Bret Easton Ellis is reportedly working on a screenplay for a shark horror film. The Guardian and various film sites have reported this week that Ellis is collaborating with Paul Schrader (the screenwriter of such films as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) on a shark-infested psychological horror called Bait.
The plot sounds essentially like a cross between Less Than Zero and Jaws. Or a beach-side American Psycho, where the Patrick Bateman character is a shark. I really wish I was making this up.
Of course, Bret Easton Ellis has always been a polarising writer, and hating on Ellis has become something of a sport – particularly following his Imperial Bedrooms tour of Australia in August last year – with those who haven’t read his works usually leading the fray.
Yet, the reports are an interesting twist in an already unusual literary career – suggesting Ellis has followed a long (and destructive) tradition of L.A. writers lured by the siren call of screenwriting.
In Issue Four of Kill Your Darlings I wrote an essay on the impossibility of translating an Ellis novel to screen. The article, ‘Notes From the Underground: Why Bret Easton Ellis Fails On Film’ was a result of attending the Melbourne Underground Film Festival which held as its special event a Bret Easton Ellis retrospective.
As I sat in theatres across Melbourne watching all four screenings of the adaptations of Ellis’s work – Less Than Zero, American Psycho, The Rules of Attraction, and the most recent The Informers – I was struck by how uniformly these films, from different directors and screenwriters, all seem to miss the point, failing to render the works truly. Almost all were box office disasters, despite a myriad of big Hollywood names amongst their collective cast.
Ultimately, I argued, Ellis fails on film because his novels are untranslatable. Ellis’s works were never about character development or narrative progression, but are fundamentally acts in language, written in his signature blank, affectless prose – a pared-down minimalism that has been labeled everything from ‘writing degree less-than-zero’ to ‘zombie prose’.
Yet the real problem with the adaptations has been a uniform shying away from the unsettling darkness so central to the novels – with each film relying instead on satire and parody as a reassuring foil to the violence. And this is where interpretations of Ellis, especially his filmic translations, appear to be stuck.
Indeed, the comments section of the Guardian post in particular have produced some (rather amusing) imaginative parodies of the proposed film , such as this from HisNameIsKittis:
I’m sitting on a surfboard somewhere off Venice Beach, wearing a pair of board shorts from Pierre Cardin. Suddenly a fin the colour of my second-favourite Versace suit cuts through the water. ‘Is that a Great White?’ I say to Nancy, my gym instructor, who I also happen to be fucking this week. She screams as the shark bites through her bronzed, toned thigh. ‘This is making me want sushi,’ I say, chopping out a line of $400-a-gram Colombian on the shark’s rough, sandpapery snout. ‘Can we get a table at Katangi for tonight?’ ‘No-one can get a table at Katangi. Not even Steven Spielberg,’ says the shark.
Ellis’s style lends itself to parody because it’s so distinctive – and there have been some very successful video spoofs of Ellis’s aesthetic, including the Funny or Die short All That Glitters which Ellis rather good-naturedly took part in. Yet they simply underline Patrick Bateman’s oft-quoted assessment that ‘Surface, surface, surface is all that anyone found meaning in’.
For an author so burned by the filmic translation of his novels that his most recent work Imperial Bedrooms is a kind of extended literary critique of the Less Than Zero film, it is difficult to see why Ellis would ever want to work in the cinematic medium. Especially seeing his first foray into screen writing himself – a translation of his own short story collection The Informers – resulted, ironically, in not only the least successful of all the adaptations of his works, but a film so widely panned it was nominated as a contender for the Worst Film of All Time. (Although, the failure of this film has been widely credited to the director and producer for a number of reasons – it’s interesting to read Ellis’s own comments on this here)
But screenwriting is apparently where Ellis is heading. Indeed, the final line of Imperial Bedrooms: ‘1985-2010’ have led many to speculate that this is a veiled authorial RIP to his career as a novelist.
Ellis has confirmed he is working on a screen play for The Golden Suicides – a Vanity Fair essay on the tragic double-suicide of creative couple Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake. And now, a shark film?
L.A. has been mythologised as the place to which writers are lured and ensnared, their talents wasted at the altar of the studio machine. As Mike Davis wrote in his seminal work on L.A. City of Quartz, ‘Fused into a single montage image are Fitzgerald reduced to a drunken hack, West rushing to his own apocalypse, Faulkner rewriting second-rate scripts, Brecht raging against the mutilation of his work, the Hollywood Ten on their way to prison, Didion on the verge of a nervous breakdown’. And so Ellis falls down the rabbit hole too.
Ellis’s seemingly-autobiographical Lunar Park begins: ‘You do an awfully good impression of yourself’. His opening lines have always been significant, reverberating throughout the novels and taking on a weight of meaning with each repetition. Yet these lines now seem particularly prescient. If Bait turns out to be as awful as it sounds, Ellis is descending into far worse than an impression of himself. He’ll be doing an awfully bad parody.
– Bethanie Blanchard is a Melbourne writer and literature PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne.