When Gus Van Sant’s Psycho was released in 1998, Hitchcock loyalists were baffled, puzzled, outraged, soured, and in the mood of total rejection – some even before having taken a look at the product. Why do it? they asked. What was the idea? A host of related questions were raised, not the least of which was: what is a remake? Why are movies remade? And in the case of a unique work of art – as Hitchcock’s Psycho is, by universal admission – why remake it all?
Not all of these questions can be answered satisfactorily, of course, and no answer can satisfy all those who have decided to seal the doom of the Van Sant movie. But it might be useful to dwell on the subject, for, no matter how one looks at it, this is the first verbatim (and thus worth noticing) remake of a Hitchock classic – though several have been made on a lesser scale, including, Rear Window, as a TV movie with ex-Superman Christopher Reeve on a real wheelchair (and a creditable job), and A Perfect Murder (Andrew Davis, 1998) based on Dial M for Murder, with Michael Douglas and Gweneth Paltrow, a forgettable movie already forgotten. According to Van Sant (as stated in his DVD commentary), it is likely there will be many more attempts at remaking Hitchcock’s classics in the future, film being a young art barely a century old, and therefore with plenty of opportunity for repetitions. Repetitions aren’t all unfavorable: for one, they help us remember the originals. The other arts repeat: Euripides rewrote the plays of Sophocles; Shakespeare borrowed the Hamlet plot from his Elizabethan predecessors; Racine copied the ancients; opera librettists fed on Greek and Roman mythologies; and sculptors thought it a hobby to copy one another. By the way, not all people were offended by Van Sant’s Psycho: Patricia Hitchcock, who played a minor role in the original and was a consultant in this one, said her father would have been flattered by the remake of his movie 40 years later; and Joseph Stefano, the screenwriter of the original Psycho, was more than eager to accept the job of re-writing the second Psycho script.
Remaking movies is not confined to our era of course. Films were remade routinely from the start, and the practice in Hollywood and elsewhere has long been established for a number of reasons, not the least of which has to do with commercial motives, as indeed most of the movies remade over the years were of the commercial/mainstream variety. Epics and action thrillers were sure bets to bring in the cash at the box office if they had done so the first time around. Examples abound: Ben-Hur was made three times (1907, 1925, 1959), with the last version being the most successful in terms of Oscars (11) and dollars earned (37 million); The Ten Commandments (1926, 1925), both epics directed by Cecil B. DeMille, proved equally lucrative at the box office. Not all remakes were so successful financially or otherwise, of course. In more recent times, the remarkable The Day of the Jackal (Fred Zinnemann, 1973) became the poorer and blood-soaked The Jackal (Michael Caton-Jones, 1997), and the popular Casablanca (Michael Curtis, 1942) petered out as Havana (Sydney Pollack, 1990). Conclusion: remakes were made to emulate the success of the previous version, and this particular reason for making them seems as formulaic and unimaginative as the Hollywood studios themselves. Of course, there is another reason: the vanity of the director himself (or herself), and this includes Hitchcock, who remade The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1955 based on his own version of 1934, a film that some still prefer to its remake. Imitation of a master is also a reason, as in the case of Akira Kurosawa, whose Yojimbo (1960) emulated John Ford westerns, while his own Rashomon (1954) and Seven Samurai (1956) were remade Hollywood-style, The Outrage (Martin Ritt, 1964) and The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960). Kurosawa also imitated great literary works from the west, Throne of Blood (1957), based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and Ran (1985), based on King Lear. Though Orson Welles’ Macbeth had been filmed in 1948, and King Lear by Peter Brook, in 1971, technically, these two Kurosawa films were not remakes but original independent productions spurred by original film and literature models. These show, among other things, that remakes can take many forms, some on a high creative level, independent of a director’s vanity or commercialism. This cannot be said for Van Sant’s remake of Psycho, however.
Van Sant claims that his remake of Psycho should be seen as a creative rather than commercial endeavor. As he states in his commentary to the DVD edition of Psycho, he had been toying with the idea for several years, and one motivation was to renew its appeal for the younger generation. With today’s young crowd opting for Michael Almereyda’s contemporary version of Hamlet (1999) and Andrzei Bartkowiak’s Romeo Must Die (1999), names like that of Hitchcock are becoming shadowy memories.
