By Jack Hawkins.
Twenty-nine years ago, in the fall of 1990, a film adaptation of American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis’s new novel, seemed unlikely. For this was a book deemed so violent, so pornographic, that Ellis received 13 death threats before it was even published. Indeed, the prospect of it being published at all was jeopardized when Simon and Schuster dropped it, citing ‘aesthetic differences’. Meanwhile, groups such as the National Organization of Women launched protests and called for boycotts, indulging that old fallacy of depiction equaling endorsement. Happily, amongst all the radioactivity, Vintage Books swooped in and bought the rights, publishing it as a trade paperback in March 1991.
But with more readers came even more vitriol, including some from my own father, who binned his copy in disgust after reading Bateman’s vicious mutilation of a tramp and his dog. I would personally tell Ellis this at a book signing years later, to which he said, with a slight wryness, “oh dear, oh goodness”.
Of course, today American Psycho is widely recognised as a modern classic, with Patrick Bateman an embodiment of capitalist greed. But the passage of time is not the only reason for this. Mary Harron’s 2000 adaptation of the novel, starring Christian Bale in what is still his best role, highlighted the great comedy and satirical absurdity of Ellis’s text, attracting legions of new readers and perspectives to his unfairly maligned novel. But this came at something of a cost, because while the film is unquestionably dark, it is an ameliorated vision that does not reach the depths of Bateman’s id quite like the novel.
How then would American Psycho have looked under another filmmaker’s direction? Well, Mary Harron’s leadership was never a sure thing. David Cronenberg was attached in the early-to-mid 90s, a filmmaker who had adapted an even more difficult book in The Naked Lunch. One would think that the master of body horror – who later turned his hand to visceral dramas like A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and Map to the Stars – would have had a haunting, possibly surrealist take on the novel.
Yet when Cronenberg recruited Ellis to write the script, he made clear that all restaurant and nightclub scenes were to be axed – because such locales are ‘static’ and ‘boring’ – and that he didn’t want to shoot any scenes of violence. Ellis, frustrated by the constraints and simply bored of the material, started to write all sorts of nonsense, including an outrageous musical denouement that saw Patrick Bateman atop the World Trade Centre to the sound of Barry Manilow’s ‘Daybreak’. Perhaps Ellis had been watching Serial Mom at the time? Fortunately, the collaboration was never realised, but this did not end the complexities of American Psycho’s pre-production. Soon after entered veteran filmmaker-cum-agitator Oliver Stone, who Harron described as, “probably the single worst person to do it… I like his stuff, but social satire is not his forte”.
It’s curious to read her say that, because American Psycho is a rather tidy mixture of Wall Street and Natural Born Killers. Indeed, Ellis visited the set of Wall Street in the spring of 1987, smoking cigarettes with Charlie Sheen between takes. He’d watch the final cut in December of that year, concluding that “the seduction of Sheen’s Bud Fox by Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko was the most powerful part of the movie.” “In some ways”, Ellis elaborated in his pseudo-memoir White, “I saw American Psycho as the logical outcome of where Bud Fox was heading in 1988 and 1989, even as I also realised that I was writing about a nightmare version of myself.”
Despite this human underpinning, Wall Street placed greater emphasis on the immoralities of high finance as opposed to American Psycho’s personal ridicule of its subjects. Yet, as Ellis observed, they still shared cultural themes. Gekko beguiles the sophomoric Fox into his world of surfaces and chauvinism, a world that Pat Bateman cherishes and hates in equal measure. And as Fox proves his worth and loyalty, Gekko rewards him with not only lucre and prestige, he even transfers Darien, his former lover. For she, like Bateman’s women, is just another commodity.
Yet for some, Stone’s social commentary may have been too earnest, even though it remained a clear indictment of everything Harron’s film would lampoon. However, his 1994 film Natural Born Killers, which follows star-crossed lovers Mickey and Mallory Knox as they shoot their way across the American West, adopted a very different tact, namely one of surrealist, sledgehammer satire.
This aesthetic, combined with his political flair and intention to focus on Bateman’s psychology, is what made Oliver Stone’s American Psycho so interesting. Because while Harron’s adaptation made full use of Ellis’s humour and dialogue – and was gifted with an iconic performance by Bale – it lacked what Harron herself described as the novel’s ‘avant-garde’.
After the burden of directing the weighty Heaven and Earth, Stone wanted to let off some steam with his next project. And let off some steam he did, because Natural Born Killers is a kaleidoscopic maelstrom of bloodshed and postmodern satire. Its aesthetic flitters from Super 8 and video to 35mm and animation, all of which is washed alternately in colour, black and white, and occasionally a green hue that represents the sickness of American culture. Then there’s the outrageous cutaway faux-TV shows: the rancid I Love Mallory sitcom that reveals her severely dysfunctional family to a vapid laugh track; and American Maniacs, an obscenely tabloid crime show presented by Australian slimeball Wayne Gale, who Robert Downey Jr. performs with an electric narcissism.
Stone’s argument that Mickey and Mallory’s genuine love for each other serves as some kind of spiritual redemption is difficult to square with, but the delirium with which he and director of photography Robert Richardson hammer the film’s tagline – a bold new look at a country seduced by fame, obsessed by crime, and consumed by the media – has a visceral, abstract quality that’s missing from Harron’s otherwise solid adaptation.
After all, Patrick Bateman loses all touch with reality in Ellis’s novel. Everything Jean sees in Bateman’s notebook in the film’s closing moments we, the reader, have to endure in minute, first person detail. Bateman’s apartment becomes a veritable abattoir, spattered with the mutilated remains of his victims. You can almost smell the stench as he wanders this horrific tableau; it is a scene of abject debasement that’s not just disturbing but outright upsetting and miserable.
The film that’s closest to this bestial sexual violence is Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, and maybe the Italian maverick would have done a good job had he not been murdered in the winter of 1975. We may see more Patrick Bateman in the future, maybe another adaptation, maybe that TV show that never took off. But in the mean time we will have Ellis’s seminal book, Harron’s sardonic adaptation, and a list of filmmakers – Lynch, Ferrara, Stone, Fincher – whose interpretations we’d love to see.
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