Adaptation Psycho: Brett Easton Ellis and Fidelity

American Psycho

When it comes to cinematic adaptations of literary works, fidelity has long been a contentious issue for fans of the original text. If it be grumbles over Daniel Radcliffe’s eye colour in Harry Potter or outrage at Will Smith’s sappy self-sacrifical ending in I Am Legend, fidelity expectant fans are rarely happy. Despite the transfer from page to screen intrinsically altering the source material and the multitude of interpretations of a text making it impossible to appease everyone, rigid fidelity is still seen as a fundamental signifier of a quality adaptation. An adaptation should use the source material and strive to transfer its essence, it should not be limited to a stagnant reconstruction that ignores the cinematic medium and its rich plethora of influences. The best adaptations are often those that infuse the source material with conventions of, and homages to, cinematic genres. Take Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, for example. Tarantino takes Leonard’s gritty but traditional crime novel and vibrantly reconstructs it using a range of intertextual materials from the blaxploitation genre to the direction of Brian De Palma. The result is a pacey, off-beat cinematic thriller that seamlessly blends several cinematic styles and eras.

Cinematic adaptation can offer a fresh and alternative interpretation of a text. Moreover, it can reconfigure and refract the source material into something exciting, new and interesting. Ironically, it is these cinematic adaptations, that desire to appropriate rather than rehash, that often become respected and beloved films in their own right. You need to look no further than the work of Stanley Kubrick for proof of this. Kubrick was infamous for directing literary adaptations despised by their original authors, Stephen King beings so traumatised by the liberties Kubrick took with The Shining that he wrote his own screen version in 1997. However, whilst it is undeniable that Kubrick’s strongly visual and somewhat surreal cinematic adaptation significantly alters the convoluted and earthy novel, it is the 1980 film – not the 1977 book – that has become a genre defining classic of its medium.

Nowhere is the above theory better illustrated than by the cinematic adaptations of the works of Brett Easton Ellis. Ellis’s minimalist narratives are slowlypaced and peppered with repetition. The subject matter is controversial and the meaning highly interpretable, the tone is nihilist and the prose baron. They are hardly texts ripe for adaptation yet it is perhaps their abstractness that has enabled the successful adaptors of Ellis’s works to more freely, and thereby successfully, transfer his work to the silver screen. Indeed, it is when a director has attempted to faithfully reproduce one of Ellis’s texts that its essence has been lost, despite fidelity – in the most literal sense – being adhered to.

Take Gregor Jordan’s adaptation of The Informers, a collection of short stories chronicling the semi-interwoven tales of the morally-bankrupt and vacant residents of Los Angeles. The book is a deftly constructed satire that comments on the moral decay of its characters through their positioning within a desensitised and directionless society whose culture is simultaneously vacant and depraved. Ellis’s text depicts controversial subjects, such as paedophilia and drug-addiction, through the detached and banal narration of various characters. The repetitive descriptions eventually causing the reader to become as desensitised and uncaring as the characters themselves. However, this exceptional reflective satire, created through subtle literary manipulation, is somewhat lost in the adaptation. The detached character voices become either wooden or hammy, the dialogue that came across as purposefully vacant on the page now appearing dull and unintentionally amateurish on screen. The repetitive nature of the stories that so effectively emphasised the satirical message in the source text, only creates pacing issues in the adaptation. Events are compressed to the point where they are unable to fully communicate their meaning yet are not enriched with enough additional embellishments to be entertaining in their newly condensed form. Therefore it is the adaptation’s attempts to retain as many elements as possible from the source text that actually prohibits it from becoming either a successful reconstruction or a quality film in its own right.

The Informers fidelity misfire is nicely contrasted by Mary Harron’s excellent reimagining of American Psycho as a slasher movie. Ellis’s most infamous novel is the blood drenched tale of Patrick Bateman, a sociopathic Wall Street businessmen whose superficial and unfulfilling existence leads to a murderous rampage of escalating depravity. The book is largely ambiguous, it is never made clear if the events are happening within reality or Patrick’s mind, with the narrative becoming increasingly unfocused and haphazard as Ellis’s minimalist and nihilist prose refuses to offer a clear resolution or moral message.

Harron expertly reconstructs American Psycho’s formless text into a recognisable cinematic narrative.More impressively she does so whilst retaining the core societal commentary that is the beating black heart at the text’s centre. She expertly cherry picks the most impactful sequences of Ellis’s most infamous novel and filters them through various conventions of the slasher genre. Rather then faithfully recreating the source texts procession of nameless victims, Harron condenses these characters into a selection of slasher movie archetypes. Furthermore, she retains the text’s explicitly gory scenes but within sequences littered with motifs to influential examples of the slasher genre. These reapportions climax in a thrilling, Halloween-inspired, Final Girl chase sequence, with a chainsaw-wielding Patrick chasing his final victim through his bloody and corpse ridden apartment. The film, influenced by the metafictional and postmodern Scream franchise, is also littered with moments of black humour and homages. If it be Patrick doing excessive sit-ups to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or dancing manically to Huey Lewis And The News’s ‘Hip to be Square’ before plunging an axe into business associate, the film counteracts the dense and melancholic subject matter of the source material with the pace, tone and visuals of a familiar cinematic genre. This structuring of Ellis’s text around the familiar slasher conventions enables audiences to easily absorb the carefully placed, unfiltered moments of the novel’s satire, such as the profit hungry estate agents covering up of his murder scene or the final reveal of Patrick’s potential fabrication of events, without stagnating the films propelling slasher narrative.

Whilst Harron’s decision does significantly alter the source text to point where it is equally influenced by its literary source as by a cinematic genre, it never compromises the integrity of Ellis’s work. If anything it is only through this abandonment of strict fidelity that Harron is able to retain the core of American Psycho whilst still producing an adaptation worthy of the cinematic medium.