Continuing my October Horror series I’m turning my attention to an adaptation of a film text that is not only considered to be an example of iconic horror cinema but a widely recognised general film classic - Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho.
Itself adapted from Robert Bloch's 1959 novel of the same name, Psycho is often recognised as the birth of the modern horror genre (Wood, 2003; Greven, 2014). Even if you have not seen Hitchcock’s Psycho you will no doubt be familiar with either the infamous shower scene or the musical accompaniment which has been co-opted by multiple pop culture references including The Simpsons, That 70s Show and Scream Queens. I believe that, with perhaps the exception of the cello in Jaws, it is perhaps the most instantly recognisable musical signifier of the horror genre. Note: This article contains details of both the plot of Psycho and the events in the TV series Bates Motel and so if you have not watched these there will be spoilers.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho
Psycho centres around Marion Crane, an employee that is making off with a cash payment that a customer has left for her to deposit at the bank. While she drives off with the stolen cash to meet her boyfriend Sam Loomis in Pheonix, she end up checking in at The Bates’ Motel, run by proprietor Norman Bates. Marion is killed by Norman's mother in the shower and Norman disposes of Marion's body and her car in a nearby swamp. Marion's sister Lila and her boyfriend Sam Loomis check in at the Bate's Motel in search of Marion, suspecting that Norman found out about the stolen £40,000 and killed Marion for this reason. Lila and Sam quickly find out that Norman's strange demeanour is thinly covering his mental instability, and in exploring the house Lila discovers that he adopts the personality of his late mother (who he keeps preserved in his house) to carry out murderous violence.
Adapting and Remaking Media Texts
The initial success of Psycho has led to a less successful sequel and a remake in 1998 proving that adaptation is a tricky business. The positive reception of a given media text does not ensure that follow up offerings will be equally enjoyed by audiences. In the field of adaptation studies, definitions of how media texts adapt narratives are often centred around measuring ‘faithfulness’ to the original text. We've all heard a friend say about one film adaptation or another...‘It left out loads of stuff from the book!’ Film theorist James Dudley Andrew (2000) claims that this focus purely on fidelity of adaptations of media texts tends to become tiresome. In fact it is exactly the play by play transposition of Psycho in the 1998 remake that render it pointless in its failing to offer anything new to the audience (Kennedy, 2019).
Instead of creating remakes of media texts which dedicate themselves to being ‘true’ to that original text, creators can instead choose to use creative license or choose to ‘be inspired by’ the original narrative and/or characters. Some adaptations chose to provide ‘commentary’ whereby the original may be altered in some ways or alternatively provide an adaptation that is considered an ‘analogy’ where the new work makes a considerable departure from the original text in order to create a complementary but altogether new form of media text (Wagner, 1975). This deviation from the original narrative is something which is also discussed in the realms of transmedia storytelling (as previously mentioned in my article on The Blair Witch Project). Jenkins (2011) (widely noted as the forerunner in discussing transmedia storytelling) speaks of the adaptation or extension of media texts while Thon (2019) builds on this with the idea of ‘modification’ whereby an adaptation uses the same storyworld as the original text but adds previously unrepresented elements that may not only add to the original, but also potentially contradict the original. This process of modifying a well known and well loved media text is risky, but it is exactly what producers Cuse, Ehrin and Cipriano decided to do with Hitchcock’s Psycho in creating the television series Bates Motel.
Welcome to The Bates Motel
Bates Motel ran between 2013 and 2017 for 5 consecutive seasons. Self described as a ‘contemporary prequel’ there is a lot to separate Bates Motel from Psycho. While Psycho's narrative opens by focusing on Marion Crane, Bates Motel is mainly centred around Norman Bates and his relationship with his mother Norma. As briefly mentioned, this small screen adaptation definitely follows Wagners ‘analogy’ or Thons ‘modification’ approach to developing and deviating from the original narrative. Firstly, Bates Motel is set in the present day - notable in the opening episode of the series with objects like Norman’s iPhone. Secondly, the series brings with it additional characters such as Norman’s older half brother Dylan, his school friend Emma, members of the local police force and then the wider town*. The inclusion of these secondary characters means there are parallel storylines which include or at least end up impacting both Norman and Norma - many of which result in murder, blackmail and the town's not-so-secret cannabis industry. While these side stories add richness to the storyworld - it is ultimately Norman and Norma that we care about.
While dislocating itself so widely from the narrative of Psycho, Bates Motel successfully pulls from easily identifiable signifiers and elements of the original narrative to create a believable and intriguing adaptation. Some of these are detail oriented visual signifiers that fans of the original film can appreciate such as the iconic typography of the Bates Motel sign and the replicated motel and house buildings, as well as references to small details such as Norman's favourite 'periwinkle blue' dress of his mothers or the 'Bates Motel headed paper to make all your friends at home jealous!'. Other details are those which are foreshadowed in Bates Motel such as the dreaded highway which the 1960 film confirms has ruined Norman's business. Perhaps most importantly, the series helps uncover the genesis of Norman's psychosis. How did Norman come to be the way he is? Who was his mother in life? Bates Motel offers this to fans of Psycho.
