It’s pretty much axiomatic that the movie isn’t going to be as good as the book it came from. So when I recently realized that Hitchcock’s classic Psycho was actually based on a book I turned to my wife with a pained look on my face and said “Good heavens woman, we must get to the library immediately!” and then disappeared in a puff of smoke.
I’ll admit to a certain amount of poetic license in the above retelling, but I did go lay hands on a copy of Psycho post-haste. The original story was by Robert Bloch and published in 1959. Sadly, it was a little disappointing when compared to its movie star cousin. I’m not going to try and analyze or significantly add to what has been written about this movie that has been debated for fifty years, but it is interesting to compare the story in both mediums.
A quick pause about spoilers…… we’re talking about a real classic here, and I’m going to assume most everyone who is interested enough to read this far is pretty familiar with the plot. However, it is heavily based on a couple of key scenes, and I didn’t actually see the movie until I was in my mid-20’s, so consider yourself warned, if you read on the cat will definitely be out of the bag.
The book does provide a good, but not great, foundation for the movie to build from, but it is largely defined by how it is different from the movie. There are a several tweaks in the plot that don’t make much difference and the movie does make me miss being privy to the internal thoughts of the characters, but there are two major differences that made a good book into a great movie.
The first major change is the character of Mary/Marion Crane. The movie changed her name from Mary to Marion, but I’m going to stick with Mary for simplicity. In the book we switch POV back and forth between Mary and Norman throughout the early pages, but the movie sticks with Mary throughout the beginning and Norman Bates doesn’t appear until half an hour into the story. The movie follows her closely, adds a few details to the character, and generally works harder to get the audience more emotionally invested in her. It also helps that Mary was played by Vivian Leigh, a fairly big name star at the time.
That groundwork gives a lot more weight to the first major horror scene in both the book and the movie. While the book does show you the direction of Norman’s thoughts as he watches Mary in the shower, the movie kills off the person you just became emotionally invested in, and whom you assumed was going to be the main character, with no warning whatsoever. That effectively gives the movie a ‘no one is safe’ feel that the book just doesn’t have and sets up the rest of the plot to be a lot more creepy.
Hitchcock’s other major departure from the book was in the casting of Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. Bloch’s novel presents Bates as a chubby middle aged fellow who has an interest in the occult and comes off as creepy to the audience even when he’s alone in the room. Perkins, on the other hand, was 27 when cast as Norman Bates. He has an innocent, boyish look that makes it all the more surprising when he starts to become unhinged. He also manages to use his tall and lean build to look creepy and predatory when the lost boy act is over. Casting Perkins and letting him put viewers at their ease made the shocks to come much heavier. It also helped viewers sympathize with the treatment Norman had received at his mother’s hands right up until we find out the truth.
As far as I’m concerned, those two rather small things made a world of difference in telling this story. I’m an avid reader so I’m predisposed to prefer the book, but Hitchcock worked a lot harder to surprise me so the movie gets the nod in this contest. In the interests of fairness, I did see the movie first and the book didn’t have any secrets left to shock so that may have effected the final decision.