‘They had made a movie about us. The movie was based on a book written by someone we knew.’ So Bret Easton Ellis begins his new novel, Imperial Bedrooms, with characteristic metafiction, and like some blob from a 1950s horror film, in seeps the external world to the imagined one of the novel. Ellis’s work is suffused with the humming white noise of elements from outside the texts – ubiquitous brand names, italicised song lyrics, and celebrities – reaching its climax, perhaps, in his previous novel Lunar Park, with a fictionalised ‘Bret Easton Ellis’ as its protagonist. Indeed, the plot of Imperial Bedrooms – a sequel to his literary debut Less Than Zero – follows Clay as he returns to LA to cast his film The Listeners (a thinly veiled reference to Ellis’s The Informers, which Ellis himself turned into a screenplay). Such is the strangely disorienting nature of Ellis’s fictional world, with its circuitous inside/outside, real/fictional distinctions swirling together on the page.
These elements, external to the texts, have similarly preoccupied critics, because Ellis the novelist – as a high priest of the cult of literary celebrity – has always been more interesting to his reviewers. Since the publication of his first novel while still an undergraduate at Bennington College, criticism of Ellis’s work has focused obsessively upon elements outside the texts. The life of the author himself; his early status as ‘the voice of a generation’, as a leading member of that unholy trinity, the literary ‘brat pack’, and the media storm caused by the works’ sadistic content, have all been the primary focus of much criticism of the novels. Again and again, critics have continued to concentrate on the ‘story of the books’ rather than on the ‘stories in the books’, which generally remain either unexamined or dismissed as lightweight and artless.
Standing in line at the Ellis signing in Melbourne in August, with all the other book geeks and hipsters spilling out onto Collins Street – after what can only be described as a surreal author appearance, which offered the spectacle of an audience conflating the man with his vacuous characters, encouraging questions such as ‘Who would win in a tag-team wrestling match: Christian Bale with Patrick Bateman, or you and James Van Der Beek?’ – I was handed a flyer for the Melbourne Underground Film Festival, which this year held as its pecial event a Bret Easton Ellis retrospective.
I attended screenings of the four adaptations of Ellis’s work – Less Than Zero, American Psycho, The Rules of Attraction and the most recent The Informers. As I sat in theatres across Melbourne, from 1000 £ Bend to a remote warehouse at Docklands, I was struck by how uniformly these films – from different directors and screenwriters, including Ellis himself, in the case of The Informers – all seem to miss the point, failing to render the works faithfully. Almost all have been box-office disasters, despite myriad big Hollywood names amongst their collective casts. While most have acquired a cult following in the decades since their release, it is the cult of the author that has drawn them, with Ellis’s name – or, at the very least, the phrase ‘From the author of American Psycho’ – emblazoned across their promotional posters.
In fitting style, MUFF took as its epigraph ‘We’ll slide down the surface of things’, a recurring line in Ellis’s Glamorama. Many have seen the phrase as a succinct summation of Ellis’s oeuvre, and yet it seems to more accurately describe their transposition to screen. Ellis writes in Imperial Bedrooms of the film adaptation of Less Than Zero, ‘The movie was very different from the book in that there was nothing from the book in the movie’, and this is true of all the films in different ways. Cinematically, they are often breathtaking. They evoke the era deftly – to sit and watch them is to feel the 1980s wash over you in a sea of Wayfarers and New Romantic synth chords. Yet the films merely slide down the surface of the works, conveying only a beautifully glossy vision of 1980s America, with no real correspondence to the essence of the novels from which they take their names.
From Less Than Zero – with its litany of gang rape, homosexual prostitution and snuff screenings, to the notorious American Psycho, Ellis’s vision of the world, and certainly of America – has always been through a glass darkly. The opening pages of Imperial Bedrooms hold one of the most powerful images of Ellis’s America to date, with the American flag represented as a dismembered body discovered by a group of teenagers – the iconic f lag reduced to a white Tom Ford suit streaked with blood, the head so mutilated it resembles a blue square and fifty mangled stars. Yet the films have all shied away from the murky depravity so central to the novels. In a 1987 review of Less Than Zero, the first of the film adaptations, the New York Times wrote:
The smartest thing that the makers of Less Than Zero have done is the thing that they didn’t do: stick very closely to Bret Easton Ellis’s novel, no matter how trendy and best-selling that book may have been. For all its shock value, Mr. Ellis’s story of bored, jaded, affluent California teenagers would have been paralyzingly downbeat on screen, if not worse.
Since then, almost every film has followed suit, uniformly negating the bleakness of Ellis’s vision by employing satire and parody as a reassuring foil to the violence.
Mary Harron’s adaptation of American Psycho in 2000 won critical acclaim, and it certainly took a female director (and the softening distance of 10 years) to wrest the novel from its widely held classification as little more than ‘a how-to novel on the torture and dismemberment of women’. The film is wonderfully evocative of the era; it lingers lovingly over expensive designer furniture, intricate restaurant dishes, and is expertly cast – one could not have dreamed up a better Patrick Bateman than Christian Bale. However, it emphasises the satire in the novel to the extent that all darkness is eradicated, turning what is a deeply disturbing novel (still regarded as dangerous enough in Australia to be sold in plastic wrap, and banned from sale in Queensland) into little more than a well-dressed romp through the 1980s, with just enough blood splattered to continue to hold some link with the original.
The film highlights incessantly Bateman’s status as unreliable narrator, with a constant emphasis on ‘doubling’ in the film: Bateman is shown wearing masks; the blood of a victim splatters only one side of Bale’s face; and, most powerfully, we see his countenance ref lected repeatedly in mirrored surfaces – a framed Les Misérables poster, a stainless-steel restaurant menu, even the blade of a knife in the film’s promotional poster – emphasising Bateman’s serial-killer identity as existing only in the ‘looking-glass’ world. Whereas the novel gave us destabilising hints, allowing the f lickering doubts that perhaps his identity was an imaginary construction, the film seems to shriek at us over and over again, ‘It’s all in his mind! ’, killing the nuance so central to the novel.