The original Psycho is filmed in black-and-white, not a very attractive medium in itself, and uses archaic language (“We’re taking the air”, says John Gavin to Vera Miles). One wonders whether Hitchcock’s Psycho may have gone the way of Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), which to a young audience will sound shrill (at times), pompous (the ‘March of Time’ sequence), and even irrelevant. And yet, it will take considerable audacity on the part of a younger director to try to remake Citizen Kane, shot for shot, using the same script and simulating the techniques (depth of field, montage sequences, camera movement) which made the original famous – and ‘the greatest movie ever made’ in many critics’ lists (a position no longer undisputed, by the way.) This brings us to our point. Remakes of average, run-of the-mill successful movies (let’s say, the Prizoner of Zenda, 1939, 1952) are not only possible, but also frequently quite successful at the box office, with nobody seriously minding their ephemeral prominence. A recent example is The Thomas Crown Affair (John McTiernan, 1999), which was an acceptable update of the blockbuster film with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway (Norman Jewison, 1968). These are relatively innocent endeavors, hardly worth objecting to, especially by those who view film as mere entertainment, if the entertainment is worth the price of the ticket. But again, great classical movies, whether aging or not, have left their imprint on all subsequent filmmaking. Who indeed will dare remake Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (though objectionable on certain grounds), Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Fellini’s La Strada – and the list continues: the movies of Buñuel, Bergman, Antonioni, Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Kiarostami, Scorsese, and, basically, all of the great auteurs of the 20th century and beyond. These are not to be touched, unless by an equivalent artist, and even then the scrutiny will be intense.
The point here is that some great movies, however one classifies them, have gained the status of significant works of art which are difficult to replace or imitate, though copies (in the plastic arts, for instance) can be made. Plays like Hamlet can be staged again and again, but once one makes a Hamlet on film (Olivier’s, 1948), and the film obtains a certain cult status, one has difficulty redoing it, though one can go to the original Hamlet and stage it or re-film it again and again. This point was brought up in the debate over whether Van Sant had a viable argument (he certainly had the right) in remaking a movie like Hitchcock’s Psycho, by all standards perfect. The difficulty increased when Van Sant decided to recreate the original not in the usual fashion of remakes, by modernizing plots and changing characters and settings, but as an exact copy, shot for shot. Even the original music by Bernard Herrmann was used in exactly the same scenes, and, as stated earlier, the services of screenwriter Joseph Stefano to supervise and update the original script were enlisted. The only significant change was that the modern Psycho was shot in color, and, of course, the actors were different. It was the decision to recreate an exact Psycho that unsettled critics, Hitchcock devotees, and discriminating viewers in general. Psycho, which had several sequels in the 1980s (Psycho II, III, IV), all undistinguished (but popular), had left an imprint in the American psyche (no pun) as no other film of its time, for many reasons. Though tame by today’s standards of violence, it was the first truly violent movie of the American screen, and one that dared eliminate the movie’s protagonist before the first half of the movie was over. The murder of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in the shower, an incident based on the novel by Robert Bloch, which had borrowed materials for its story from the life of a brutal serial killer, Ed Gein, from Wisconsin, had shaken movie audiences to the point that many (reputedly) were reluctant to step into a shower for months. Since then, many, Janet Leigh included, have considered the shower the most vulnerable part of one’s home, where one is naked, unable to see, hear or resist an attacker. The movie brought home the realization that hideous crimes can happen within the closest members of one’s family, that men and women can be victims of unrecognized madness. “My mother is ill,” says Norman Bates to an innocent Marion Crane, who was in the middle of an enjoyable chat with a seemingly amiable young man in the parlor of his motel. “She sounded strong,” says Marion. “I mean ill,” retorts Bates, who has little realization that he is talking about himself. The movie is also a moral tale, and an ironic one. Marion, hearing Norman (puns with ‘normal’) speaking wisely about “private traps” and running to “one’s own private island” has a change of heart during this conversation, which to her is salutary, and decides right then and there to return to Phoenix next morning, give back the money and ask for forgiveness. The colossal irony is that a madman who rescued her from her folly was the same madman who later killed her.
