We live in the age – god help us – of 2 Girls One Cup, et cetera: a whole culture of you have to see this, the more disturbing the better. For a long while many of YouTube’s most popular videos were of injuries, sports and otherwise. After a time we started calling injuries fails, imbuing them with comic mischief and levity. Maybe Jackass is to blame, all those kids spending their senior year of high school jumping into bushes and hurling themselves down hills in shopping carts, taking videos of the mayhem. We’ve spent fifteen years this way: hungry for horror. And so when you tell people not to read American Psycho, they want to read it all the more – but they shouldn’t, and they’ll regret it if they do.
It was 2001, and like a lot of people I’d fallen for Mary Harron’s film; it was so subversive, strange, and funny. It was Fight Club’s Fight Club, and a mainstay of DVD collections for fashionable dissidents (American Psycho, Memento, Donnie Darko – many of us remember this; the same people introduced us to that Eels record, or The Flaming Lips). I had read some dark stuff by that point, some disturbing material to be sure, but nothing came close to Ellis’s American Psycho. I was sitting in an orange recliner my roommate and I purchased at a yard sale when I read about Patrick Bateman surgically implanting a rat into a woman’s vagina.
I put the book down. It was the only time in my life I thought I might not be able to finish a novel because of its content. And that scene wasn’t definitively the worst; there were others, just as bad, not just disturbing but upsetting, unsettling.
All over the internet you can find people suggesting that the book makes the film look PG-rated. This is true, broadly, but misses the point. The film version of American Psycho is, subtly but importantly, completely different from the novel: in the film we enjoy Patrick Bateman, in the novel we don’t. Christian Bale recreates Bateman as charming, vulnerable and manic in such a way as to be occasionally sympathetic. The literary Bateman is unspeakably brutal, exerting his psychosis beyond justifiable retribution, even (notably) on animals – in a scene that has gotten the book banned numerous times. The literary Bateman is anything but sympathetic; he may be the most despicable character in literary history.
Regardless, when you tell people not to read American Psycho, they’ll want to read it. They think they’ve seen everything, and the movie wasn’t that bad, after all. But as faithfully as the film replicates Brett Ellis’s terrors, the two are fundamentally different, to the extent that the experience of each is wildly disparate: one jarring, the other scarring. I’ll watch the film again, I’ll recommend it to friends. But the novel – which is one of my favorites – I’ll never read again. I won’t even keep it in the house.
What do you think? Is the book or movie version of American Psycho more disturbing? Tell us what you think in the comments!
John Wells is an Ohioan living in North Carolina, where he teaches English to rowdy collegians, plays music, and writes. His poems appear in journals such as Spittoon, Driftwood, Flights and others; a short fiction piece is forthcoming in a Best New Writing anthology. Having been, as was inevitable, philosophically outlasted by the 21st century, he is soon staking claim to a tiny plot of cyberspace: johnjosephwells.com. John’s best moments are spent with his wife and daughter.