Psycho Path: Tracing Norman Bates' Twisted Trail Through Page and Screen Part 1
Welcome to the first installment of Psycho Path, a look at fictional madman Norman Bates from the Psycho franchise. Intended to run in five parts, Psycho Path will focus on each of Norman’s adventures – in novels, films, and television series...
...while examining each incarnation of the character and the differences amongst them.
As such, these pieces are not intended to be straight reviews of the works in question (for a fantastic set of write-ups concerning the Psycho films, be sure to check out Chud.com’s brilliant series Franchise Me, which covers the franchise in question here).
We’ll start together at the beginning, with Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1960 film adaptation, and wrap up with Gus Van Sant’s much-maligned 1998 remake and A&E’s upcoming prequel/reboot series "Bates Motel."
Part I: First Impressions
”I think perhaps all of us go a little crazy at times.”
November 16th, 1957: Police officers descend upon a tiny farmhouse in Plainfield, Wisconsin. Looking for a missing local woman and having good reason to suspect the home’s owner, one Ed Gein, the police move onto Gein’s property and discover a veritable horror show: the missing woman’s decapitated body, strung upside down in Gein’s shed, gutted and dressed as though she were a deer.
Inside Gein’s home, investigators discovered a multitude of human remains, some refashioned into grotesque household objects (human skulls used as bowls, a lampshade made of skin, etc.). After taking Gein into custody, it was discovered that he had filled his home with these bizarre artifacts by numerous exploits in nocturnal graverobbing. In addition, it was determined that he had not only murdered the woman found in his shed, but had killed another local woman who had gone missing just three years previous.
It was this real-life ghoul and murderer, who was thought to be a “nice, quiet” type by his neighbors, that inspired novelist Robert Bloch to create his most enduring character – Norman Bates. Drawing inspiration from the Gein case, Bloch set about defining Norman as a middle-aged, balding, bespectacled and overweight man, held under the thumb of his domineering mother while attempting to drown his demons with booze. Running the family business (a tiny motel) while staying on decent enough terms with the locals, Norman would strike anyone as normal enough, if sad, fellow – a “nice, quiet” type much like Gein.
Of course, Bloch’s tale eventually reveals that Norman Bates is anything but normal. As anyone even remotely familiar with the story will already know, Psycho’s finale reveals to us that Norman’s murderous mother, who he has cleaned up after and protected from the authorities, has actually been dead for several years (a victim of Norman’s poisoning). In fact, the novel’s brutal murders of a young woman evading the police and the detective on her trail were Norman’s handiwork. As it turns out, Norman had been suffering from multiple personalities: Norman, the little boy in arrested development that he would always truly be; Normal, the “adult” version of Norman that could put on a decent face for the public in order to get by and run his business; and Norma, the personality of his own mother, which he adopted in order to keep from acknowledging the fact that he’d murdered the only person he’d ever truly loved. It was this “Mother” personality that would overtake Norman and force him to kill, either out of jealousy or a need to “protect” Norman. And as much as Norman had preserved his mother’s personality within his mind, so too did he preserve her body – digging up her corpse and using his taxidermy skills to keep her as presentable as possible (more shades of Gein here, with the graverobbing and creativity with cadavers). As Bloch’s tale ends, Norman is committed to the state hospital, where he’ll be looked after even as the Norma personality has taken him over entirely.
It’s difficult to look back at the original novel and attempt to reconcile Bloch’s creation with what most movie fans understand to be Norman Bates. Bloch gives us a Norman who is both unattractive and unsympathetic, as the novel’s Norman is portrayed as a hot-tempered lush. And while he does make for a compelling character, one would imagine it’d be impossible to successfully translate Norman Bates to the silver screen. Impossible for most, anyway.
We all go a little mad sometimes.
