Adapted from: Psycho by Robert Bloch
Starring: Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin
Written by: Joseph Stefano
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
The neon sign blinking through the rain. The silhouette of an old woman in the window of the house up the hill. The shower. The scream. The screeching strings.
Even without the title above this piece or the picture accompanying it, you would know the film from that description. Psycho has left such an indelible imprint on our popular culture that Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic is easily one of the most recognisable films in cinema. It is widely regarded as the film that would influence the arrival of the slasher sub-genre and in his book on Hitchcock, French critic Serge Kaganski dubbed it “the first psychoanalytical thriller.” It pushed censorship boundaries, it shocked audiences with its violence, and launched a thousand parodies. But, as Hitchcock himself said, “Psycho all came from Robert Bloch’s book.” The key difference is in how they present their chief character, Norman Bates.
Though it does not quite carry the same cultural cache as the film it inspired, Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho, published in 1959, pushed boundaries in its own way. In his early career, Bloch had been greatly influenced by HP Lovecraft and his world of mythic monsters, creating stories founded in the supernatural. However, his writing would develop in a different direction. Paula Guran observes that his work was often more character driven and “based on his understanding of human nature.” Bloch himself stated “I realised, as a result of what when on during World War II and of reading more widely disseminated work in psychology, that the real horror was not in the shadows, but in that twisted little world inside our own skulls.”
Bloch lived in Wisconsin, 35 miles away from where Ed Gein, the infamous Butcher of Plainsville and notorious horror genre influence, committed his gruesome crimes. Gein was found to have been digging up graves and using human skin to make furniture and clothing. He was convicted for the murder of one woman, but was a suspect in several missing persons cases in the state. The dominant explanation was that he was attempting to create a ‘woman suit’ to impersonate his deceased mother, a woman described as a dominating puritan. Though Bloch would become aware of the details of Gein’s case later, he was already developing his work with “the notion that the man next door may be a monster unsuspected even in the gossip-ridden microcosm of small-town life.” No one was more surprised than Bloch at how accurately he had managed to capture Gein’s character in Norman Bates.
In the novel, Norman Bates is an alcoholic, overweight, balding middle-aged man, still living with his mother and in possession of a morbid fascination with the occult. Bloch gives us access to both Norman and his mother through a series of chapters, focusing particularly on their power dynamics. Mother is tormenting of Norman and his various neuroses, hounding him throughout their interactions, even when he claims to be trying to help her (obviously, before the reader learns of the truth of their relationship). Amongst all this though, Norman is not particularly sympathetic. He shows a misogynistic streak early on, his alcoholism is what leads to the appearances of Mother, and his interest in the occult seems to be born out of a masculine power fantasy. The reader is aware that Norman is not the hero very early, compounded when he helps Mother cover up her crimes. Even Mary Crane (changed to Marion for the film) realises there is something off about him.
When adapting the book, Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano chose to take a different approach. Hitchcock had been unhappy with the first screenplay he had received, written by James P. Cavanaugh, and after conversations with Stefano, hired him to put together a new version. Stefano also felt that Bloch’s Norman was unsympathetic. He stripped his character back, taking away the occult and the alcoholism and making him socially shy and awkward rather than outwardly creepy. It was Hitchcock’s idea to cast Anthony Perkins who was notably taller, thinner, and with more hair than his novel counterpart. A different Norman was born.
Not only that, but they moved Norman’s entrance back. The audience would spend twenty minutes with Marion Crane’s (Janet Leigh) story and the events that lead her to the motel. As it starts, the film is her story; we see her on the bed with her lover and establish the motivation for her stealing the money. We then follow her from Phoenix to the former highway at the side of which stands the Bates Motel. Leigh’s performance, like Perkins, is designed to ensure Marion is sympathetic. She may have committed a crime, a tonal shift in her character which the film famously charts via the changing colour of her underwear, but the audience understands her. Likewise, Hitchcock knew exactly what he was doing by casting a major star in a comparatively small role. No one expects the starlet to die after just twenty minutes. Bloch does something similar by offering the reader glimpses into Mary’s reasoning, but he devotes less time to her as a character. She is there to be a victim, not a case of misdirection.
When Marion arrives at the motel, Stefano writes their scene almost like a meet-cute. Norman is bashful and awkwardly charming, trying out lines that he’s clearly tried out on other guests before: “twelve cabins, twelve vacancies!” Marion is obviously nervous. Perkins’ boyishness is markedly different to the novel version of Norman, keeping the idea of a man riddled with neuroses and gently teasing them out rather than making them overt. The scene in which Marion takes sandwiches with Norman in the parlour is an essential aspect of Stefano’s plan to make him more sympathetic, designing the scene so that the audience can shift their sympathies to Norman when Marion is killed off.
The effect of this is to lure the audience into a false sense of security with Norman, making the Mother reveal that much more impactful when it finally does arrive. That’s not to say there are no red flags though. Stefano wanted to give the audience “indications that something was quite wrong, but it could not be spelled out or overdone.” Hitchcock captures this beautifully in the parlour conversation scene. He plays with the camera angles on Perkins’ strong features, highlighting the shadows and filming him from below so that he almost starts to loom. There’s always something quite off about the way Norman is depicted, compounded by his Peeping Tom moment through the wall as Marion is getting changed.
Both novel and film succeed in their efforts to hide the twist in their tales through Norman's character; Bloch does this by giving Mother a voice. Francois Truffaut would later comment that Bloch cheats by having Mother’s dialogue present within the novel and presenting her to the reader as an external figure. However, Stefano and Hitchcock do something similar. We hear Mother before we see her and there is that brilliant shot of her silhouetted against the window. Though the cultural imprint is such that few people are not aware of Mother’s true identity and the book will likely be read with the knowledge of the film, it is easy to see how shocking that twist would have been with no advanced warning.
Bloch’s interest in psychology would chime with Hitchcock’s ongoing fascination with psychoanalysis, leading to Psycho’s only real misstep: its coda. Bloch has Sam Loomis tell Lila about Norman’s pathology and how the split personality came about. Hitchcock has a psychiatrist explain it, tying up every loose end left in a rather clunky exposition scene. Here, fidelity to the source material lets the film down. Stefano had proven to be a skilled hand at streamlining the bigger themes and relationships in Bloch’s novel, but the psychiatrist scene is a moment too literal in an adaptation that otherwise opts for brevity.
Fortunately, Psycho has one last cracker of a scene up its sleeve, a final moment in which the novel and its adaptation synchronise beautifully in their presentation of Norman Bates. The epilogue, faithful to Bloch’s, with Mother’s narration and Perkins’ expressions are more than enough to convey the personality disorder that housed two minds in one body. As the murderer sits in the cell, gone is the boyishness that defined Norman, the nervous jaw clenching or fidgeting. In its place is Mother's rictus grin and absolute stillness. Norman does not live here anymore.