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It is the mystique of this movie that made Van Sant’s understandable artistic intentions seem so foolhardy and frustrating. In imitating the master, he had to rise to the occasion, and might have gotten away with lesser results had he not decided to remake the original exactly and faithfully. The fact that the original was remade shot for shot, with the same dialogue (basically), the same music, and even the same screenwriter heightened the expectations of audiences, but also increased their skepticism. If one was to make the exact copy of a previous movie, what was there to be achieved? Couldn’t the original movie do? Whatever the motivation, however, the fact remains that a classic remade with such ambitious standards was bound to be subjected to intense scrutiny. Comparisons were inevitable, especially by the unforgiving older audiences. For one thing, Hitchock’s awesome reputation stood in the way of a fair judgment. Still, one has to be fair to Van Sant and to his honestly stated motives – to attract younger audiences, and to revive interest in Hitchcock’s classic work. He certainly did attract attention, and comparisons of his film to Hitchcock’s were indeed made. But being fair to his efforts does not mean giving him a free passage. In the final analysis, Van Sant’s motives do not matter. One must judge the product by the results, based on one’s perception of this movie on aesthetic grounds. And on such grounds the movie fails on at least three levels. First, the medium itself; the transition of black-and-white to color does not seem a happy choice, though this was one of Van Sant’s stated reasons for modernizing the movie. Secondly, the actors – especially the leads – fail to achieve dimensions of character demanded by roles that have left an imprint on the art of moviemaking. And, thirdly, Van Sant fails to measure up to Hitchcock’s artistic vision. Let us examine these points more closely.
Of course color seems an inevitable choice in contemporary moviemaking. Aside from Van Sant’s stated reasons for choosing color, today color in film is so dominant it seems almost unthinkable that a modern movie, even of the darkest subject, could be filmed in anything but color. And yet, even in relatively recent times, black-and-white films have been made (Spielberg Schindler’s List, 1993, Woody Allen’s Celebrity, 1997), when the subject called for such means of expression. It must be remembered that Hitchcock himself had already made several movies in color prior to 1960 (Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, North by Northwest, Vertigo), and that his choice of black-and white was deliberate, to mitigate the shock of blood swirling down the drain in the shower scene, and to invest the film’s gothic subject-matter with an aura of gloom. But in the Van Sant version, the color itself is not so much the problem as the choice of colors. Pastel colors – pink, orange, light brown, green – predominate throughout, altering the tone of the grim tale into what seems a carefree holiday adventure. Anne Heche (who plays Marion Crane) wears a green slip in her apartment before she leaves (compared to Leigh’s black), a pink dress as she flees Phoenix, and sports a pink parasol at the car lot. Even as she enters the office of the Bates motel, pink-orange-brown colors are dominant, in the walls, the desk, and the umbrella Vince Vaughn totes as he trots down the steps to meet her. The sign at the Bates motel (“newly renovated”) is pink, the blood gurgling down the drain pink/orange, and later, the walls of the Loomis back room are in orange tints. This veritable deluge of oranges, pinks and light browns forces the viewer to notice the lapse of mood from the seriousness of the original to the light-hearted and essentially frivolous tone of the remake. Color and color tone affect the viewer’s psychological disposition and help determine the emotions a film, and a violent film to boot, will evoke. And the lapse of mood, here from dark to rosy, is what counts against Psycho ’98.
