Artwork by Chloe Leeson
The 1991 novel American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis immediately met with controversy. The novel is not an easy read. It is filled with long-winded and overly detailed descriptions of the food Patrick Bateman eats, the expensive suits that he wears and the music that he listens to. These tangents go on for pages and pages, but they instill the novel’s theme of critiquing the obsessive materialism of the 1980s consumerism culture. These descriptions also lend themselves to the horrific acts of violence that Patrick commits against women, which outraged feminist groups across the United States. Ellis was sent death threats and described as a “confused, sick, young man with a deep hatred of women.” One activist poured blood onto every copy of the book across Santa Cruz bookstores.
That year, Ellis countered these reactions in a Rolling Stone Q&A. “I don’t care what some women think or feel about this book, and I would have to say I don’t care whether they find it offensive or not. That’s not my problem, and I don’t feel any responsibility toward women or the women’s movement or NOW to write what they consider a socially acceptable book. What I’m doing is not that political, and they’re turning it into something that is political. So my message to women who are offended by this book is: ‘Sorry, guys, read another book.’” Ellis advocated his right as a writer to tell the story the way he wanted, just as it is anyone’s right to pick up whatever book they choose. In the same interview he states that the violent scenes “were incredibly upsetting to write, the hardest scenes I’ve ever had to write — for obvious reasons. Yet at the same time, I knew they had to be there. …I don’t think I could tell you how I felt after writing those scenes. I cried a few times.” Ellis believed that he needed to describe the psychopathic acts to define and reveal the insanity of his character. These acts reflected his “outlook on what the 80s seemed to symbolize for me. The 80s seemed to me to be a very ugly decade, and this was what I came away with. And it’s an ugly book.”
With its abstract structure and shifting narratives, American Psycho seemed to be unfilmable. Nevertheless, the film rights for the book were sold in 1992. Offers were made to David Cronenberg and Brian De Palma, but the producers recognized that the project would benefit from a female perspective to help damper the inevitable feminist protests. Mary Harron was hired as the director and co-wrote the screenplay with Guinevere Turner. Harron told The Guardian that she was not put off by the book’s violence, “As soon as I started reading it, it was completely obvious to me that it was a satire – a critique, not an endorsement.” Harron and Turner set out to bring the book’s humor to the forefront. They crafted the film to be a satire on masculinity, mocking the male characters and the self-absorbed 80s culture they inhabited. They played down the violence to focus on Bateman’s (and all the Wall Street males’) obsession with status and appearance.
The mockery of Patrick Bateman creates a monster that is not feared but laughed at. He is not depicted as a swaggering badass for men and women to fawn over and admire but rather a giant dork. He is loser that struggles to create some semblance of a normal human being’s life, ending up a clueless and pathetic sociopath. The willingness to go for the absurdities of the character was what drew Harron to casting Christian Bale. He was never interested, as many young men were who auditioned for the role, in making Bateman seem cool. He was only to be a satiric construct. Patrick Bateman, who kills and tortures women for fun, is NOT to be rooted for or even understood. Bale, Harron and Turner take care in stressing that and that is very important for the film. If the film endorsed Bateman’s behavior, it would not be a feminist or admirable one.
Christian Bale’s performance was inspired by Tom Cruise for his “very intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes.” Bale’s vocal cadence and overdramatic gestures makes this easily readable, especially in the laundromat scene, where he comes off as a psychopathic Jerry McGuire. Another example of Bale’s absurdity, as well as Harron’s feminist vision, is in the prostitute scene. In the novel, Bateman’s fantastical notions about the encounter are depicted as a lengthy excerpt from Penthouse. How to translate this on screen? Harron wanted the reality of the situation to seem sad and disconnected. These women were simply going through the motions to get the job done and leave, already feeling creeped out by Bateman’s pathetic attempts to be romantic or seductive. If she had shown the scene as it was in the book, it would read like a porno. (I feel if De Palma directed this, it would be exactly that) Harron asked Christian Bale to look in the mirror while they had sex, and Bale delivered by making ridiculous macho faces and flexing his muscles. This juxtaposed the reality of the situation vs Bateman’s macho fantasy of the evening, while effectively translating Ellis’ written vision for the screen.
By highlighting the humor, the violence Bateman engages in is kept off screen. The audience is never indulged in the gore-fests that bring Bateman sick joy. Harron uses a number of techniques to keep the violence off screen and leave much to the imagination. We watch Bateman walk with a woman and cut to a massively bloody sheet he must have laundered. After being with another girl, it cuts to a shot of him playing with a cut off lock of her hair. In the prostitute scene, we see Bateman looking at a case of tools and a wire hanger, telling them he’s not through yet. The next shot shows the prostitutes leaving with scars on their faces and bodies. One of them tells Patrick the injuries led her to the emergency room and in need of surgery. With these scenes, we are left to fill in the chilling blanks of what Bateman has done to all these women, the unseen far more terrifying than if we had witnessed it. The horrifying drawings Jean stumbles upon in Bateman’s planner and his phone confession describing his past killings references other violent parts described in the novel, and highlights the lengths of Bateman’s psychopathic behavior without having to show it. In fact, you see very little of Bateman actually killing people on screen. The homeless man is the only murder we see as it happens. In the famous “Hip to be Square” murder scene, you do not see the effects of his ax’s blows, but only the blood spray and the dead body. With Christine the prostitute, we see the aftermath of him throwing the chainsaw on her. We do not see her being killed as it happens. (That scene is a sendup of horror tropes, the man is naked while the woman being chased is clothed) Only towards the end do we view the extent of what Bateman has done, when we follow Christine throughout the apartment as she stumbles upon a mass amount of dead women’s bodies.
American Psycho is considered to be Ellis’ best film adaptation. In a 2010 interview with Movieline, Ellis absurdly states that directing is a profession built for the male gaze. Critics disagree. “It’s just as well a woman directed American Psycho,” wrote Roger Ebert. “She’s transformed a novel about blood lust into a movie about men’s vanity.” The novel draws a fine line between satire and exploitation, and the kind of exploitation that people find cool and can get off on how violent it is. I fear that if a man had directed the film, it may have suffered from that line, using the exploitative scenes for the sake of shock and horror.
I read the book as a teenager and the descriptions of the violence are disturbing and uses language that is intensely misogynistic. These scenes really only equate to about four pages out of a nearly 400 page book. But personally, (though it is surely up for debate) I can see why they are necessary. After all, the book is about a psycho describing his world in great detail. It is inevitable the novel would also have explicit and lengthy descriptions of his murders. These descriptions do go very far, and it was surely hard for people to get past the gruesomeness to see their intent. It was perfect for a woman to take control of the film’s vision. Mary Harron captured the true essence of the novel’s spirit by hiding the violence and making a mockery out of Bateman, transforming the sexist and gruesome aspects of the novel into a satirical portrait of the notions of masculinity. American Psycho benefited from the gaze of a female director in every way, changing a highly controversial and considerably sexist novel into a feminist declaration.
By Caroline Madden
Caroline hails from the home state of her hero Bruce Springsteen. Some of her favorite films are Amadeus, King Kong, When Harry Met Sally, Raging Bull, The Godfather, Jaws, and An American Werewolf in London. Her absolute favorite will always be The Lord of the Rings trilogy. 70s/80s era Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are her faves. She blogs even more about her film obsession at cinematicvisions.wordpress.com.