As a follow-up to his successful thriller North by Northwest, famed director and Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock surprised many by choosing Bloch’s novel as the basis for his next motion picture. Recruiting writer Joseph Stefano, Hitchcock would manage to stay true to the broad strokes of the novel’s story, while changing the ever-important finer details. The storytelling duo would revamp Bloch’s conceit by placing Norman’s first victim Mary Crane (eventually renamed Marion) front and center as the film’s protagonist – for the first half, anyway. Once “Mother” stabs poor Marion to death in the shower in one of the most famous montages in film history, the audience’s sympathies would need to shift to Norman (who the audience wouldn’t yet know as the murderer). Even still, presenting Bloch’s Norman as the film’s second lead would be a tough sell, so Hitchcock and Stefano set about refashioning the character into someone far more palatable.
Stripping away hindsight, the very idea is the sort that might make bibliophiles and more discerning filmgoers sigh and roll their eyes: Hollywood taking a dark, gritty property and then refining it for the masses. Of course the schlubby, unattractive mama’s boy would be sanded down into something younger and more handsome. Something more matinée idol.
Fortunately, the film’s best intentions were kept in mind as the filmic Norman was created. Intended to be, yes, young and handsome, Stefano suggested to Hitchcock that their take on Mister Bates might be a living Edward Hopper painting. No longer an angry boozehound, their monster would be an attractive, melancholy fellow that audiences would have no trouble sympathizing with.
To portray this Norman, Hitchcock cast up-and-coming actor Anthony Perkins, who had already garnered acclaim during his nascent career for his turns on stage and screen. Tall, thin, and darkly handsome, Perkins was a perfect fit for the cinematic Norman. The reimagining of Bloch’s psychopath was now complete, with the changes altering the story in more than simply cosmetic ways. Rather than the unsightly alcoholic of the novel, Norman was now someone who could be seen as a potential love interest for Marion Crane. Compare, for example, the two versions of the parlor sequence: in Bloch’s novel, Mary Crane can’t help but pity the poor wretch before her as his miserable life is revealed during their conversation (she even comes close to berating him for his life decisions at one point, which precipitates a fiery outburst from her host); in Hitchcock’s film, Marion and Norman are presented as almost kindred spirits, with equally sad lives built upon bad decisions. There is a sense of connection between the two that might’ve led some moviegoers to believe that these two kooky kids might have wound up with each other. Instead, as in the novel, Marion pushes a bit too far, leading to Norman’s famous conniption (which culminates with the quote above – one of the greatest lines any horror film ever had).
In addition to the altered relationship between Norman and Marion, the changes made to our favorite motel manager subtly warp the various exchanges from the novel throughout the rest of the film after Marion’s untimely murder. In the novel, readers should hope that Detective Arbogast will find Norman out – or that Mary’s loved ones Sam and Lila will uncover his big secret (which, at this point, is merely covering up for his mother’s crimes). While the literary Norman may be fascinating, he sure as hell isn’t likeable. Cinematic Norman, though, we cheer for. We root for him. When Arbogast, a decent enough fellow on the side of the angels, begins to grill Norman about Marion’s disappearance…we side with Norman! When Sam and Lila start to put together the pieces of the puzzle that is Norman, we hope that he can successfully dodge their questioning and evade capture. This is an incredible feat for a filmmaker to pull, to get his viewers to side with a man who covers up the grisly murders committed by another. But credit must also go to Perkins, whose incredible and iconic performance gives the cinematic Norman his soul. It’s due to Perkins that we like Norman as much as we do, and that we don’t wish for Norman to be caught.
But, of course, he is caught. After a hair-raising climax reveals the truth about Norman and “Mother”, we are left with an ending that echoes that of the novel: Norman in custody - safe, but with his own personality eroded away by “Mother” (now the dominant force in his fractured mind). While this same ending might have given readers of the novel a reason to sigh with relief, filmgoers are left with a sense of loss – not only for Norman’s poor victims, but for Norman himself. If Bloch’s Norman is the Hyde we jeer, then Perkins’ Norman is the Jekyll we can’t help but feel sorry for. It’s a strange dichotomy, considering the two are essentially meant to be the same man. And the rift between the two presentations of this character would only continue to grow with further installments in their respective series.
And so ends the first cycle of Norman Bates’ adventures. Be sure to join us for our next installment, where we take a look at the first sequels to Psycho, both literary and cinematic. Each finds a sort of redemption being offered to both incarnations of Norman, while their individual choices prove that the characters couldn’t be any more different from each other.
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