If verisimilitude were the sole criterion for accepting the Psycho remake, one would grant this movie some respite. But the result is more one of conscientious effort than ingenuity. It helps that the horizontal and vertical bars in the opening shots are the same, but the repetition seems just that – repetition, if one does not discount the now green color. The jarring notes of strings by Bernard Herrmann are now in surround sound – not that this makes any real difference. The time of day is flashed on the screen – two forty three PM, as in the original. The panning shots over Phoenix are the same, though now a helicopter shot zooms smoothly toward the hotel window, modern technology having made this possible. Inside the hotel room, Viggo Mortensen and Anne Heche, who play Sam Loomis and Marion Crane, lie in bed, she half-naked, he entirely so, in what seems to have been a prolonged sexual bout. Their conversation, though copied almost verbatim from the original film, seems flippant, lacking the urgency of the original scene. These seem two casual lovers in a nonessential fling, and the scene elapses without establishing any real suspense, as Hitchcock’s does. Their complaint of not being able to see each other except in her mother’s house does not sound believable near the start of the 21st century, when this action takes place. They seem mature grown-ups not bound by the sexual inhibitions of their forbears 40 years ago. The progress from this scene to that in Marion’s boss’ office, with the obnoxious (in both movies), half-drunk Cassidy flaunting a pile of cash is convincing enough, though $400,000 in $1,000 bills seems far, far too much to carry in one’s pocket even in today’s world, where cash transactions are rare. (The $40,000 of the original movie’s sum is enough to temp, but not large enough to defy logic.) The next transition, to Heche’s apartment, is also smooth, though here there is a striking difference, in the colors of Heche’s underwear (already noted), but also in her mood. Heche does not seem overawed by her action – as Janet Leigh was in the original – to steal the money and run. Though the camera pans to the yellow envelope on her bed, replicating the Hitchcockian finger-pointing camera movement and establishing the necessary suspense, Heche’s demeanor seems too light-hearted for one who from now on will be a fugitive from the law. To her, the action of running away with that much money seems a thrill – not a fearsome plunge into guilt and delusion. The only moment Heche becomes apprehensive, and somewhat frantic, is during her encounter with the road policeman, who is a menacing presence in both movies.
Heche’s light-hearted approach (which in her DVD commentary she says she adopted consciously) may be partly responsible for the deterioration of this movie’s dynamics. For one thing, she does not possess Janet Leigh’s extraordinary features – wide face, curved, expressive eyebrows, and large dark eyes where her inner confusion but also her determination is reflected. As she drives to her destination, Fairville, California, where she will meet her lover, Leigh appears guilty and persecuted, but also empowered. The smirk on her face when in voice-over she mimics Cassidy’s surprise when he discovers she stole his money Monday morning indicates her vindictive spite against the male dominated atmosphere of her office to which she had said good-bye. Heche smiles a bit too broadly, showing more delight than fear, less guilt and more satisfaction, as she drives through the storm. A point of comparison between the two actresses’ styles relates to their entrance into the motel itself. Leigh’s image, full of apprehension, is reflected in the mirror in the Bates office, but Heche enters casually, hiding but not overwrought by her guilt, and still in the adventure mode. Up to this point, she has carried the movie on a relatively tolerable level of interest, having gained some sympathy from the viewer. But her performance is affected significantly, and the tone of the film in general changed, by the first appearance of Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates.
Many have argued that this film’s alleged failure is owed to Vaughn’s inability to measure up to Anthony Perkins’ performance. Vaughn is as tall as Perkins, strong-boned, and physical, where Perkins is of a delicate, almost fragile frame, more female than male in his body language, suggesting perhaps his half female nature, since, in the psychiatrist’s explanation at the end, he is entirely dominated by his mother. Perkins is also childlike (a doll is found in his room by Marion’s sister, Lila, later), since his mother’s half has prevented his full adult maturity. Vaughn does not capture these qualities. Unlike Perkins, he does not stutter (the ‘fal-fal-falsity’ of Perkins when talking of bird habits), thus depriving this scene of important nuances captured in the Perkins performance. Instead, he projects an image of a male overpowered by sexual desire, as witnessed by his masturbating when he removes the picture on the wall to peep at