World Building and Character Development in Bates Motel
Freddie Highmore's portrayal of Norman Bates is comparably credible to Anthony Perkins in 1960. He adopts similar mannerisms and metre in the way he speaks and yet also adds a vulnerability in his performance that shows he is playing a younger man. Highmore's ability to instantly look on the verge of tears perfectly demonstrates outwardly his internal struggle of trying to relinquish the pull of 'mother' in his mind.
The beauty of adapting Psycho into a television series is that there is considerable time to give to the development of both the characters and the story world. The viewer can see Norman’s gradual transition from obedient and suffering teenager to disturbed and delusional serial killer. There are many times, particularly during the first season of the series, where we as an audience are encouraged to feel sympathy for Norman. This sentiment was not shared during Psycho.
We also see a side to Norman as almost popular and certainly desired by his female classmates and even his teacher which contrasts exceptionally with Anthony Perkins’ portrayal of a loner in 1960. We are given glimpses of a life Norman could have had. Having watched Psycho and thus knowing the outcome all along, there is still a part of us as viewers that hopes he can turn it all around in those early episodes. Likewise, when Norma is granted separation from Norman we see her flourish as a happier person with hope of a brighter future. We find out more about her traumatic past and how this has manifested into a claustrophobic need to protect Norman. In this way, the audience is given nuanced depictions of both Norma and Norman, illustrating that it is their partnership that makes them equally destructive.
When the narratives collide
While the series is written as a prequel to Psycho, it does catch up with the original narrative in episode six of its final season with singer Rhianna taking on the role of Marion Crane. In this way the preceding events of the first four seasons have brought the audience up to speed with the development of Norman as a character. This episode is the only one which could be described as being in some way closer to a transposed version of the original narrative. However, it is the iconic shower scene where the series takes a completely new approach - albeit simultaneously transposing key visual signifiers of the much analysed Hitchcock original. When we see Marion (played by Rhianna) in the shower, there is a shot for shot similarity to the original - right up until the curtain is pulled back. Unlike Janet Leigh, Rhianna's Marion gets out of the shower, goes to her boyfriend Sam Loomis' house and smashes up his car having found out from Norman that Sam has a wife. Later, it is Sam who is in the shower when the camera work picks up where it has left off in mirroring the original film. Bates Motel sees Sam Loomis killed by Norman leaving Marion Crane to flee with the stolen money.
Side by Side shots the shower scenes in Psycho (1960) and Bates Motel (2017)
The following five episodes of the final season of Bates Motel also provide an alternative ending to the demise of Norman Bates’ - a further risk to take in deviating so far from the original text. In Psycho we see Norman in police custody devolving completely into 'mother' with an internal monologue carried out entirely in her voice. However, Bates Motel envisions an ending which sees Norman killed by his brother Dylan. His dying moments see him reunited with his mother in his mind as he thanks Dylan for killing him. This completely reimagined ending was generally well received. Ben Travers, critic for Indie Wire, called the finale 'powerful' as it bound together mother and son in the way Norman always wanted. Daniel Kurland of Den of Geek called it a way of giving Norman 'peace' and thus allowing everybody else involved space to heal.
The difficulties of television adaptation
While Bates Motel was generally well received, adapting media texts for television can be difficult when the originals are well known or well loved. As discussed, it is not simply about not ‘staying true’ to the original, but often about gaining an understanding of the characters or the story world in which the narrative is set. For example, Stephen King's novella The Mist was adapted into a 10 part TV series in 2017 and yet missed a lot of the character development and focus that lay at the heart of King's original text. From execution to pacing to plot the internet is littered with less than favourable reviews of the series.
Likewise, MTV took a stab (sorry) at rebooting the well known 90s film series Scream as a TV series for the modern day high school audience in 2015. While some felt it was quite enjoyable with its familiar theme of using modern tech to propel the storyline, others found it lacking depth or suspense. Elizabeth Howlett for Vulturehound deemed it 'mediocre but passable' in its first season but 'a fruitless, frustrating waste of time' by the time it aired its second. The Mist and Scream both show that when familiar names and titles are being used as adaptation inspiration and starting points, they can easily miss the mark when it comes to people's expectations.
This is what makes Bates Motel perhaps an unlikely success. While no adaptation will ever fully live up to the expectation of every fan of the original media text, Bates Motel garnered solid reviews. Buy focussing on developing the key characters and bravely stepping aside from the confines of a transposing adaptation of Psycho, the story world and the lives, desires and downfalls of both Norman and Norma were given space and time to unfurl and grow. This time and space gives the audience ample opportunity to see how these characters intertwine and how Norman was ultimately always consumed by his mother, long before her death and the arrival of Marion Crane. As the psychiatrist explains at the conclusion of Psycho, “He was never all Norman, but he was often only Mother.” and this is perhaps what Bates Motel truly captures.
* Interestingly, when researching for this article I discovered that Normas psychiatrist and brief love interest James is played by Joshua Leonard who starred in The Blair Witch Project which I wrote about in the first article of my October horror series.
Andrew, P.D, (2000) ‘Adaptation’ in Film Adaptation Ed. James Naremore, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press
Thon, J.N. (2019) Transmedia Characters: Theory and Analysis. Frontiers of Narrative Studies. 5 (2)
Wagner, G. (1975) The Novel and Cinema. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press: Rutherford New Jersey