Horror films that are adapted from literature can sometimes be a little divisive. Just take a look at the mixed reviews for something like “Pet Sematary” (1989)—some have quite a “sour” outlook on that one (haha). All joking aside, adaptations can cause some conflict because there’s just no way to be entirely faithful to the source text, and it’s even harder to get right when the original source text is heavily criticized as in the case of the 1991 novel version of “American Psycho” written by Bret Easton Ellis.
When the book came out, most critics said that it was too gory and excessively sadistic. Ellis said it was satire; some said it couldn’t even be considered literature. A film adaptation seemed unlikely for such a hated piece of literature, which is probably why it took eight years for the film to get made in the first place (film rights to the novel were purchased in 1992).
But one director finally had the courage to work with such controversial source material—Mary Harron. While her 2000 adaptation sticks with the gore and sadism, it does so in a way that condemns the actions of the main character, Patrick Bateman (played by Christian Bale), instead of uplifting them (a common criticism of the novel). “American Psycho” (2000) is a take on the slasher genre first made popular in the mid-1970s and 80s, paying homage to Tobe Hooper’s 1974 film “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”—in some scenes it’s even playing in the background—but it is made new and interesting by the fact that we as the audience see it from the opposite perspective: that of the killer.
I know you’re probably asking, “How is that different from the novel at all? Patrick’s the main character in that, too,” and I hear you. But, there is a definitive difference in the point of view enacted in the film. In the novel, we see the story through Patrick’s eyes, whereas in the movie, we are an observer outside of the situation. We are able to view the events that occur and differentiate between right and wrong for ourselves instead of being swept along for the ride through the lens of Patrick’s consciousness.
Instead, we’re able to look through the lens of the camera with cinematography that focuses on Bale in an intimate way that viewers have typically come to expect of female characters. Harron flips the notion of the “male gaze” on its head and forces the viewer to question why she’s doing it—something you’ll hopefully figure out for yourself once you watch the film. And you can’t really go wrong with the show-stopping performance by Bale of an incredibly unreliable narrator; this and the editing of the film make the plot that much more interesting to try to follow for the audience.
Overall, Mary Harron reclaims the material presented by Ellis in the “American Psycho” novel in a way that strengthens its satirical elements and provides a relevant commentary on its shocking contents.
Filmnetic Grade: A-
Have you read the novel and seen the adaptation? If so, comment below your thoughts on the similarities and differences between the two!