Chest Always So Puffed Guy: American Psycho At 20

The story written by Bret Easton Ellis had its own thoughts on toxic masculinity, but it was only with Mary Harron's 2000 film that the weight of American Psycho really found its truth, writes Marianne Eloise

Of Mary Harron’s 2000 adaptation of 1991 Wall Street satire American Psycho, its author, Bret Easton Ellis, famously said, “American Psycho was a book I didn’t think needed to be turned into a movie”. To his credit, he has more recently called it a “very well done adaptation”, while still lamenting that it was “conceived as a completely literary experience”. There’s some narcissism to considering it unadaptable, to believing that its heft, lengthy descriptions and graphic monologues are the only good thing about it. Luckily, Harron saw something more to the book – and in doing so, gave American Psycho a legitimate second life.

In 2020, American Psycho has been reduced to its motifs; liking Bret Easton Ellis at all is often used as a punchline to a joke about edgy literary bros. 10 years ago, as an edgy teen myself – albeit a female one – I had no real sense of shame in enjoying books we now deride as the sole property of misogynists. When a friend lent me American Psycho, he warned me that it was graphic. Keen not to chicken out, but more squeamish than I was willing to admit, I devoured it in snatches during daylight hours only, lest it become nightmare material. I read it quickly, on the school bus and during chip shop shifts, skipping over more violent sections. I loved it, but when it came to watching the film, I was warned it was missing the “best bits” of the book.

And yes, Mary Harron’s adaptation is less grisly than Ellis’s book. With co-writer Guinevere Turner, the I Shot Andy Warhol director chose to play up the comedic aspects and tone down the violence. There is just enough blood to hammer home how violent Patrick Bateman is, but mostly, Harron chooses to convey his derangement through Christian Bale, a then relatively unknown actor who she decided was the only man for the role. While Bret Easton Ellis’s novel does satirise masculinity to a degree, Harron built American Psycho a new legacy by making it her focus. Believing that the book had been “misread” and “unfairly treated”, Harron hoped, “There was a way to do it in which all the great things about it could become clearer, for example, the many hilarious things there.”

With a clear vision and a team she believed could execute it, Harron still came up against years of tumultuous back and forth with executives who had different ideas. Finally, with Bale on board, it went ahead: as a “period piece and social satire”. Honing in on Bateman and his friends’ competitive masculinity and obsession with fitting in, she ramped up the homoeroticism, too. “In those very macho, very testosterone-driven, very competitive male cultures, there is a very strong homoerotic element,” she said in 2000. The film was sharply aware of the ways men are forgiven in society, so long as they conform. “Here is a story about someone who does horrific crimes and no one finds out because everything on the surface of his life is perfect. As long as he says the right things, goes to the right restaurants, wears the right clothes, he gets away with murder,” said Harron.

As in Ellis’s book, Bale’s Bateman lacks any personality of his own, in a critique of Wall Street bros and materialism. But his emptiness isn’t pure sociopathy, as it’s often read. Turner said Bateman is “less a person and more a phenomenon. He is the personification of his environment,” and she and Harron made the reasons for his emptiness more clear than Ellis. It is especially evident in scenes where several men are in conversation, like the opening scene at a restaurant where Bateman and his friends seem to get each other mixed up before throwing down identical credit cards. One now-famous scene in which everyone pores over each other’s business cards has been absorbed into the cultural canon. As Bale self-consciously sweats and twitches in his seat, panicking about “that subtle off-white colouring”, Harron makes obvious the one thing Ellis failed to: Patrick Bateman is not that cool.

It’s partly Bale’s performance, and Harron’s insistence that he was the one for the job, that cinched American Psycho’s legacy. His hurried excuses that he’s off to “return some videotapes” and stilted conversations that veer towards mania are played for laughs. His misogyny and unlikability border on the absurd – in conversations with his receptionist (Chloe Sevigny), fiancé Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon) or victims, he’s at once socially inept and classically sleazy. Bateman’s visual spiral towards absolute madness is not just troubling, it’s embarrassing to watch.

Harron is working with the material that Ellis provided, but she’s doing so with a detached, resolutely female lens. Ellis was too close to the material to see its non-literary merits, but Harron cherrypicks the parts that make for good filmmaking, choosing a few of Bateman’s monologues and amping up their visual appeal. In doing so, the image of Bale peeling off his skin while narrating every move in his skincare routine, ever more prescient in an age of extreme self-care, is permanently wedded to Ellis’s writing. Harron even chose not to cut Bateman’s lengthy music reviews, and while remaining selective, she made them timeless. The images that the director brought to life are now ubiquitous – when Kanye West parodied American Psycho to promote Yeezus, he hit up Bret Easton Ellis to write the script. But with Scott Disick talking at length about Yeezus before axe-murdering Kim Kardashian’s best friend Jonathan Cheban, the video was less a reference to the novel than a shot for shot remake of Harron’s version. The two now work in tandem, both responsible for different parts of American Psycho’s legacy.

It’s easy to forget just how controversial Ellis’s novel was on first release; so shocking, so violent, that it was immediately iconic. Branded “a contemptible piece of pornography” and “genuinely disturbing” by reviewers, people believed that it would snuff out 27-year-old Ellis’s career shortly after Less Than Zero kickstarted it. The publisher dropped it, Ellis received death threats, various countries restricted its release, and even Gloria Steinhem abhorred it for its violence against women. With time, that shock value has been lost, but Ellis has lost the edge that made him special; once a 20-something spearheading movements, he’s now just another man lamenting millennial culture on any podcast that’ll have him. Harron’s adaptation took his work and gave it longevity, beyond shock value or precociousness.

In making the ending of American Psycho less than ambiguous, Harron disappointed Ellis and some fans. “We’ve already seen him kill people; it doesn’t matter if he has some crisis of memory at the end,” he said. But despite some controversy, Harron’s adaptation was well-received by most. “It’s just as well a woman directed American Psycho. She’s transformed a novel about blood lust into a movie about men’s vanity,” said the late Roger Ebert, giving it three stars, while Empire called it “laugh out loud funny”. With time, the film has only gained more credibility, with women writers reframing it as a bold example of the female gaze.

While Ellis’s words are less harsh than many authors on adaptations of their work (see Stephen King on The Shining), they still serve as evidence that writers are often too close to their own work to know what’s best for it. Ellis’s own venture into cinema with The Canyons in 2013, was forgettable. But Harron’s careful adaptation of American Psycho played with her and Turner’s objectivity to create something that paid tribute to its source material without being too dependent on it. 20 years later, it remains a classic; a funny, self-aware take on a book whose bad reputation has somewhat outlived its impact. In an era where both books and films are so easily reduced to their authors or fans, American Psycho’s complicated legacy is a stark reminder that there’s never one way to read (or adapt) anything.

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