Friday, August 19, 2011

American Psycho

I'm going to be completely honest here. I have a fascination with serial killers. Ever since high school I've been an avid reader of true crime novels and whenever I have a chance I'll watch a documentary or (sometimes) a docudrama about a serial killer. So it really isn't surprising that American Psycho is one of my favourite movies. Strangely enough, I had never bothered to actually read the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, so while preparing to do this review I thought I'd give it a read and compare the two.

The film.

Suffice to say, there's enough violence and sex in this movie to make your head spin. You clue in almost immediately that it's all a commentary on consumerism and our inability to see people for what they are beyond the facade they present the world. This is done by introducing the main character, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), as a rich and classy business man who almost immediately begins to threaten young women. At around the five minute mark although we haven't seen anyone die, it's strongly insinuated that this guy is a serial killer. Oddly enough, Bateman is strangely likeable, though this might have more to do with Christian Bale than the writing or the character, because in the novel I can't say I like him at all.

Obviously not all the violence is suggested though and most people know this film based on its reputation of being extremely violent and full of sex. Actually, one of the things that always amused me about this film is that it got more criticism for having a three-way than all the gore. However the sex and violence is not just for the sake of sex and violence and if you actually pay attention to Christian Bale's performance (and not just stare dreamily into his eyes...) you realize this is a film about an entire society being raped and pillaged for the sake of the high class (the yuppies).

The ending probably throws people off the most. We are so conditioned to believe everything that happens on film that when that belief in reality is threatened we just... can't accept it. People get really frustrated by the ending and (yeah, I'm gonna spoil it, so go watch the movie and come back in two hours) whenever I show this movie to someone they'll say: "Oh, so it was just in his head." Well... was it just in his head? Or do we live in a society so concerned with appearance that we don't want to admit an attractive, rich and high society man can do something so monstrous? Not to mention the fact that a pile of dead bodies in an apartment tends to lower market value and that's never a good thing. American Psycho is really trying to get you to question society and appearances and the things we take for granted.


The book.

Something I never really got from the movie was what a slow boil this story is. It takes a long time (nearly 100 pages) for anything violent to happen and although Bateman will often tell someone he's a murderer or he'll inform the reader that he's done violent things, it's something you can almost ignore as an offhand joke. In fact, it's a huge plot point how little people care about what Bateman does behind closed doors. If you picked up this book not knowing Patrick Bateman was a serial killer, well, the first murder will shock the hell out of you. In fact, the first murder (a pathetic homeless man and his dog) really got to me, because the switch from the calm narration to him slitting the hobos eyes is so seamless and natural that it really makes you feel sick. After that the switch happens so often that you become disoriented and more and more desensitized to it. For that reason alone I think the book is more successful than the movie, but I don't want to dismiss the movie - obviously the book has more depth.

I was actually surprised by how faithful the movie was to the book. Most of the dialogue is lifted straight from it, and although a lot of the book is left out of the movie (really, I'm assuming, because of time), what scenes do appear are rarely changed. A few notable exceptions would be the scene where Bateman goes on a date with his secretary, this happens in the book, but the films amalgamates four separate chapters of the book to make this scenes (one of which is extremely violent chapter, strange when you consider that Jean survives unscathed - in fact, she ends up marrying him and bearing his son - though this is only hinted at in the novel). There are some stranger changes, like a lot of the names have been changed for no reason whatsoever. Paul Owen becomes Paul Allen, Timothy Price becomes Timothy Bryce. I mean, really - why??? You can almost accept it as a comment on how all the characters in this novel are essentially interchangeable and therefor their names don't matter, but you lose the pun with Tim Price's name ("Price, you're priceless" is probably the most repeated line in the whole novel). The story-line with Luis (the gay man Patrick goes to strangle in the bathroom and mistakes this as a come on) is much longer in the novel, that first encounter just being the beginning, and I feel it's a shame that it's dropped because the parallels of Luis and Bateman have trouble figuring out what is reality and what is a fantasy is interesting.

