The Rules of Adaptation

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The Rules of Adaptation: The Nerve Interview with Bret Easton Ellis

The new film The Rules of Attraction is a sexy, stylish and emotionally stunted adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s sexy, stylish and emotionally stunted 1986 novel. Both feature a cast of budding young psychopaths who prepare for a lifetime of emotional disconnection by fucking, snorting, drinking and masturbating their way across the campus of a small New England college.

The film’s cast includes James Van Der Beek, as the little brother of American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman (disturbing sex scene alert!), Shannyn Sossamon, previously known for A Knight’s Tale and a couple of unhinged magazine interviews; 7th Heaven‘s Jessica Biel as the campus slut; and Ian Somerhalder as a winsome bisexual in love with Van Der Beek’s character.

Although published in 1986, Attraction updates neatly to the present; director Roger Avary (Killing Zoe, co-writer of Pulp Fiction) provides a tight, witty script and some interesting visual tricks. A high point is a breathless four-minute travelogue that tails campus playboy Victor (Kip Pardue) on a European vacation and perfectly translates Ellis’s stream-of-consciousness style to film. (A movie-length version of the scene, featuring Pardue literally fucking his way across Europe, is supposedly in the works).

Ellis has publicly professed delight for Avary’s film — a distinct switch from the cool reception he gave Mary Harron’s version of American Psycho. Here, he discusses sex, drugs, critics, a crush on one of the movie’s stars and the joy of discovering, at the age of 38, the narrative value of feelings.
Michael Martin

True or false: Giving a novel to a Hollywood filmmaker is like surrendering a child to brainwashers.

Not that metaphor. It’s rather harsh. It’s really not giving up; you’re making a conscious decision. I guess the metaphor would be, you call up the kidnappers and say, “Come over and kidnap my child. And give me money to get the child out of the apartment.”

Growing up around Hollywood, I saw sort of firsthand what happens when novels are optioned. Ninety-eight percent of them do not get made. The odds are so low you don’t even think about it, if you know better. So once a book of mine is optioned, I sort of forget about it. And the process is so long, there’s no immediate rush of feelings about the finished product. So far, it’s happened to me three times. The first time, I was completely befuddled. The second time I was impressed, but thought maybe they went the wrong way. The third time, with Rules of Attraction, I was kind of thrilled.

In your mind, how did this adaptation succeed where American Psycho failed?

I think American Psycho should have been a crazier, bloodier, weirder film. It was very icy and elegant and beautifully made, but there was a very explicit, underlying feminist subtext that I thought was inappropriate. It made things too explicit, marred the book’s ambiguity: Did these things really happen? Did they not happen? The movie is clearly on the side that these things did not happen, and they were all in his head. In the scenes at the end, Chloe Sevigny is looking through his book, and she sees the drawings of all these naked women he supposedly had killed, but there’s a strong, strong hint that none of it ever happened. I thought that was wrongheaded.

    But every writer should be happy about an adaptation that was that faithful to the book. That was not an unpleasant experience at all; I think it’s actually a pretty good film.

I think the reason that I responded to this much more strongly than the other adaptation — I don’t want to sound ageist or anything — is that Less Than Zero was directed by much older English man; Mary Harron is older too. They’re from a different generation and had a different take on the material. Roger’s my age, we went to college at the same time, and we have the same sense of humor. He visualized this material in the way I would have.

Did you try to write it yourself?

I had written a couple of screenplays early in what ended up being a twelve-year process, before Roger got on board. I couldn’t figure out how to take this kaleidoscopic material and make a linear movie out of it. I guess it’s because I’m not a filmmaker. But it’s always a mistake to adapt your own work. The writer’s too used to it. When I do an adaptation of a book of mine, I’m so bored with it that I usually veer off, incorporate new characters and new scenes and ultimately disappoint the producers.

As someone who’s written notoriously explicit violence, do you think the sex in the film was too coy? Should more have been shown?

The book isn’t really hardcore, really — not in the way American Psycho was, or Glamorama. For me, going to this film is not about getting turned on. I don’t think it’s erotic at all: the sex is very cold and harsh, and the movie is ultimately about romantic rejection. But I actually think, within the conservative constraints that the MPAA places on movies now, it’s up there. It’s about as far as mainstream moviemaking goes.

Should they have gone further? I suppose they could have. But I don’t know what the nudity clauses are for the WB characters. I mean, I don’t know if Jessica Biel or James Van Der Beek are allowed to be naked until they’re out of their WB contracts.

I think the sexual ennui of 2002 almost makes more sense as a backdrop for the material — the promiscuity and violence — than the conservative repression of the ’80s.

