The book and the film versions of American Psycho have one thing in common, and that’s the controversy that surrounds them. The book was banned in multiple countries upon its release and decried almost universally by feminist groups of the early ‘90s. Meanwhile, the eventual film version was immediately under protest. Dangerously skirting an NC-17 rating throughout its production, it is a surprise that so much of the novel made it into the final adaptation.
Yet, the movie was indeed made, and it has gone on to be equally infamous (if not more so) than the book upon which it was based. However, the movie added levels of interest for feminist commentary in that it was directed and written by women, and it is also women who have insisted it deserves to be considered as a feminist work. Cited by some as one of the greatest horror films of all time, American Psycho, as a book or a flick, is a study in paradox.
The protagonist of American Psycho is Patrick Bateman, a wealthy investment banker during the financial boom of the ‘80s. He is engaged to a woman named Evelyn who he has nothing but a deep resentment for and who he uses as a social buffer. They often socialize among celebrities and other wealthy young yuppies in New York. Seemingly taking pleasure only in small details like fonts on his business cards and generic pop classics of the era, Bateman cuts an unsympathetic figure even before we discover that he brutally murders women in his spare time. Failing to differentiate actual human beings from other commodities designed for his consumption, Bateman begins in a place of despair and becomes more and more depraved as the book goes on, murdering a coworker for looking too much like him and escalating to raping and torturing the women he targets. When Bateman attempts to confess his crimes at various points in the novel, no one believes him or takes him seriously. Caught in a seemingly endless downward spiral, the novel ends with him sitting at a table and staring at a sign in a restaurant that reads THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.
The book version of the tale was published in 1991 and written by Bret Easton Ellis, who was to be inundated with death threats and hate mail after its release, and who has since grown understandably increasingly less interested in revisiting the subject of the novel. The infamy of the title led to much of Ellis’ fame but has likewise led to a great deal of the criticism directed at him over his career. He has noted that he "was living like Patrick Bateman. I was slipping into a consumerist kind of void that was supposed to give me confidence and make me feel good about myself but just made me feel worse and worse and worse about myself. That is where the tension of American Psycho came from." Studying visceral murders and serial killers at the public library throughout his writing process, Ellis wrote the book personally, from Bateman's perspective, then added the gruesome murders in as the novel neared completion.
The crowning achievement of American Psycho is its darkly funny, often brilliant sequences between the hopelessly alienated Bateman and the people around him that fail to perceive his malicious disdain for them. Indeed, much of this dialogue remained intact for the film version, as did the meticulous detailing of his beauty and workout regimen. One of the strengths of the film is, after all, its dedication to the source material, although the overall vibe has been tweaked. The repetition of the novel and Bateman's compulsions can be trying, but it also serves to create a fuller portrait of the empty world he lives in, which becomes colorful in his eyes only when splattered in blood.
As much as it has been condemned, many literary critics have deemed American Psycho a postmodernist classic. Still, it is unquestionably difficult to read, even for longtime horror fans. Even in today’s comparatively jaded world, the scenes of violence against unsuspecting women are nauseating and horrific. While that is the point, it isn't easy to parse emotionally for the reader. It's not supposed to be, but in its horror, it succeeds sometimes a bit too well. The pages are absolutely dripping with Bateman's contempt for humanity. His homophobia towards Luis is upsetting, and his general disgust with poor people is notably obscene. His revulsion towards his equally hard to like coworkers is understandable, but grating.
Likewise obnoxious is the shakiness of the story’s perspective. Unreliable narrators and loose storytelling have turned out some great works, but in the case of American Psycho, it does at times make it even more exhausting to read. Some of the imagery suggested in Bateman’s hallucinations is provocative, such as the moment when he discovers a chicken bone inside his ice cream, but in contrast to the relentless horror of Bateman’s crimes, these dream sequences come across as essentially meaningless meanderings. There is something to be said for the overall commentary, in which an increasingly desperate and loathing man takes consumer culture to unspeakably violent extremes. As we now know, the alienation of straight white men from the society they are so predominant in the creation of is worthy of discussion, but the lack of self-awareness to its greater purpose ultimately prevents the novel from its own realizations. In the end, the novel’s worth in the greater world of literature is subjective, but it isn’t an easy read by any stretch of the imagination.
