From Book to Screen: Bret Easton Ellis
A common thread that runs through all of Bret Easton Ellis’ books is the exploration of hollow persons. People who are generally well-off financially yet dead on the inside, so numb to the world around them that even acts of horrific violence and depravity can’t faze them more than momentarily. Ellis has populated his stories with these characters, often set in the 1980s to satirize the excessiveness of the time period. While reading all the books back-to-back is probably not recommended, the author manages to find enough variety and different themes to explore to make them all have some value. If he seems one-note, one does not look closely enough.
There have been four film adaptations of his books so far – with Glamorama currently in production set to become the fifth. Interestingly enough, the four current movies have all had different directors and writers on board, leading to four quite different films. Some have managed to capture the essence and voice of Ellis’ writing. Others have strayed from it and made something quite different. The end results have been of varying degrees of quality to say the least.
Ellis’ first novel Less Than Zero – published in 1985 when he was only 21 years old – became a big success and instantly catapulted the author into stardom. Plans for an adaptation to the big screen were soon put into motion. While the novel is hardly the author’s strongest work – it was mostly written while he was still a teen – it’s nonetheless a hard-hitting debut where the seeds of his future works are evident. The story centers around college freshman Clay who returns home to Los Angeles for Christmas and New Year. What follows is an endless stream of parties, drugs, alcohol, and sex as he tries to reconnect with his old friends – mostly in vain. A joyful reunion this ain’t, with Clay watching on helplessly as the people he once knew have all succumbed to vice and he realizes that he’s no better himself.
The movie tries for a more cohesive narrative than the novel’s somewhat fractured structure. Andrew McCarthy plays Clay, and while he’s arguably the protagonist and viewpoint character, the plot here is firmly fixed on his friend Julian (Robert Downey Jr.), a young man who has fallen hard into drug addiction and has reluctantly turned to prostitution to fund it. Julian was also in the book, but there he was just one old acquaintance among many. Other characters figure into the film as well, but not to the same degree as in the source. Whereas the book paints up a more overarching picture of Clay’s old world having vanished and a critique on society as a whole, the film becomes a more conventional tale of Julian’s attempt at salvaging his life. While this is not inherently a bad thing, the problem is that we are given little reason to care or sympathize with Julian. I know that Clay cares, but his worrying doesn’t transfer effectively to me. Julian isn’t shown to be worthy of redemption, and if there are redeeming factors in his possibly tragic past, they’re not shown to us. The same goes for the other characters in the film. Clay himself is more of a blank emotionless slate, allowing the viewer to put themself in his shoes as an observer but not yielding any valuable insights.
The film isn’t all bad, though. While the script puts up stumbling blocks for him, Robert Downey Jr. still puts in an effective performance as Julian, showing both the numbness and the anguish he’s going through. He far outshines the rest of the cast. Less Than Zero is also the only one of the 1980s-set Ellis adaptations to actually have been made in the 1980s, and so it more effortlessly captures the fashion, the music, and the atmosphere of the time. The zeitgeist, if you will. Melancholy masked by exuberance, and dark secrets hiding behind neon lights. The setting intrigues more than the characters do, and as the characters – or at least Julian – is what the film is mostly concerned with, this isn’t an ideal result. Less Than Zero misses the mark.
Easily the most well-known both of Ellis’ books and of the adaptations thereof. Whereas Less Than Zero concerned itself with the party culture among youths in L.A., American Psycho sets its sight on the yuppies of New York City. Patrick Bateman is the main character, a wealthy man with a nice cushy office job – though his field of work is never specified. His life is a material one, where countless hours are spent on perfecting his looks, where making dinner reservations at the fanciest restaurants is of utmost importance, and where reasonable ground for a panic attack is when a colleague has a better-looking business card than him. Patrick needs to be perfect so that he’s ahead of everyone else. So do the people he knows. As a result, they are all the same. A paradoxical folly of a game that nobody can get out of. But Patrick is suffering from other demons too. He’s a recreational murderer, see. Or maybe he’s just delusional. The novel – like all of Ellis’ books – is told in first person, and Patrick is as unreliable a narrator as they come.
Christian Bale plays the protagonist in the film, and his performance is the highlight here. Everything about the way Patrick talks, moves and acts evokes a mass of conflicting emotions: superiority, entitlement, insecurity, blood lust and more. The tone of the film is one of black comedy, and Bale seizes the right opportunities to crack the audience up even when we may not want to. The humor is pretty much in line with that in the book: a blend of absurdity and confusion. In particular, the scenes of Patrick musing about pop music he loves play really well on the screen. It should be said that the novel is funnier at its peaks, however.
As for the violence, the film is understandably neutered. Yeah, sure, there are bloody axe murders and chainsaw killings in the movie, but even the most fervent pursuer of torture porn flicks might find some sequences in the novel hard to stomach. In one way, this change is for the better, as there is no way you could show everything that happens in the book on film, and nobody should in their right mind want to see it. On the other hand, what makes the novel so effective is that stark contrast between the gruesome killings and the foolishness of the yuppies. It’s hard to imagine a way to make this fully come alive on film, so maybe director/writer Mary Harron made the right choice here. More problematic is the ambiguity aspect. Neither the novel nor the film make it clear whether Patrick actually commits any of his deeds or not. As we’re always in Patrick’s mind in the book, it’s easier to understand how this could all be delusions. In the film, there’s little to go on to determine anything. Scenes play out like all the rest, yet they contradict one another, and the film rarely pulls us into the Patrick Bateman being. He’s a third-party character like any other in the film, so it seems strange that what we see happen to him isn’t actually taking place.