the undressing Heche. He thus fails to suggest a moral struggle that the ‘mother side’ in Norman must be undergoing while deciding to kill Marion. This struggle is betrayed in Perkins’ darkening features, but no such evidence of struggle is seen in Vaughn’s bland facial expressions. More important than anything else is the failure of both Vaughn and Heche to evoke any chemistry between them. Leigh’s Marion is almost in a mystical mode when she enters the parlor and sees the stuffed birds, and is profoundly moved by Norman’s story about his mother. She wants his mother to get well, perhaps unconsciously forming her own desire to see Norman unburdened by his gnawing anxieties and living a happy life. She is in fact so moved by his story that she resolves, right then and there, to go back to Phoenix and return the money, thus showing us, among other things, that Norman’s painful human side had a healing effect on her. This meeting at the parlor between the two is in the original Psycho the crux of the movie, what makes this a morality tale rather than a common slasher/thriller, which is what it has become in the popular mind. In the Perkins version, Norman Bates is a suffering human being, crushed under unbearable guilt, destroyed by the maniacal half that is his “mother”, and unable to get out of his “trap,” where he is to remain in infernal flames forever. Leigh’s Marion pities the young man profoundly, fathoming his anguish, though not knowing his split personality, pitying him but unable to fear him – which is her downfall. This drama is only played on the surface by the Heche/Vaughn duo, who simply repeat the lines; Vaughn in particular remains a stranger both to the levels of psychological symbolism present in the scene and also, in some ways, indifferent to Heche herself. His desire is for a woman, but not this woman specifically. In the parlor scene they are just two casual acquaintances, flirting a little, sparring on a superficial level, and in the end one does not care whether Heche’s Marion has reformed and has decided to return to Phoenix or not.
The failure of the two leads to connect in the parlor scene, a crucial scene according to Joseph Stefano (see “The Making of Psycho”), is responsible for the remake’s lagging emotional interest. In following scenes, in particular when the detective Arbogast (played well by William H. Macy) questions Bates, Vaughn seems more animated, and he now stutters like Perkins (‘my mother is in-in-invalid’). But by now the viewer’s empathy with his persona has fallen out of orbit, and Vaughn remains a liability for the rest of the film. We do not pity him, as we did when Leigh’s Marion reached out to Perkins’ Bates. Lack of interest in what happens next is also partly due to Viggo Mortensen, whose Sam Loomis is no match for the vigorous performance of John Gavin. Neither is Julianne Moore’s somewhat outlandish Lila totally effective, and these two actors also do not connect well. Gavin is smart and heroic, pressuring Bates to elicit information and saving Lila in the nick of time, while Mortensen seems to be wasting time with Vaughn at the office as Moore is prying into the upstairs rooms of the Perkins house without much purpose. Similarly, the scene at the psychiatrist’s office seems just the wrap-up of a minor episode in the lives of various uninteresting people, rather than the fitting closure of a compelling drama.
But the failure of Psycho ’98 must be attributed primarily to Van Sant himself and to his apparent lack of artistic vision. Again, one can ask, what was it that he was trying to achieve? A mere repetition of Hitchcock’s movie? What can an exact copy do for a viewer, especially a viewer to whom the original is so readily available? More specifically, an exact copy of a movie made 40 years earlier, even with minor modifications of style, does not seem a realistic endeavor. Times change, and so do people’s outlooks. Most of the successful remakes have taken this factor into consideration, adjusting levels of violence and other aspects to meet contemporary audience sophistication. Hitchcock’s audiences were relatively innocent and more susceptible to shock when violence erupted on the screen. Today’s audiences are gorged with violent spectacle. The shower scene, though still shocking and frightening, can no longer traumatize them to the degree that it did then. Van Sant could have brought violence to a significantly more intense level, or delivered it with more innovation. Still, the level of violence alone could not have saved his film. For Hitchcock’s Psycho does rely entirely on violent scenes, like the stabbing scenes, to produce its effects; it had a director who could penetrate audience’s inner fears, irrational desires, and mad urges, and actors who could simulate these feelings perfectly. Hitchcock, above all, wanted to communicate with his audiences; their pity and fear mattered to him. Without a sufficient expression of these mental states, the tragic drama, what the original Psycho is, remains on a level of emotional liquidation and indifference.