Further, Harron’s development of the female characters, beyond the vacuous ‘hardbodies’ of the book, encourages the audience to identify with characters other than Bateman, undermining the close and disturbing identification with a serial killer. One of the great strengths of the novel was the manner in which it brought us into claustrophobic proximity with Bateman, capitalising on the literary convention that we identify with a first-person narrator, no matter how hideous their actions might be. It was this that made the novel so unsettling. The film, however, by allowing point-of-view shots from the perspectives of prostitute Christie and secretary Jean (one thinks of the final moments, where Jean looks upon the grotesque scribblings of mutilated women in Bateman’s diary with pity rather than horror) offers us a distanced perspective on Bateman, which is ultimately destabilising.
Most recently The Informers was widely panned – a ‘ponderous sledgehammer of a moral metaphor’ according to New York Magazine, and described by one critic as in ‘the race for the title Worst Movie Ever Made’. The film glides across the screen, glimmering with aerial shots of LA and a killer 1980s soundtrack. Visually, it is perhaps the most successful, in its casting of an army of blonde, tanned twenty-somethings – so physically perfect as to be almost unremarkable, like an assembly line of Barbie and Ken dolls in Ray-Bans. Yet it alters the fates of the characters in order to render the contents of the novel acceptable. Thus, a kidnapped little boy escapes the throat-slitting end he meets in the novel, scurrying away to safety. The promiscuous Christie may be punished, contracting HIV, but her male sexual partners live to snort another day. And in the adaptation of Less Than Zero, Julian Wells dies in a cherry-red convertible for his sins of male prostitution and drug addiction, turning the bleak apathy of the book into a heavy-handed morality tale.
Yet the problem with the translation of Ellis’s works runs deeper. Filmic adaptation is always regarded as most successful by the fidelity with which it renders the narrative texture of the novel to screen. For this reason, the project of translating an Ellis novel seems like an impossible enterprise as Ellis’s works are fundamentally acts in language, written in his signature blank, affectless prose – a pareddown minimalism that has been labelled everything from ‘writing degree less-than-zero’ to ‘zombie prose’. In its subversion of realist film conventions, therefore, The Rules of Attraction is by far the most successful of these films, in that Roger Avary attempted to find a visual equivalent to the textural style of the novel – employing reversals, slow motion, split screens, pauses, even on-screen titles such as ‘The Dressed to Get Screwed Party’ which act like chapter headings. The brief sequence in which Victor recounts his travels through Europe in a rapid-fire monotone comes closest in all the adaptations to capturing Ellis’s prose. Yet, words that are f lat, ironic and ultimately revealing on the page often become cringe-worthy when read earnestly aloud, as in The Informers film, which takes a passage from Less Than Zero – where Rip famously replies to Clay’s question ‘What don’t you have?’ with ‘I don’t have anything to lose’ – and turns it into this bloated scene:
‘I need something more than this.’
‘Grahame, what else is there? You already have everything.’
‘I need someone to tell me what is good. Okay? And I need someone to tell me what’s bad. Because if nobody tells you these things, Martin, then how do you know what’s good and what’s bad? And then what happens? What happens then, when nobody tells you these things?’
Lines which, as Ellis writes of a similarly ill-conceived piece of dialogue in the adaptation of Less Than Zero, ‘must have made the author blanch’.
Ultimately, Ellis fails on film because his novels are untranslatable. Ellis’s works are never about character development or narrative progression. Even Glamorama, with its international setting and model-terrorist storyline, is more concerned with a tangled mess of language games than about true narrative intrigue. One does not close the final page knowing ‘whodunnit’. Ellis himself parodies this in Glamorama’s opening paragraph:
So I don’t want a lot of description, just the story, streamlined, no frills, the lowdown: who, what, where, when and don’t leave out why, though I’m getting the distinct impression by the looks on your sorry faces that why won’t get answered – now come on, goddamnit, what’s the story?
One cannot sink into the ‘warm bath of narrative’, as one critic put it, with Ellis’s novels, as they are self-consciously plotless. The famous review of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, describing it as ‘A play in which nothing happens, twice’, might be applicable here – only if Beckett’s work included drug use and mutilation. For all the arguments that Ellis’s characters are vacuous zombies, empty vessels filled with MTV, drugs and designer clothing, Ellis’s works are ultimately about interiority. Thus, the most successful of the adaptations – American Psycho and The Rules of Attraction – employ voice-overs. Without being privy to the characters’ thoughts, the essence of the novels is lost, reduced to a loving montage of beautiful people in beautiful locales, buying beautiful, expensive things.
Reading is an infinitely solitary experience, and so the transposition of literature to film will always be accompanied by a sense of loss, as though the director has snatched away your imaginings. What were once ethereal pencil scribblings become great permanent-marker stains, tarnishing those images you once conjured for yourself. A film shapes one’s experience of the novel forever afterwards – Capote’s Holly Golightly will always be the angular Hepburn, Atticus Finch the bespectacled Gregory Peck and Patrick Bateman the chiseled, maniacal Bale. The problems with Ellis’s adaptations, nonetheless, are more profound than the loss of a reader’s intimate collaboration with the whispered words of the writer. They reduce the novels to little more than nostalgic period pieces, slithering down the glossy veneer of the works. For an author so often accused of vapidity, it is the films that are the most hollow – brittle shells with little more than a surface correspondence to the novels from which they take their titles. As Ellis writes of Less Than Zero’s adaptation, ‘The movie was just a beautiful lie.’