination? In the film’s commentary, Turner suggests that to her, the crimes were real but the presentation of them as described in the book or shown on film were warped by Bateman’s perception of events: “…he’s probably not as nicely dressed…it probably didn’t go as smoothly as he’s perceiving it to go… the hookers probably weren’t as hot.” While the film version leaves the ending as ambiguous as the book (unintentionally, Turner claims), breaking out from Patrick Bateman’s perspective allows the film to go where the novel couldn’t in demonstrating the ways in which reality diverges from his fantasy. While the book details Bateman’s sexual encounters in an explicit detail, these scenes share the rest of the novel’s disinterest in the emotional lives of his partners. With Bale’s performance effectively displaying Bateman’s self-obsession, Harron is able to venture outside of his narrow world to see what is really happening; in the film, the sex scene with ‘Christie’ and ‘Sabrina’ makes clear the awkwardness the women are feeling as a result of Bateman’s odd behaviour, something he is oblivious to. With the bright lights and film camera, Bateman attempts to live his own pornographic fantasies, but the audience knows that the truth isn’t quite what he sees it to be.
The awkward and hilarious sex scene between Bateman, Christie and Sabrina is also a moment that highlights one of the recurring themes of the movie: male vanity. Though he likes to project the image of being a stud, Bateman spends most of the scene looking at himself in the mirror, flexing his muscles and checking his hair. It’s a detail that is not in the source material, and one that is indicative of Harron and Turner’s gender-conscious adaptation. A critique of masculinity, as embodied in the conspicuous consumption and Wall Street excesses of the 80s, could always be read into the original novel, but it was the film that made this theme explicit. As Turner puts it: “this is a story about men living in a man’s world, competing with each other over who has a better tan, who has better clothes… nobody can tell each other apart, it’s all very empty, it’s shallow, it’s competitive.” This shallowness comes across in the novel through Bateman’s habit of listing the designer brands worn by every person he meets, and dedicating whole chapters to his pretentious analysis of various popular musicians. Similarly, the film shows the emptiness of his lifestyle in a number of ways, but his vanity and preoccupation with his physical appearance is a significant and recurring theme. We see him work out, narrate his (extensive) skincare routine, work out again, visit a spa, agonize over the effectiveness of a new hair mousse… and throughout, the camera lingers over Bale’s semi-naked body, not only subverting the accusations of misogyny by filming him the way many movies film their female characters, but also cannily using the camerawork to reflect Bateman’s own vanity.
Turner also points out the inherent homoeroticism of Bateman’s obsession with maintaining his physical beauty, claiming the film makes him and his peers look ‘kinda gay’: “they’re so obsessed with how they look, and their clothes, and their business cards or whatever […] that’s kinda what we think of how gay men are… impeccably dressed, impeccably groomed, etcetera…” The men of Bateman’s social circle are “really concerned with each other, and women are just sort of this outside factor.” With the effort they put into maintaining their appearance, not for women, not for themselves, but for each other, the lingering shots are not a simple reversal of the voyeuristic male gaze as much as a subtler reflection of the fact that Bateman is himself constantly under the male gaze – that of himself and his peers.
For a production as fraught as this one, it is interesting to consider all the possible ways this film could have ended up, and it is hard not to conclude that with this one, we dodged a bullet – or perhaps a scalpel and a rusty coat hanger. While it is intriguing to wonder what the surreal musical number at the end of the Brett Easton Ellis-penned script would have looked like, from the information available it seems all other possible incarnations of this film sound on paper to have none of the self-awareness of Harron and Turner’s savvy script. When Leonardo DiCaprio was signed on to star, both writers suspected the script would be rewritten to give Bateman the psychological motivation and redeeming features expected for a character played by such a Hollywood star. Understandably, the two balked at this idea as much as Harron did at DiCaprio’s casting, which was done behind her back. It seems that, for a while, Lionsgate had dropped their female director in favour of an adaptation that makes a sympathetic protagonist out of a hyper-misogynistic, sadistic serial killer. Maybe the critics had a point…
This psychological approach was one taken by Oliver Stone, who was attached for some time when DiCaprio was set to star. In an interview with the Guardian prior to the film’s release, Harron described Stone as ‘the single worst person to do it’, criticizing his movies’ female characters as well as seeing him as a bad fit for social satire. Without sharing her criticism, producer Edward R. Pressman agreed on this point: “Oliver’s approach was more psychological. Mary’s was satirical.” It’s curious then, that such a script was ever mooted in the first place – satire is such an integral part of American Psycho that the story could not exist in recognisable form without it. What exactly a ‘psychological’ telling of the business card scene would look like remains to be seen.
An American Psycho without the satire would essentially be another generic slasher movie, and to imagine this would likely come close to seeing what the potential David Cronenberg adaptation would have looked like. The director’s intention was to make an adaptation that stuck closely to the source material, torture and all, but American Psycho is an example that proves wrong the perceived wisdom that faithfulness defines an adaptation’s quality. The changes made to the story by Harron and Turner allow Ellis’ themes to come through in a way that better suits its new medium, as well as subtly subverting many of the criticisms of the original novel. This subtlety is one that would doubtless be lost in an adaptation that clung to the gruesome detail of Ellis’ novel rather than its larger themes. Such a gore-fest, however, was unlikely to ever get made, with Pressman rejecting scripts, including Ellis’, that he found to be too offensive. To what extent his judgement was influenced by the controversy is unknown, but it is not impossible that those protesting against the movie may have, indirectly, had a hand in ensuring the film turned out as it did.
Harron, on the other hand, had an approach that saw restraint in the depiction of violence as integral to her interpretation of the story. To show Bateman’s crimes from his perspective would risk the audience taking voyeuristic pleasure in the violence; for the murders to be depicted in a way that wasn’t exploitative they would have to be shown with ‘a kind of cool detachment.’ Her film draws a clear line between depicting misogyny and promoting it, something many male filmmakers oft find challenging; instead of ignoring or purposely baiting feminist critics of the source material, the adaptation subverts criticisms of the book that would have likely have been entrenched by other filmmakers.
In the end, American Psycho the film is as hard to pin down as American Psycho the novel: what is real and what is fantasy? Is the story a critique of capitalism? A satire of masculinity? A comment on a particular culture and moment in time? Is it all of this? Or none? In adapting the novel, Harron and Turner have taken the themes of the novel and given them further clarity, while maintaining the ambiguity that allows the story to remain open to a multiplicity of readings and interpretations.