I recently began reading Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, on which a great movie (incidentally, also titled American Psycho) is based. The primary reason I began to read the book was because I was such a fan of the film. Ellis’s reported perception of this book’s film adaptation can be summarized as a big “meh.” And, as I read it, I get it. He sees the film as redundant, though is thankful that the movie brought a new audience to the book and cleared up that the misogyny, racism and violence of the story is meant to be satirical. Apparently, that wasn’t obvious to some readers.
It’s not often that I take one movie I care about and examine its preceding text, or vice-versa. My favorite book is Catch-22 but I’ve never seen the film (which apparently is only akin to the book in spirit). I read one and a half Lord of the Rings books before I decided that I could just watch the movies and enjoy them for the masterpieces they are, without worrying about all the little details (see Tom Bombadil for another song). And then, I decided to stop reading in general. I’m trying to get back on track.
As movies are often adapted from books (the reverse, a process known as novelization), there are several questions adapters must ask. Let’s take the case of American Psycho:
- There are scenes in the book (sex and violence-wise) which will not pass any ratings certification allowing our movie to be shown in the theater. Do we tone it down?
- Unless we do some cutting and rearranging, the narrative is way too long for movie form. How do we still convey the story of American Psycho and fit into a 2+ hour runtime?
- What are the most important aspects of the story which must make the transition to screen in order for the adaptation to be faithful?
Let’s focus on this last point. Every chapter in the book involves a detailed description by protagonist Patrick Bateman (the titular “Psycho”) of what every character in his sight is wearing. Suede jacket by Ralph Lauren, tie by Armani, etc. etc. You can imagine description of such detail gets repetitive, but over time, it becomes essential. You only can tell something is wrong, something has gone awry when Patrick neglects to tell you what everyone is wearing, or worse – makes a mistake. Thus, a defining feature of the book cannot make a successful transition to screen. For obvious reasons, it would be implausible to have Christian Bale (in voiceover) describe everyone’s attire in every scene, as the purpose of having such narration is to include it in every scene. It’s not something you can only do once, in token homage to the book. It would lose its purpose. Thus, the filmmakers wisely chose not to include such extensive descriptions in the film. Of course the story loses something in this process, but there’s simply no other way. Film and literature are fundamentally different media.
Another example of this is the fact that in a book, we have to take the narrator at his word. If the narrator mistakes a character for another, we only know this when it’s later revealed to us. The narrator himself can make errors, painting for us a distorted picture of reality. But the film camera cannot do this. Anything which the narrator perceives differently from reality will become obvious to the audience, who can clearly see with their own eyes that he’s wrong. Patrick, in the book, assumes that every attractive girl he encounters is flirting with him. But if we were to show, in a movie, every attractive girl flirting with Patrick, then we’d have to assume that they do in fact feel drawn to him. But in book format, we can sense, we can suppose that he’s inflating his own self image.
I’m not sure that devout readers will ever be happy with their film adaptations. Of course, the story has to be different. Any movie which was just like the book would either be too long, too misleading, or too boring. Movies have a set time limit, whereas books are go-at-your-own-pace. They each should be examined upon their own artistic merits, not on fidelity to source material. I enjoy the shit out of American Psycho, and am currently enjoying reading American Psycho. They’re two distinct, brilliant works of art. But I will admit – having Christian Bale’s voice reading the book in my head helps a lot.