Harris, Robert A., and Michael Lasky, The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, Secaucus, N.J.: The Citadel Press, 1976
Spotto, Donald, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, New York: Balantine Books, 1983
Sterrit, David, The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993
Van Sant, Gus, Anne Heche and Vince Vaughn, “Feature Commentary” and “The Making of Psycho”, DVD Edition, Universal, 1998
In the world of adaptations, there are rigorously faithful screen versions of novels (Rosemary's Baby, though one integral scene from Ira Levin's book was cut) and then there are films that depart so radically from the source material, they're adaptations in name only (World War Z). But there are also page-to-screen adaptations that fall somewhere in the middle—the essential bones and general characterizations are left intact, but enough little alterations are made to distinguish book and film as separate entities. Or, put another way, the movie acts as a kind of alternate universe version of the novel. That's certainly true of Game of Thrones, which is both faithful and not unfaithful, but perhaps not always monogamous, to George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series; it's also true of Hannibal, Bryan Fuller's self-described "fan-fic" based on Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter novels.
And of course, this alternate universe theory applies to Psycho, screenwriter Joseph Stefano and Alfred Hitchcock's adaptation of Robert Bloch's novel of the same name. The main story between the two is more or less the same, but Stef and Hitch made enough changes with the characters that the film takes on a life of its own. And while Sam Loomis and Lila Crane—Mary/Marion's fiancée and sister, respectively—are important characters in their own right, the changes made to Mary (the least of which changing her name to Marion) and Norman Bates offer the most significant departures from the source material and, thus, establish the film as an individual with its own existence apart from Bloch's work.
So let's dive right in and look at the differences between Norman and Mary/Marion.
If you've seen the film (and I hope you have), you know that it opens on a hotel room in Phoenix, Arizona, where Marion Crane and Sam Loomis are getting dressed after an afternoon tryst. We see that Marion is a cool, witty, intelligent, and beautiful woman who is crazy for Sam, and he for her. But his severe financial debt, and the fact he lives several hundred miles away in a "hick town" called Fairvale in California, prevent the pair from getting married and settling down, a fact that Marion desperately wants to change. She makes wry speeches about respectability, but it's easy to see straight away Marion doesn't care all that much about propriety or traditional values. In other words, her desire to "make things official" with Sam doesn't actually arise from any kind of moral standpoint, but rather from the fact she's madly in love with him. She's tired of these secret meetings in hotel rooms during her lunch breaks because she wants to hold on to him longer than an hour or so every few months. Marion wants her life with Sam to begin in earnest, not continue to stall, and she's growing just a bit impatient. Fortunately for her, Sam is willing to comply with her request for a "respectable" Sunday supper at her home, with her sister Lila and a photograph of their dead mother on the mantel.
Bloch's original depiction of Marion isn't quite as sympathetic. Again, if you've seen the film (and I'll warn you of spoilers here, even though I may not have to, though I also get to say, shame on you for having not seen Psycho yet) you know that Marion (played by Janet Leigh) is the star up until about the halfway mark, at which point she is murdered by Norman Bates, disguised as his long-dead mother. Bloch isn't exactly up to the same narrative tricks as Stefano and Hitch, as he opens his novel with Norman, not Marion (again, in the novel, she's called Mary). Norman is the primary protagonist here (we may call him an anti-hero), and Mary isn't much more than knife fodder.
We'll get to that initial scene with Norman in a bit. For now, let's focus on our first glimpse of Mary. For one thing, we don't see her meeting Sam in a hotel room in Phoenix. This is because she lives in Ft. Worth, Texas, and her relationship with Sam is decidedly more distant and almost icy in the novel. They met each other on a cruise roughly a year prior (Stef and Hitch leave the length of their relationship unspoken), and at the end of their week-long romance, they decide to get married—and after, she goes back to Ft. Worth, and he to his little hick town which, while never said outright, seems to be in either east Kansas or West Missouri. Mary visits Sam for another week over the Summer, but apart from that, their only mode of communication is via letter. Mary still burns to marry Sam (hindered from doing so by the same financial woes as in the film), but she doesn't seem to burn with desire for him, the way Marion does in the film. It really is more about aligning with what is proper and expected of a decent lady, as well as the notion that a woman must be married before a certain age.
