My wife and I were recently enjoying the first series of Bates Motel, when it suddenly occurred to me that, although I’d seen Psycho many times, its sequels of varying quality and even the monumentally redundant Gus van Sant remake; I’d never read the book that started it all – Robert Bloch’s Psycho.
It took me a few months to get around to buying it, of course, but when I did I found that I literally couldn’t put it down. I raced through the book in a couple of days and the fact that I was so familiar with the plot never really spoiled my enjoyment of the book at all.
What surprised me most of all is how closely Hitchcock’s film actually sticks to the book. I’ve had that experience in the past of reading a book after I’ve seen the movie and thinking ‘that was really based on this?’ A good example is Harry Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room upon which the film Soylent Green was based – very loosely it seems. But Psycho isn’t like that at all; Joseph Stefano’s script maintains all of the same beats as the novel and rarely strays from the basic plot. He even adapts some of his dialogue directly from the novel.
There are significant cosmetic changes, of course. Norman Bates in the novel is pudgy, balding and middle-aged. He’s also a much less sympathetic character; his internal monologue makes up much of the text and this portrays his him as misogynistic and utterly antisocial. He’s also obsessed with sociology and amateur psychiatry, as well as pornography. For the film and subsequent media, Norman is softened up and presented as much more of a confused young man with simple and less academic hobbies.
The other significant character in Psycho, Norman’s mother Norma Bates, is kept deliberately vague throughout the majority of the text. Her interactions with Norman are told through Norman’s perception of them. In retrospect, it’s clear to see why, but it’s not done in so obvious a way that any reader of the original novel would have easily guessed the denouement.
The murder of Mary Crane (renamed Marion in the movie) is much more brutal in the novel, though very briskly described. The novel never dwells on the murders, but the beheading of this first victim would nonetheless has been unacceptable in 60s cinema. It’s changed to a famously vicious stabbing in the film, but still retains the novel’s shower setting.
Bloch begins the novel with Norman, and then switches to the back-story of Mary. This was changed in the film because Hitchcock wanted the audience to believe that the central character was Marion, not Norman. Both versions work best for their respective medium. A device which Bloch uses very effectively in the book, but which wouldn’t have transferred effectively to film, is to relate the events of a certain period of time as they happened to one person and then, in the next chapter, to describe the same period of time as it happened to another character. So, effectively, the consequences of a murder are discovered by one character before that murder has been related to the reader. It’s a device that works really well in the novel.
It’s clear that the writers of Bates Motel have read Robert Bloch’s Psycho, because there are certain elements found only in the book that resurface in that series. For example, when searching the Bates household, Mary’s sister Lyla discovers a plain-wrappered book in Norman’s room that is implied to contain sadomasochistic images. Anyone who’s been watching the TV show will know that a book of similar contents plays an important role in the first series.
In summary; Psycho is a very dynamic novel. Undoubtedly some of the punch of its original release has been diluted by over-familiarity, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still an enjoyable read 53 years after it was first published. If you’re thinking it will come across as dated – think again. If you’re thinking it won’t be as good as the movie – think again. It’s easy to see why Hitchcock was so keen to adapt Robert Bloch’s Psycho for the silver screen.
PSYCHO by Robert Bloch is published by Robert Hale Ltd in the UK