How Mary Harron Proved Everyone Wrong with ‘American Psycho’

‘American Psycho’, adapted by Mary Harron, is a cult classic. Despite the original novel’s lackluster reception, Harron captivated audiences with her film.

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mary harron directing American Psycho

Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho was not a well-received novel. With graphic depictions of violence against women, Simon & Schuster pulled the book after realizing the extent of the content. Editors and booksellers alike were stunned, ranging from calling it a “how-to novel on the torture and dismemberment of women” to “the most revolting book I have ever read” to “the exploitation of sadomasochism”. The general public was horrified at the implications of Ellis’ story, but because of the First Amendment, it was still sold in stores nationwide.

Nine years later, when it was announced the novel was being adapted into a film, news fell on uneasy ears. It was Mary Harron who decided to take on the challenge of writing and directing the controversial story. Originally a Punk music journalist, Harron saw the dark comedic nature of American Psycho. Together with writing partner Guinevere Turner, the duo were determined to highlight Patrick Bateman’s foolish and buffoon-like nature and stray away from any cool connotation.

Mary Harron and Christian Bale talk behind the scenes of 'American Psycho'.

After various scripts and casting disputes, the movie began production with Harron’s handpicked choice for actor Christian Bale to star in the adaptation. Due to Mary Harron’s direction, devotion to the satirical nature of the story, and Bale’s dedication to perfect representation, American Psycho (2000) got an overwhelmingly positive reception.

Still, not everyone admired the film. At first, the film polarized audience members. Like the reaction to the source material, many were stunned and troubled by the brutality of the story. But many also praised the multidimensionality of the script and Bale’s ability to take on the role. In the words of Roger Ebert, Harron’s efforts “transformed a novel about blood lust into a movie about men’s vanity”.

Whereas Ellis saw Bateman as a cautionary byproduct of the “tension” of his lifestyle, Harron and Bale turned him into a subject of ridicule.

David Crow
Mary Harron watches footage attentively.

Today, American Psycho is a cult-classic. Through satire, the film provides a feminist outlook on fragile masculinity and identity impaired by isolation and alienation. It’s more than appropriate for women to take the helm when navigating themes surrounding violence against women, and Mary Harron showcases all her brilliance when it comes to subverting expectations and finely handling the sensitive subject.

Looking for more books with American Psycho vibes? Check out three new thrillers that promise mayhem and murder.