It is these stuffy, antiquated beliefs—this adherence to tradition—that makes Mary a bit unsympathetic as a character. Granted, she is really only a product of her Midwest, conservative environment (not pointed out specifically by Bloch, but evident when you read the subtext), and in that way we can't wholly blame her for the way she thinks. But at the same time, we see that Mary can be a bit mean-spirited, sharp-edged and condescending, and (ultimately) not as desirable as her sister Lila, who mirrors Mary's strong will, but does so in a softer, almost keening way—she's got moxie, in other words, whereas Mary is depicted more like a cat, both sly and brutally determined.
This distinction between Mary and Marion shades the way we see her spur-of-the-moment decision to steal $40,000 from a rather skeezy businessman, who insists on dealing in cash so he doesn't have to properly declare his income on his taxes. Bloch, Stef and Hitch all handle this guy as he should be handled—like a total scumbag. In Bloch's version, he even goes so far as to offer Mary $100 to spend the weekend with him in Dallas. His overbearing flirting rises in Mary (and in us) a sense of injustice—that there should be people in the world who have so much and can flaunt their wealth, while people like Sam have to struggle and toil for years on end, paying off debts they didn't even incur themselves (Sam's father saddled him with his financial burdens after his death). In both film and book, we can completely sympathize with this woman, treated like a "common whore" and expected to feel impressed and/or turned on by this repulsive man's wealth, while at the same time her true love has nothing. Any one of us might make the same decision and decide to run away with four Gs in cash in a Robin Hood-like gesture of justice, and a miracle solution to our personal woes.
In the book, Mary's rash decision to steal the money goes off without a hitch (that is, until she arrives at Bates Motel). She's crafty enough to switch cars three times before finally arriving in Missouri (or Kansas). Stef and Hitch, on the other hand, ratchet up the difficulty of this mad escape attempt by demonstrating just how much Marion hasn't thought her plan through. She only gets the idea to switch cars after being rousted by a local cop (and naturally fears her movements might be traced this way), and by the time she makes it to that fateful rainstorm hindering her ability to see the road ahead of her, compelling her to pull into the Bates Motel, Marion is a taut coil of stress and paranoia, ready to pop at any moment.
Now, it is her arrival at Bates Motel that reveal's Mary/Marion's true character, and offers us a brief segue into the very different depictions of Norman. We'll get to a more detailed analysis of this complicated character in a moment, but from a purely physical level, Bloch's version of Norman is that of an overweight, decidedly unattractive, balding and bespectacled middle-aged man—a far cry from the young, good-looking Anthony Perkins, whose turn as Norman in Stef and Hitch's Psycho skyrocketed his career (and, in some ways, derailed it, since no one could see the actor as anything other than the deranged, mother-dressing killer). Book Norman's appearance, coupled with his sad, isolated life and blind devotion to his mother elicits scorn and a certain mean-spiritedness in Mary. She has to stifle her laughter at this pathetic, "awful" man, and when he begins to discuss his love for his mother, she "cannot help" needling him, poking fun at him, trying to get a rise out of him. And after their impromptu dinner, when Mary finally retreats to her own room, she resolves to return to Ft. Worth in the morning not merely because she realizes the folly of this venture, and her foolishness at thinking she could actually get away with it, but also because she is resolved not to end up like Norman, old and pathetic, alone and trapped.
We all know what happens from there—except, if you've never read the book, you'd be unaware that in addition to being stabbed multiple times in the shower, Mary also has her head cut off.
And now, much like Psycho's narrative, we're switching gears and focusing on Norman Bates. I've already mentioned the major physical differences between the characters as depicted by Bloch and Stef and Hitch, respectively, and the decision by the latter to alter the character's appearance in such a drastic way is not an instance of "sexier" Hollywood casting. See, Mary's dislike of Norman in the novel isn't entirely unwarranted, even though her reasons might be a bit misaligned. Norman as Bloch writes him is thoroughly unlikable. Yes, he's a victim of his mother's abuse (which the author suggests might have also been sexual in nature), and his antiquated notions of sex and propriety one hundred percent stem from this unhealthy relationship (to understate the matter completely). But at the same time, it's quite hard to really sympathize with him when he refers to all women as "bitches" and displays shade's of "mother's" hatred of women with the conscious, Norman-controlled side of his brain. Not to mention, Norman is also a raging alcoholic, who frequently blacks out from his drinking, and this combined with his rather nasty outlook on women almost telegraphs the twist ending, that there is no "mother" at all, at least in the physical world.
