Serial killer tales American Psycho and From Hell both reached 20 during the last year, but they have much more in common than mere age and more to provide than shock value. One of the more obvious linkages is that they are both literary adaptations –a novel and graphic novel, respectively. They also share themes: of corruption within society, the endemic nature of misogyny, and the ever-damaging impact of unequal power. Disappointingly, not all of these ideas receive, a thorough exploration when brought to the screen, but can the messages from tales at the cusp of the new millennium still deeply resonate with our changed society today? And are there ways that these works could have been even bolder still?
American Psycho‘s 1990 source material, penned by literary provocateur Brett Easton Ellis, was extremely controversial on release thanks to graphic and extensive descriptions of brutal, almost ridiculous violence. It’s a wider-ranging story than such a reputation would suggest, though. Patrick Bateman is the lead and a serial killer, but he’s also a Wall Street employee, a dumb socialite driven by a need to conform, and a sadist with a deep undercurrent of misanthropy. This meshing of horror and social criticism is atypical, compelling, and ripe for some very dark humour – and the latter is something American Psycho‘s screen adaptation leans into.
There’s a different experience to be found with the film, one that confidently takes elements of its source and creates a particularly focused interpretation. Bateman (Christian Bale) becomes the definite centre, and we see his obsession with status, his embarrassing parroting of cultural references, and an animalistic relationship with violence. Bateman becomes a clear, straightforward parody of the toxic masculinity tied in with the hedonistic, uber-capitalist 1980s. The short length of the work makes this a clever riff on the book that is much more accessible to the general public, avoiding the potentially off-putting horror and density.
Though, regardless of how cleverly the film might have translated, something is lost. It’s a pared-back, cliff notes version of what Bret Easton Ellis originally created. In some ways it’s a more enjoyable work thanks to Bale’s pitch perfectly off kilter performance, but that performance and its ramifications are central. Ellis is particularly conscious of positioning Bateman as a product of a selfish, isolating, poisoned society destroying all of the people within its grasp, including even the immensely unhappy and broken Bateman himself. The time taken to absorb the novel is reflected in the depth of what you take away.
From Hell is a historic serial killer tale also presenting a fundamentally flawed society. It has a greater responsibility to be considered in its approach, though, as it’s not simply allegorical fiction but a fantastical take on the real murders committed by Jack the Ripper in Victorian London. The smog-filled, stinking, generally grubby London of the past is perfect for presenting a picture of depravity — and the film undoubtedly leans in to the depiction of this global city as something like Hell itself. But the graphic novel it’s based on is created by the intelligent, philosophical Alan Moore, who boldly grasps at concepts more suited to arthouse cinema than the pulp entertainment of which both takes on the tale have to varying degrees.
The disparity between the two depictions of the era’s evil is clearly seen in the protagonist, Inspector Abberline. Johnny Depp plays him on the screen as something of a bohemian Sherlock Holmes: world-weary, drug addicted, and with abilities of perception far beyond the norm. His literary counterpart is not so genteel, wise, or even handsome, but a stocky, no-nonsense, and even more haggard Inspector who simply seems to be relatively moral for the time. Moore’s Abberline is no Hollywood hero, with abuses of power that show how wide reaching the story’s issues are; that even our supposed hero is not free of the misogyny driving Jack the Ripper.
Moore and Ellis share similar sensibilities in exposing a rot that goes beyond the transgressions of a few individuals. The former presents evil as something stretching beyond Jack the Ripper’s violent misogyny, the hidden cruelty of Abberline, and even the particular attitudes of the Victorian era. This horrible episode in history is no aberration but a continuation of the centuries-spanning nature of the patriarchy; an oppression made physical in phallic, towering historic architecture, and which we see reflected in the coldly corporate future and its murderers. With Moore willing to jump beyond the bounds of realism to explore these ideas it becomes a profound tale that speaks about the fundamentals of human nature.
Both films deal with much broader strokes, not considering the full ramifications of the ideas they suggest. It may be, however, simply be the result of the era in which they were released and the need to go for the big screen rather than silver one. Television has now become an expensive and prestigious medium, providing the opportunity for numerous great works to have high quality and rich, expansive adaptations; a great bevvy of them that ranges from contemporary romance like Normal People to the epic fantasy of His Dark Materials. Perhaps today there might be room for these stories to breathe rather than be constrained by the format of being feature length, and to affect people in a way that lasts longer than a brief flash of cinematic entertainment.
It’s impossible to say that From Hell and American Psycho are bad films because the fundamentals of them are so compelling: the evil of both stories reflects the truth of today. It’s almost unquestionable, too, that American Psycho is the braver, bolder, and more timeless film, tapping more ambitiously into the nature of Patrick Bateman’s egotistical villainy. No matter how much success — to varying degrees – the filmmakers have had with their takes, though, there is much more purpose and precision in the original tales. It is almost undoubtedly the case that television makes a better home for the complex thoughts that they both have, and perhaps the constant desire to revisit dormant properties might hopefully result in an opportunity to dig deeper into stories and ideas that, unfortunately, seem perpetually relevant.
Header image courtesy of Lionsgate Films