At first, I was really disappointed when I found out the material had been updated. The book is set in 1985 purposely. It was at that moment when the culture shifted in terms of sexuality, when AIDS reared its head and when drugs were “no longer fun.” There was a huge difference between the first and second half of that decade, and when I was working on this book, from ’84 to ’86, I wanted to capture that. Culture was becoming more youth-oriented and conservative at the same time.

But it hit me while I was watching the film, and still getting royalty checks from the book: people who were two or three years old when I wrote the book are reading it now and responding to it. The ’80s thing didn’t have a lot to do with the book’s appeal. It has to do with certain elements like being young and lost and in love with someone who doesn’t respond to you.

Did the drug use pass muster? I think Jessica Biel and Shannyn Sossamon could have used a cocaine coach. In one scene, all I could think was, Pacing, girls, pacing!

[laughs] I don’t want to implicate myself, but I did not think so. It was not supposed to be a realistic view of two girls doing coke; it was done for comic effect. [pause] Listen, I’ve seen worse. I’ve seen a lot of coke done faster than that.

At first, I thought the film’s portrayal of male bisexuality was progressive, but then I had problems with it. It seems that you have to make the gay male character as beautiful as possible to make him palatable to a mainstream audience. It’s sort of endemic to the culture now: The Real World follows that rule too.

I never thought about that. That’s interesting. It’s true, though. Ian Somerhalder has been a male model since he was ten. But I can’t imagine Roger casting him sheerly for his looks, and I think he gives a pretty decent performance. I actually think James Van Der Beek is sexier, so that’s my taste. I wasn’t really looking at Ian Somerhalder anyway. So there you go.

Roger Avary said the film is “a condemnation of luxurious debauchery.” I don’t necessarily get that — hearts get broken, but whose don’t? If anything, it’s a condemnation of people who aren’t debauched — the character who dies isn’t quite.

I think anyone can take anything out of there. As far as what this movie’s about, you’re not going to be able to get an answer out of me. I’m too close to it; I’ve seen it too many times.

What I did respond to in this film, and what I usually respond to, is the aesthetic and the style: the composition, the split screens and the lighting. Also the fact that it’s a college movie with a bleak tone. I don’t know that it’s the greatest college movie ever made, but I do know that it’s not Road Trip.

Does “luxurious debauchery” still need to be condemned?

Well, I don’t know that luxurious debauchery is what I’m interested in condemning. I usually tend to condemn people who have a lot of things going for them, whether it’s wealth or beauty, and abuse those freedoms. But if that’s what Roger was aiming for in this movie, I completely agree with that. It’s not what my first impression would be: I was responding to it visually and aurally — that overrides anything thematic for me.

The film is going to be criticized, I think, in the same way your novels are criticized — that the characters are “vapid” and “unsympathetic,” that the social criticism is broad, that this isn’t a “real” experience. Is this valid criticism or beside the point?

I can see both sides. One of my only complaints about the movie was that it was so much colder and harsher than the book. It’s like Kubrick directing a college film. I really thought there was going to be much more of an emotional pull toward the end, and there wasn’t. This is not a movie to bring your Kleenex to. But I think Roger captured that lack of feeling among college kids as accurate.
During that age, you’re becoming an adult, and in that process you realize, “Okay, the world works this way, and it’s hurtful,” and you pretend it doesn’t hurt you, and you pose a lot.

The book is my favorite novel. People say to me, “You write such cold, hard, ironic novels,” but I think Rules is my least read. It’s often considered my most mawkish, because I’m dealing with romantic longing. I was expecting elements of that to be in the movie. They weren’t, and that was a little disappointing.

Your books have made the argument that synthetics add up to substance. Are you still a stylist above all else?

I think it’s easier to be that when you’re younger. Now that I’m working on another novel, I’ve noticed that style does not seem to be as important to me as when I was younger, when style was the message. I don’t want to sound like Danielle Steele or whoever writes drippy loves stories and is overly humanistic in their work, but now I’m more interested in character and why people do things they do.

I don’t know why this has suddenly happened — I think it has a lot to do with getting older. But stylistically, this book is very plain. I don’t know if you can take a paragraph and say, “That’s a Bret Easton Ellis paragraph,” which I think you can do with any of the other books because they’re so heavily stylized.

What is the most irritating taboo in American film?

Well, because I’m not married and don’t have children, I think the childproofing of American film is really part of its downfall. Not technically a taboo. But it just seems to me that American movies are much more conservative than they’ve ever been. They seem much more dependent on capturing a mass audience by compromising the material.

The most terrible thing about American movies right now is that people who love movies aren’t making them — lawyers and agents are. The deals are more important than the material. That’s a huge change from the ’70s, even the early ’80s. I think it’s affecting the independent film world too: the people who are making the decisions don’t know anything about movies, or don’t like movies and don’t have any sense of movie history. And that’s a problem.

The Rules of Attraction opens October 11 in New York and Los Angeles.

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