Mary Harron’s movie adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s "American Psycho". A feminist movie

Rehabilitating "bad" literature

Seminar Paper, 2013

16 Pages, Grade: 1,0



I. Introduction

II. American Psycho: A feminist movie
A) Added/Altered content
1) New scenes
2) Altered scenes
B) Focus on satiric elements
C) Are Bateman’s crimes reality or fantasy?
D) “Distancing effect”
E) The female perspective

III. Conclusion

IV. Appendix

V. Works cited

I. Introduction

“I'm always shocked when people want to make movies out of my books. […] They have cinematic scenes, they have a lot of dialogue, but often they don't have that narrative momentum a movie needs” (Shulman, par. 12), said Bret Easton Ellis, the author of the novel American Psycho, in an interview about movie adaptations of his books. Ellis wrote a total of seven novels and became one of the most famous authors of postmodern American literature. His third novel American Psycho was published in 1991 and turned into a movie in 2000 by Mary Harron. Yet, the missing narrative momentum Ellis mentioned was not Harron’s only problem while adapting the novel. When American Psycho was published in 1991, it was not well received. Because of its extremely graphic scenes of violence and pornography the novel caused a chorus of outrage among critics. Female activist groups complained that it was “a how-to novel on the torture and dismemberment of women” (McDowell, par. 1). Ellis even received death threats and had to face furious outcries from women like:

There are better ways of taking care of Bret Easton Ellis than just censoring him. I would much prefer to see him skinned alive, a rat put up his rectum, and his genitals cut off and fried in a frying pan, in front of—not only a live audience—but a video camera as well. These videos can be sold as "art" and "free expression" and could be available at every video outlet, library, liquor, and convenience store in the world. We can profit off of Ellis' terror and pain, just as he and bookstores are profiting off the rape, torture, and mutilation of women. (Baxter and Craft, pp. 249-250)

Ellis was surprised that the novel provoked such reactions because he intended the novel to be a black comedy and a critique of the capitalist society in New York City in the 1980s. His intention was to decry the greed, envy and the urge for conformity present at Wall Street at that time. However, the satiric elements of his novel were almost completely overshadowed by the violent and pornographic passages which led many people to misinterpret the novel’s message. The reactions to Mary Harron’s movie adaptation of American Psycho were much friendlier:

Watching ''American Psycho'' is like witnessing a bravura sleight-of-hand feat. In adapting Bret Easton Ellis's turgid, gory 1991 novel to the screen, the director Mary Harron has boiled a bloated stew of brand names and butchery into a lean and mean horror comedy classic. (Holden, par. 1)

In view of this change of opinion from the novel to the movie adaptation, it is justified to take a closer look at how Harron adapted Ellis’s novel. In the framework of the seminar Literature and Media: A Kaleidoscope, this paper analyzes the rehabilitation of the novel focusing on internal changes[1] and the resulting changes in the effect on the audience. Mary Harron rehabilitated American Psycho by turning it into a feminist movie.

II. American Psycho: A feminist movie

Patrick Bateman, the protagonist of the novel, is a Wall Street banker at day and a serial killer at night. He murders preferably women in very violent ways, which are described in great detail in the novel. At first, it appears difficult to produce a feminist movie out of such a violent story. Nevertheless, Harron managed it. Guinevere Turner, co-writer of American Psycho, said: “It was a strategic move just to get a woman at the helm of the movie simply because then that’s where all the feminist backlash is going to be absorbed.” (American Psycho: Book to Screen, 0:58). However, it took more than only the fact that the director is female to make a feminist movie. Harron could not simply make a transposition[2]. Adopting all the violence and pornography to the screen would have resulted in further furious reactions and in a NC-17 rating and thus in a smaller number of people who are allowed to watch the movie. Considering this the medium film is clearly limited in using violence and pornography as a stylistic device to call for change as Ellis did in his novel. One can say that Mary Harron’s movie fits into the category of a commentary as defined by Geoffrey Wagner: “This is where an original is taken and either purposely or inadvertently altered in some respect. It could also be called re-emphasis or re-structure.” (223). To make a feminist movie Harron adds new scenes, alters existing ones, highlights the humorous passages, calls into question whether Patrick Bateman’s murders are real, creates a “distancing effect” that helps to maintain a safe distance between the audience and the sick character of Patrick Bateman and adds female perspectives to some scenes.

A) Added / Altered content

1) New scenes

The first step on Harron’s way to make a feminist movie was to add content that is not explicitly mentioned in the novel. In the disco scene at the beginning of the movie, Harron adds segments, in which three girls perform with guns in their hands on a stage aiming at the crowd (sequence 2)[3]. This scene in the movie corresponds to the chapter Tunnel at the beginning of the novel. In the novel, however, Bateman observes that there are “no women anywhere, just an army of professionals from Wall Street” (p. 55). By adding the scene with the girls on the stage holding guns, Harron creates an atmosphere which suggests that the disco is under female control; female control is nowhere to be found in the entire male-dominated novel. Furthermore, Bateman’s threat to kill the girl behind the bar is slightly reduced. The spectator has the impression that the armed girls on the stage act like a police and would come to help her colleague if Bateman tries to assault her.

Additionally, Harron creates a different ending of the scene (sequence 33) in which Bateman chases after the prostitute he named “Christie” after he had slept with her and a girl named Elizabeth. “Christie” offers resistance; again a circumstance nowhere to be found in the entire novel. She manages to kick Bateman in the face, to run away from him out of the apartment down the stairs and to almost escape from her torturer. In the novel “Christie” is tortured and killed immediately by Bateman. All in all, Harron manages to highlight female strength by adding those small but important passages. Harron, however, does not only add new scenes, but also alters existing ones.

2) Altered scenes

One of the rare moments in the novel in which the reader gets the impression that Bateman is brought to justice for his murders is in the chapter Detective. Detective Donald Kimball is hired to investigate the disappearance of Paul Owen, a colleague Bateman has murdered. After that chapter the character of Donald Kimball disappears in the novel. Harron, however, makes Kimball reappear several times. Thus, she puts more pressure on Bateman and the spectator suspects that Bateman has to pay for his murders. Interesting is the fact that Harron chooses different surroundings in which Bateman and Kimball meet. Two times they meet in Bateman’s office (sequences 20, 26), then at a restaurant (sequence 31) and in one of the deleted scenes they even meet in a disco. All of those places are places in which Bateman usually spends most of his time and feels safe. Kimball’s invasion of those safe places creates an atmosphere that suggests Bateman is close to being arrested which is a more favorable perspective from a feminist point of view. Another way to highlight the feminist point of view is Harron’s focus on satiric elements.


[1] By internal changes I mean changes within the movie like adding/altering scenes, deleting/selecting content or using different ways of presenting content to the audience.

[2] transposition = “A novel is directly given on the screen, with the minimum of apparent interference.” (Wagner, p. 222)

[3] see appendix

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Mary Harron’s movie adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s "American Psycho". A feminist movie
Rehabilitating "bad" literature
Catholic University Eichstätt-Ingolstadt
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
501 KB
American Psycho, Mary Harron, Bret Easton Ellis, bad literature, movie adaptation, adaptation, feminist, literature and media, Verfilmung, Literatur und Medien, böse Literatur, Feminismus, feminism
Quote paper
Tobias Utz (Author), 2013, Mary Harron’s movie adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s "American Psycho". A feminist movie, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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