Reading the Screen: Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho

imperial-bedroomsImperial Bedrooms, Bret Easton Ellis’s new novel, is a sequel to his first book, Less Than Zero. A handful of Ellis’s books have been adapted for the big screen, and it hasn’t always been an easy transition.

Less Than Zero (book 1985; movie ’87) and Rules of Attraction (book 1987;  movie 2002) have some good performances, but they’re watered-down versions of the novels.

2009’s The Informers is based on Ellis’s 1994 short-story collection. It’s an ensemble piece set in the 1980s — Ellis’s literary home — with a large cast and several loosely connected stories. 

But it’s American Psycho (1991) I want to talk to you about. 200px-americanpsychobook1For me it’s Ellis’s best novel, and his most misunderstood. The book, in case you haven’t read it, is narrated by a New York investment banker who has a terrible secret: he is a rapist, a torturer, a sadistic murderer. Or maybe he isn’t. Maybe the book’s graphic episodes of violence are merely products of Patrick Bateman’s lurid, pathetic imagination. Ellis crafts the book so either interpretation makes perfect sense.

Ellis got a lot of criticism for the book, and a lot of it was misplaced. The violence is essential: it reveals the dark shadows of Patrick’s mind. And the oft-cited stylistic excesses, the obsessions with brand names, with what the characters are eating, drinking, and wearing? Listen: Patrick is telling the story, and this is who Patrick is: shallow, self-absorbed, defined by superficialities.

The 2000 movie adaptation was directed and co-written by Mary Harron. It is a brilliant film, an utterly compelling portrait of a deeply psychotic young man, and here’s the best thing about it: like Ellis’s novel, it refuses to distinguish between what’s real and what is Bateman’s twisted fantasy.

Christian Bale plays Batemen, by the way, and he has never been better. (First Bateman, now Batman: Bale’s best characters lurk in the shadows.) You absolutely should read Ellis’s novel — it’s still wildly controversial, but never mind that — and you absolutely should see the movie. Here’s a look:

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