Book vs. Film: Psycho

Psycho works well as a book and as a film, the remarkable story is told well in both but which method is more effective?

All you Psycho virgins out there be warned, this contains a high amount of both novel and film spoilers.

As a novelist, Robert Bloch has been rather underrated over the years. He has been an active writer since the 1930s but it was only after crafting Psycho that his career really began blossoming. The novel itself was published in 1959 and the adaptation was released a year later; Alfred Hitchcock wasted no time in adapting the novel for the big screen. He successfully brought the rights to Psycho for the solitary purpose of leaving his audience in confusion about how the novel ended. It was for reasons like this that Hitchcock was named the master of suspense. Upon release, Psycho was an instant hit amongst its audience for the flawless tension which it created, especially the infamous shower scene which shows the character Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh) being murdered by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in the mind-set of his mother.

The film version of Psycho is somewhat different to Bloch’s novel, the novel provides more of an insight into the relationship between the character of Norman Bates and his mother and the relationships between Mary Crane (her name is changed to Marion in the film version), Sam Loomis (played by John Gavin) and Mary’s sister Lila Crane (played by Vera Miles). The book paints a very disturbed picture of the deranged Norman thanks to his tyrant of a mother, bringing its readers deep into Norman’s mind better than the film ever could. However, through the encounter between Marion and Norman, the film does capture enough of Norman’s broken mind to set the mood for the thriller. Perhaps the mystery of not knowing only adds to the attraction of the film adaptation as you don’t have the luxury of understanding why Norman does what he does until the very end of the film where his unhinged mind is explained.

Robert Bloch creates three sides to Norman Bates in the novel but the film only explores two and slightly touches on the third. In the book three personalities are looked at, the first is boy Norman or ‘Norman’ as is stated in the novel who is the little needy boy, obedient to his mother. This side of Norman is constantly put down by his mother in the story, it is the weaker personality. Much of this personality is overlooked in the film. The second is mother Norman, or ‘Norma’, who torments Norman every chance she gets, Norman is unable to let her go. The final and third personality is adult Norman or ‘Normal’ who is the rationalising Norman Bates, it is the personality that tries maintaining a normal lifestyle whilst also attempting to conceal the other two personalities from the world. Adult Norman Bates is aware of the psychological problems that he is faced with but his attempts at controlling the other personalities are flawed due to his own defective mind. Possibly the lack of time is the reason why the film only lightly touched on this intelligent rationalising personality and also possibly so that the audience have the indulgence of justifying what happens themselves.

Both the book and the film have successfully achieved the portrayal of the disturbed and the chaotic relationship between Norman Bates and his mother. The arrival of the alluring Marion Crane changes something in Norman Bates, his attraction to her shames him and the guilt-ridden Norman murders her as his mother. Marion Crane is the centre of his distress, her beauty fascinates him but his attraction to her also angers him.  In the book Norman is convinced that Marion flaunts herself in front of the bathroom mirror for the purpose of tormenting him, he is certain that she knows about the hole in the wall that he made to spy on his tenants, he was sure she knew he was watching. In the film Norman only briefly watches her through the hole in the wall but his attraction is still clearly portrayed.

Described to be a middle-aged, overweight and balding man with glasses in the story, it is somewhat hard to believe that the Norman Bates illustrated on the page and the Norman Bates portrayed in the film are the same person. Anthony Perkins shows no physical similarities to the fleshy and aging Norman in the story. However, despite the contrast of the physical appearance between the two, Anthony Perkins fits the role like a glove.

Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of Psycho was remade in 1998 by Gus Van Sant. The ambitious director admired the original so much that he attempted to re-create the brilliant film using much of the same cinematic techniques that Hitchcock himself used. However, the film itself just oozes disappointment, this shot-by-shot style of film-making proves to be futile and nothing compared to the 1960s masterpiece.

It is difficult to say which is better the book or the film; both are unique to their own style and storytelling. The novel provides a more detailed examination of the characters, each of them is given their own background story. The film lacks such intimacy but it does give the story the edge that it needed to become a terrifying thriller that is still remembered many years after release. Hitchcock’s Psycho is a product of pure genius film-making with beautiful shots and flawlessly created suspense. With its iconic scenes and superb acting, Psycho is clearly a winner. It will always remain one of the most memorable films in cinema history, with the horror it induced still intact.

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