In Less Than Zero, Clay was on holiday away from Camden College, a fictional school in New Hampshire. The Rules of Attraction is set at that very place of learning, though you’d be hard-pressed to find any actual education going on. You might even say that The Rules of Attraction puts Less Than Zero in a new light, because if this is what Clay went through during terms, he shouldn’t be too surprised at the things that happen in L.A.. Camden is a place of debauchery, but the sense of detachment the students go through makes it seem unlikely that they’re deriving much pleasure from it all.
Both the book and the film versions of The Rules of Attraction are somewhat more playful than the other tales in Ellis’ oeuvre. The novel employs stream-of-consciousness to a bigger degree, heightening the sense of the characters drifting along in a storm with no control, barely having time to register what is happening in their lives. There are a number of different narrators, and they often contradict one another when retelling various events. Three persons get more time and space than the others: Lauren Hynde, Paul Denton, and Sean Bateman – brother of American Psycho‘s Patrick. Other characters have only a single chapter devoted to them; a noteworthy one by a foreign exchange student is written entirely in French.
Director/writer Roger Avary also utilizes interesting techniques for the movie version. The opening scene shows a from the points of view of the three main characters, rewinding time in-between to show everything backwards. The first meeting between Sean and Lauren – played by James Van Der Beek and Shannyn Sossamon – has the screen split in two to show their respective morning routines simultaneously and their way to school, only for the two halves to meld into one as they encounter one another in a hallway. The sequence that tends to leave the biggest mark on viewers, however, is a retelling of a Europe vacation by Lauren’s prince charming Victor (Kip Pardue): a highly frantic montage that tosses us from one location to the next, with Pardue offering motor-mouth narration of the drug-fuelled trip. It’s like an entire Ellis’ novel condensed into four minutes, and it hits you like a wrecking ball.
More than any of the other adaptations, The Rules of Attraction takes liberties with the novel it’s based on. It keeps the characters fundamentally the same but alters the events. For example, Lauren and Sean become an item for a significant portion of the book; in the film, Sean wants her but doesn’t get very far. A more drastic change is in tone, as the movie features more straight-forward comedy and vivid characters. At times, it assumes the guise of a typical post-American Pie sex comedy, only to then subvert it with a heavy dose of darkly despairing humor. Thus another layer is added to the story that the novel doesn’t provide; Avary presents the flip side to the fun partying found in many college films.
The Rules of Attraction is my favorite of the adaptations. It doesn’t feel a whole lot like an Ellis story, but rather carves out its own identity in a big way. The characters are far from likeable, but we’re allowed to laugh at the absurdities of their lives more than in Less Than Zero. It’s a very funny movie, but one that doesn’t hesitate to punch you in the gut emotionally just as you’re starting to relax. And let’s not forget the actors, with Van Der Beek showing some great comedic timing, Sossamon bringing more depth to Lauren than what’s at first apparent, and Clifton Collins Jr. as a high-string drug dealer from hell.
The other Ellis books that have been discussed here have all been of the standard novel format. The Informers on the other hand is a collection of short stories, all their own entities even if some characters show up or are mentioned in multiple parts. It’s familiar subject matter to those who have read Ellis’ debut novel; much like that one, the stories of The Informers take place in the decadence of 1980s Los Angeles. Rather than homing in on college kids, these tales concern people of more varied age groups: teenagers, young adults, middle-aged and more. Sex and drugs and rock n roll are familiar ingredients at this point, and while Ellis’ writing here is sharper, The Informers still comes off as a bit of a retread of Less Than Zero. The main difference is the multitude of different viewpoint characters, all suffering from the same indifference but each with their own particular quirks.
Unlike Less Than Zero, American Psycho, and The Rules of Attraction, Ellis himself co-wrote the screenplay for the film version of The Informers. Not surprisingly, this has resulted in the most faithful of the adaptations. Large chunks of dialogue have been lifted straight from the book, and few events have been changed. The most significant alteration comes at the climax of the movie, where one character who in the book commits a horrific deed instead becomes actually heroic – a rarity in Ellis’ work. A couple of the stories from the book have been left out entirely, including a memorable one about a group of vampires who prey on the party crowds. None of these exclusions affect the overall experience much, however. There is no clear narrative that runs through the film; rather, it just jumps from one subplot to the next. The connection between the various sections is more thematic than anything.
The film’s fairly strict adherence to the book doesn’t do it any favors. None of Ellis’ books have seemed very filmable to me, and so it’s no surprise that the previous three movies have made changes to make things work better for the big screen. Less Than Zero created a more clear-cut dramatic narrative, while American Psycho and The Rules of Attraction offered more comedy. The film version of The Informers has neither drama nor comedy. It’s just a bunch of miserable people with empty lives drifting around and occasionally bumping into one another. There is no humor to be had here, yet the subject matter cries out for it. This doesn’t make for an entertaining experience, and there’s nothing interesting thematically to make up for it. Even the setting is a wasted opportunity, as the only thing that hints at the movie taking place in the 1980s is the occasional music video playing on a TV screen. It’s hard to fault the actors assembled as they have all shown great skills in the past; there simply isn’t much to work with here. I don’t think there has ever been a film less worthy of featuring four former Oscar nominees – Kim Basinger, Winona Ryder, Billy Bob Thornton, and Mickey Rourke are all part of the ensemble. Of them, only Ryder manages to impress occasionally. Overall, it’s hard to call The Informers anything other than a dreary mess.