Is horror easier to take in movies than in the intimacy of a book?


December 14, 1990|By Richard Bernstein | Richard Bernstein,New York Times

New York The few people who have actually read Bret Easton Ellis' novel "American Psycho," which has yet to be published, agree on one thing at least: There are descriptions of murder and sadism so gruesome and grisly that Simon & Schuster's decision not to publish the book on the grounds of taste is understandable.

The novel certainly raises some deep questions about the capacity of a cultural product to shock and disturb.

The main questions are these: Has a certain inconsistency, even degree of hypocrisy, entered the picture? Is a different standard being applied to books than to the recent spate of violent movies? Or is "American Psycho" so different from anything that has preceded it that it deserves the censure it seems fated to get?

The controversy over "American Psycho" comes at a time of ever-higher levels of ever-more realistic violence, particularly in movies such as this year's "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer," "Goodfellas" and "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" and several others with soaring body counts and scenes of people crushed into oblivion, with none of them withdrawn from circulation on the grounds of taste.

Moreover, the company that owns Simon & Schuster is Paramount Communications, whose movie division brought out the violence-ridden "Godfather" and "Friday the 13th" series. What standard of taste allows the same company to release a "Friday the 13th," but to deem "American Psycho" too violent?

The answer is not easy, but it has to do with a number of factors. Among the less dramatic are the economic considerations that go into the marketing of a book or a movie. But the question also has to do with the particular powers of each medium, the sensory impact of film vs. the special power that literature holds over the imagination.

Historically, it has been the producers of mass entertainment, including movies, that have been more cautious. Book publishers, aiming generally at a smaller, more select and

presumably more sophisticated audience, have, by contrast, been more willing to produce works that upset conventions of morality -- whether the Marquis de Sade's "Philosophy of the Bedroom" or D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover," or some presumably much lesser work like "American Psycho."

In film, "the first obstacle is not taste, it's economics," said Harlan Jacobson, a former editor of Film Comment magazine. "A publisher can afford to produce a riskier work of art, one that might offend a certain part of the population, because so much less money is at stake."

But this time it was a book publisher that seemed as cautious as the standard movie-maker. Simon & Schuster's editor in chief, Richard E. Snyder, argues that a book makes a deeper impression than a movie, and thus, in a sense, a different standard legitimately applies.

"There's a lot of gratuitous violence in movies, and you also read about a lot of gruesome events in the newspapers," he said. "Unfortunately, perhaps, you get sort of inured to it. But, when you really have to sit down and, in the privacy of your own mind, read a book word by word, it's a more powerful experience. The violence has greater impact. You become the person you are reading about."

Is there, in fact, an inherently greater power in books? It could certainly be argued that however violent and even stomach-churning some movies are these days, they lack one essential ingredient of horror -- any real exploration of the psychological interiors of the characters carrying out murders. Movie-goers may be inundated with gore, but they are not led to make an identification between their own unconscious and

those of the character.

Watching a movie, moreover, is a largely public experience, something done in a large room in the presence of other people. If it involves fright, horror, disgust, it involves those things in company. Reading is, by its very nature, private and intimate. The effect may be less immediate, less spectacular, but it is, perhaps, deeper and more enduring.

Does that mean that "American Psycho" would be, somehow, more acceptable if it were a movie than it is as a novel? The answer is certainly no. Indeed, if anything, writing has far more tolerance for the socially unacceptable than do films.

A novel can enfold violence and sexually explicit passages into a greater context of literary value, and, indeed, this was apparently Mr. Ellis' intention. It is also, presumably, the intention of Vintage Books, which, in deciding to publish "American Psycho," perhaps somewhat altered, is saying in effect that the book has literary value.

Still, even if it does have literary value, Mr. Ellis' book apparently is going to roil the collective calm more than any other recent cultural product, and here it is the content of the book, its specific depictions, that are at issue.

Mr. Ellis apparently allowed himself to imagine what is absolutely the worst that one human being can do to another and then described it in stomach-churning detail.

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