Stef, Hitch, and Perkins's Norman is only addicted to candy, and this is important. The film's iteration of the character is, for all intents and purposes, a little boy, hopelessly devoted to his mother because he'd be lost without her. Perkins exudes this boyishness brilliantly, the way he bounds down the steps leading up to his ominous home, the way he smiles and jokes in a dopey, innocent manner. When Marion agrees to have dinner with him, she does so because he appears so harmless and one hundred percent non-sexual. They might very well be close in age, but the way Marion interacts with Norman, it's almost like watching a grown woman interact with a child (although, of course, she understands he is an adult, and in this way pities him, feels sorry for him, as opposed to her page counterpart, who cannot help but ridicule this sad man). When Norman "goes dark" at the mention of putting his mother in a home, it's a genuinely shocking moment for the first-time viewer, because prior to this moment he didn't seem capable of being so angry, and eloquent in his ire to boot.
Thus, while Bloch's clues that Norman is, in fact, the murderer are fairly apparent if you're paying attention, Stef and Hitch go out of their way to cast doubt on this matter, to make us think Mother might be a living, breathing, and murderous individual. They don't open their narrative, as Bloch does, with Norman reading about a native victory ritual, in which the skin and muscle of a fallen enemy is flayed to reveal the stomach, which is then distended and banged upon like a drum, the gaping mouth of the warrior acting as a resonator. They don't show Norman taking perverse delight in such a grotesque image. They only show us a boy in a man's body who will do anything to protect his mentally ill mother. In this way, we're not only fascinated with this character from a lurid or macabre standpoint, we also, like Marion before us, feel sorry for Norman. We can see clearly that he's been abused and brainwashed into unwavering loyalty, and when we learn the truth of his dual personalities, it's rather hard to demonize him in full. Yes, he committed horrible acts (more of which than we know, since his killing appears to predate the confines of the narrative), but at the same time, can it really be said he actually murdered all those people? As the grandiose psychiatrist states at the end of the film, "it was Mother who killed the girl" (paraphrased). Just how conscious was Norman when his hand brought the knife down? The answer, it seems, is not at all.
I'll always hesitate to state definitively that a book is better than a film, or vice versa, as they are different mediums with their own set of tenets by which to critique their merit. That being said, I will say that watching Psycho is generally a more enjoyable experience than reading the book because of the work Stef and Hitch did on both Marion and Norman, making them far more likable and empathetic—specifically with Marion, whose motives are far more nuanced and rooted in love rather than tradition, and with Norman, who breaks the confines of the typical, undesirable "mama's boy" and becomes something more complex and sinister, rather than simply DANGEROUS in all-caps.
Still, Bloch's novel contains aspects not seen in the film that make it a worthwhile read, specifically Norman's interest in metaphysics and the occult, an interesting aspect absent from Stef and Hitch's take on the narrative. Moreover, that iconic line from the film, "We all go a little mad sometimes," is a central theme in the novel (though the line is slightly different on the page). Bloch plays with the notion that any one of us could be as crazy as Norman, that our notions of reality could be just as skewed and distorted. As with the film, Norman becomes Norma by the end of the tale, the dominant "Mother" side of his personality taking control of the body. Mother is convinced that her nasty son was merely a character in a dream, a boy who in reality died a long time ago. Now, though, the nightmare is over, and she is awake, back in the real world. She "knows herself," and feels secure in her mental faculties, which for Mother, defines sanity. We know this not to be the case, of course, but Mother doesn't—so can it be argued reality as Mother sees it is any less real than the reality we call normal and "sane"? Stef and Hitch are less interested in skirting into mind-fuck territory, which is fine and well, but in this regard at least, Bloch wins out.
Have any of you read Bloch's Psycho? Share your thoughts on the book as it relates to the film in the comments section below.
Psycho (1960) [Blu-ray]()
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam
Rating: R (Restricted)