Moving on to the characters. Every time a character is described, we get incredibly detailed descriptions of what their wearing, but as far as physical descriptions go, the most we get is that a few of the women are blonde. This had a lot to do with the consumerism motif. Everyone has essentially become clones of each other, their personalities either having been erased or just turned into a shallow bastard only concerned with the price and look of something. The movie loses this, because the very nature of film we see what the characters look like and we can tell them apart but the book is incredibly disorienting and the repeated motif of no one being able to recognize anyone and names constantly being mixed up becomes a lot more powerful.

The debate over whether or not Bateman's violent acts were just in his head becomes a lot more complex in the novel. There are three occasions where Bateman says in the narration that he's dreaming (once he confirms he is, and once he says he thinks he is, and a final that the dream is falling apart). Also, the scene where he goes back to Paul Owen's apartment and finds all the dead bodies missing raises more questions, because his description of the building is completely different, leaving you to believe he might have just gone to the wrong building.

One thing that I could shake from my head while reading this was the character of Tim Price (played almost unnoticeable in the film by Justin Theroux). This character is so unforgettable in the film that I was having a really hard time figuring out why he was so prominent at the beginning of the novel. For the first 50 pages or so Price and Bateman are always together - then quite suddenly Price freaks out in a club, announces he's leaving, and runs down a dark tunnel into an abyss. I have never seen a character just mutiny from a novel before and I felt there had to be some deeper importance here. So, here's what I've come to: Timothy Price is Patrick Bateman. Or to be more specific, Tim Price is the ideal Bateman wants to be. Price is the only person Bateman ever honestly compliments (calling him the most interesting person he knows), embodies the Wall Street mentality, his very name means money, and Evelyn is having an affair with him. It isn't until Price disappears into the darkness of what I can only presume is Bateman's mind that his mask starts to fall and the novel gets increasingly more and more violent - and when Price returns at the end the violence ends. I feel as though Bateman being this empty thing must create an alter-ego to survive in this world, and of course this is what Evelyn is in love with. However, it isn't until the end of the novel when Batemen realizes he can co-exist in this world (married to his secretary) that he allows Price to come back. Also, to add to Bateman's split-personality disorder, during the big chase near the end the narration suddenly shifts from first to second person, as though Bateman is literally writing himself.

That or he's batman.

(Though seriously, there is a part in the novel where someone calls Bateman "Batman" and I can't tell if it's a typo - because there were some typos in the edition I read - or a joke. Either way it made me laugh out loud on the bus, and honestly it's never a good thing to be seen laughing out loud while reading American Psycho on the bus...)

Which is better?

First of all, reading this book has given me a greater appreciation of the film while also making realize just how tame this movie really is - and in fact for that reason alone I find myself leaning more towards the film. The problem here is that yes, the book is better, it's everything the movie couldn't be and a hundred times more, however I don't think I could in good conscious recommend this book to anyone. I said earlier I like reading about serial killers, so I've read my share of horrible descriptions of real murders, but my god everything in this novel is just so much worse.

Bret Easton Ellis is a sick, sick man. He's said in interviews that writing this novel was his way of working out his demons. Well thank god he worked them out on paper because this man must have been full of so much hatred it is shocking. He hated 80s society so much his brain created an alter-ego to literally ultra-violence it to death and it is really hard to read if you yourself do not have as much contempt as Mr. Ellis (and trust me, I got a lot of contempt and I'm still blown away).

Then there's also the matter of the book and movie's depictions of Bateman. They're very similar, but fuck me Christian Bale is incredible. In the book Bateman is just this disembodied pathetic empty evil creature, but Bale... well, I think you get what I mean here.

So yeah, the book is better, and if you have the stomach for it and really loved the movie... ugh... I still can't recommend it. Just... be wary. The first line of the novel is: "Abandon hope all ye who enter here" and the last is: "This is not an exit." This in itself should tell you this novel is something you can get into, but you cannot escape.

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