Long before she was ever signed on to direct American Psycho, director Mary Harron had a fascinating career. She was among the very first contributors for the now infamous PUNK Magazine, which was highly influential in fostering a scene that ultimately gave us bands like Blondie, The Talking Heads, and The Ramones. This led to her work as a critic of different mediums for various publications over the years before she ultimately shifted her focus slightly to film, writing and directing documentaries for the BBC. Her first film had married her interest in journalism with a budding interest in fiction by creating a biopic of Valerie Solanas, I Shot Andy Warhol, which stunned and intrigued audiences by offering a surprisingly sympathetic if not exactly glorifying take on the woman who had indeed attempted to assassinate Andy Warhol, an event which triggered his gradual decline in health and ended in his death.
Immediately upon the announcement of filming, the movie was under protest. Condemned by many feminists, including Gloria Steinem, as intrinsically misogynistic, the hiring of Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner did little to curb the outcry. It is true that much of the violence of the book is intact in the film, but it is cut back significantly from the almost droning violence of the source material. Regardless of creator intent, the story is brutal, and there is no way to remove the utter depravity of Bateman from it. The viciousness of his character is indeed central to the plot in a way that is impossible to disconnect from.
While both Turner and Harron have championed American Psycho as a feminist film, and have expressed a great deal of understanding for the source material as well, the concerns against Ellis as a misogynistic writer are more difficult to dismiss. The book is indeed full of scenes of graphic torture of women, but as many horror films are well aware, that doesn't always indicate misogyny on the part of the creator. In Turner's assessment, Ellis had been hurt that feminists had so actively disdained his work, as he felt he was giving a critical view of how toxic masculinity treats them as so disposable. That said, he is one of the many writers to ultimately disavow a film version of his work, suggesting that American Psycho would have better been left a novel while also noting his personal view that women are intrinsically bad directors due to their inability to see things through a male gaze. Naturally, this is offensive, considering that everyone that watches movies is invariably forced to see things through the male gaze for much of our lives due to its overwhelming presence in the film. Despite his personal take that the book is “unfilmable,” he himself had reportedly written one of the early potential screenplays, which apparently ended in a musical number, strangely predicting the eventual Broadway stint of a musical version of the story.
Thus, the feminism of the film version of American Psycho is fascinating for many reasons, but none quite so much as that it is so seemingly at odds with itself. In the words of Roger Ebert, “It's just as well a woman directed American Psycho. She's transformed a novel about bloodlust into a movie about men's vanity. A male director might have thought Patrick Bateman, the hero of American Psycho, was a serial killer because of psychological twists, but Mary Harron sees him as a guy who's prey to the usual male drives and compulsions. He just acts out a little more.”
In many ways, Harron was simply the best person for the job, and it’s difficult to imagine a film version by any of the other proposed directors reaching quite the heights of the finished version as it exists today. Having come up in the punk scene of late ‘70s New York City, Harron had an interesting view of consumer culture as it developed throughout '80s. Turner was likewise more than qualified to script the film, with her insight as an out lesbian and independent filmmaker giving a specifically critical view of the excesses of the ‘80s. One of the more subtle changes Turner and Harron made was that the murders are not through Patrick Bateman’s eyes, rather the women he kills, adding an underlying tone of sympathy for them than could be found in the source material, which consistently referred to them as "meat."
Moreover, it’s hard to picture anyone but Christian Bale in the role. The attempts he went to as a method actor to conform to his character have been noted by other cast members as being particularly extreme. Bale himself professed to base the character on an interview he once saw with Tom Cruise, observing what he viewed as a complete lack of emotion in the fellow actor’s eyes. Bateman’s cold and forceful demeanor paired with an underlying sense of nihilistic hatred for the rest of humanity might not have been so impactful without Bale’s specific attention to the details of the script and the story.
While the original author himself might have viewed the film as an unworthy adaptation, this writer would argue that this is a rare case of a film outdoing a novel by adding layers to what was initially a grisly, hard-to-read tale of relentless brutality and obsessive rehashing of routines. Ellis has gone into some depth about how the novel was very personal and intended to reflect his own feelings of isolation and struggles with self-worth inspired by consumer culture, and while that in itself is interesting, it falls somewhat flat when it comes to any kind of overall social commentary. On the other hand, Harron has a way of turning out a sympathetic view of a character who does monstrous things without ever shying away from the things that make them irredeemable, and she takes that empathy to its extreme in the film. While another director might have given an element of heroism to Bateman, Harron and Turner's Bateman is pathetic and lost. In the end, it is that "female gaze" that has made American Psycho one of the most infamous horror films of the last twenty years.