On adapting ‘American Psycho’

Mary Harron

Mary Harron and Christian Bale on the set of ‘American Psycho’. Photo © Universal Pictures

On Monday 26 February the LRB in partnership with MUBI screened ‘American Psycho’ at the Garden Cinema as the latest in a series of events exploring the art of literary adaptation. Mary Harron, the movie’s writer and director, spoke about it beforehand.

Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho was much reviled, much loathed when it was published in 1991. There was a big scandal and I was really surprised that in all the furor, no one said that the book was really funny. As well as being very violent, it was a great Evelyn Waugh-style social satire. Fast forward to 1996. I had my first film, I Shot Andy Warhol, at Sundance, and I’d been getting some very boring mainstream scripts. And then a producer called me up and asked if I’d be interested in looking at a script of American Psycho.

I thought: oh my God, they’re going to try and make a movie out of that? Well, that would certainly keep me off the safe mainstream. I read the script they sent, and thought if I’m going to do it, I’m going to have to write my own. I said to the main producer, Ed Pressman: ‘I don’t know if you can make a movie out of this book, but if you give me some money, I’ll write a script and see if I can.’

And he said: ‘OK, but you’re going to have to direct it.’ Signing on to do a screenplay is one thing, but actually directing it, I was still a little frightened of. But anyway, I started working on it. One of the first things that encouraged me, and I remember having this thought after I hung up the phone in my New York apartment, was that just enough time had passed since the 1980s that you could make a period film about the 1980s.

I had a lot of thoughts about the 1980s and a lot of things I wanted to criticise and make fun of about the 1980s. And I thought that this film could be about something interesting that was not about the violence or the torture. Anyway, I started working on it. In the meantime I’d been working on a different script, The Notorious Betty Paige, with Guinevere Turner, who I’d become very good friends with.

I don’t really like writing a lot on my own, and Guinevere had just done a very successful lesbian romantic comedy, Go Fish. And I felt I needed to write this with another woman, but another woman who had the same sense of humour I do and wasn’t scared of the material. I said ‘You’re going to find this a bit rough’ when I gave her the book, ‘but do you want to come in with me on writing the screenplay?’ And we collaborated very well.

There are no rules on literary adaptation. You’re trying to keep the plot. And obviously there are key plot things that we do keep. And we keep almost all the dialogue: apart from one big scene, with the secretary and the date, almost all the dialogue’s from the book. Because I think Brett has a great ear for dialogue.

But as a novel, American Psycho is quite experimental. It’s very slippery. It shifts unexpectedly from first person to third person. It’ll go from something very realistic into a sort of dreamscape or something very hallucinatory. And I wanted to keep that, but there was no way to keep the shift of perspective from first person to third person. We went for bookending it with a certain amount of narration, to say that this is his story. This is from his perspective.

But I really wanted to keep one of the most startling and disturbing things about the book, which is the way it shifts very abruptly with no warning from a scene of social comedy to a scene of horrific violence. You’re being whipsawed back and forth between worlds, which I found really startling but also amazing that a book would do that, and I wanted to keep that, so that you would never know where you were. There would be no safety in this film: you’d be really enjoying yourself at something funny and light, making fun of the yuppies in New York, and then suddenly you’re in a terrible scene of violence.

I had been a music writer in my youth, writing about rock music, and I always loved in the novel the three chapters about Patrick Bateman’s favourite music. I thought they were hilarious. They were brilliant parodies of a Rolling Stone-style, somewhat self-serious music criticism. But they’re about these very bland mainstream artists: Huey Lewis, Phil Collins, Whitney Houston. And what’s great about this is that it’s the one place in the book, in these three chapters where he talks about his favourite music, his favourite songs, that he really reveals himself.

He's very emotional about how much he loves this mainstream pop music. Somehow this is where he sees his soul reflected. There was something very funny about this. I was like, how do we keep this? How do we introduce this? And I remember being at a beach house with some friends and I had the book with me and I had what I thought was my one great idea: we’re going to take some of this dialogue, this music chapter, turn it into monologues, and he's going to deliver one of them just before he kills someone, the first one. And then the next time he starts talking about music, and every time he starts talking about music, you’re going to be afraid he’s going to kill somebody. Apart from the business card scene, the music monologues are the things that most get memed, and are part of the film’s strange and enduring popularity.

I’ve done much more difficult adaptations. Guinevere and I have worked together several times (we’ve just got a new script). I’ve also written scripts with my husband and other people. And this was actually the easiest – the dialogue is so great – even though I spent a lot of time shifting scenes around to try and create a structure, because there isn’t a structure.

Gwen and I went to Mexico for a couple of weeks and and just bashed it out. We sat down and we’d take turns – well, I think I made her do most of it – to type everything that we liked into the computer. And then we’d talk about it. We knew it was very controversial. I think people had warned us that we shouldn't be involved with it. This would be a career ruining project. As Christian Bale was told it would ruin his career if he did it.

I think that we bolstered each other. Guinevere is very iconoclastic. She doesn’t care about convention and she wasn’t afraid. She had just made a successful lesbian comedy and I had done this film about a radical 1960s feminist. How was anybody going to tell us that we’re misogynist? How was anybody, especially a male critic, going to tell us what we should or shouldn’t make a film about?

I had reread Crime and Punishment quite recently and one of my favourite things in Crime and Punishment is the interrogation scenes. Porfiry, the detective, is interviewing Raskolnikov, and he’s playing games, he’s playing cat and mouse, and there’s one scene where he describes exactly how the murder happened. But he says to Raskolnikov: that could never happen, that would be absurd. How could that possibly have happened? And he’s just laid out the murder, leaving Raskolnikov thinking: what the fuck’s going on?

So I took a bit of that for Willem Dafoe’s character: the interrogations are very slippery and you would never know where the detective is coming from. In the book, the detective is more ineffectual and doesn’t really know. I wanted to keep him more on a knife edge. I told Willem to do it three different ways. (The producers were horrified that I was burning so much film when I was doing this.) I said do one take like you think he’s lying, one take like you believe him and one take like you’re not sure, so I could switch between them. You can see these little variations in Willem’s performance and he really ran with that.

Christian and I had talked about how Patrick Bateman is not really a human being. The story is a bit like Frankenstein, I think, in the sense that the character is a tragic monster. Not as tragic as Frankenstein, but Bateman is a pathetic monster in a lot of ways: he cannot help himself, he is a deformed human being, and he’s trying to learn how to be a human being by watching normal people.

Christian really enjoyed this idea. There’s a scene we shot on the first day of shooting, where they’re in a steakhouse. And he’s watching Willem eating his steak, and Willem takes some salt, and Christian’s watching this very intensely, and then he takes the salt shaker and shakes salt all over his steak in a crazy mechanical way.

People are always asking me about whether the movie’s ‘real’ or not. I would say there’s a point when he starts to put a kitten into the ATM. I think you can say that after that things are not so real.

If you weren’t able to attend the screening you can watch ‘American Psycho’ by signing up for thirty days free on MUBI. The next film in the series will be James Ivory’s ‘Quartet’, based on Jean Rhys’s novel of the same name. The screening will be introduced by Miranda Seymour, Rhys’s biographer.