Hello, readers, and welcome back to Based on the Novel By, a series that digs into some of our favorite horror films and the novels that inspired them. This week’s selection is one of the finest examples of its kind, and one that still remains a gold standard of sorts in the adaptation game. We’re talking, of course, about Psycho by Robert Bloch.
Believe it or not, there are folks out there who don’t know the famed Hitchcock film was based on Bloch’s work! So settle in, and let’s discuss Norman Bates’s journey from page to screen.
Who is Robert Bloch?
Born in 1917 in Chicago, Bloch was drawn to horror at an early age when–at eight years old–he went to see The Phantom of the Opera all on his own. The scene where Lon Chaney removes his mask sent the boy running from the theater and reportedly gave him two years worth of nightmares. It also kickstarted his love of horror.
By the time he graduated high school, he had become a devoted fan of Weird Tales magazine and H.P. Lovecraft. In fact, he began correspondence with the elder author who encouraged his writing and ultimately set Bloch on the path to publishing. He was the only person Lovecraft ever dedicated a story to with “The Haunter of the Dark” which featured a character based on the younger man.
As he matured, Bloch continued to mine the genre space, branching into fantasy, science fiction, and crime stories alongside his continued love of horror. He sold numerous short stories and several novels by 1959 when Psycho was released. It was a career-defining novel in a career that was already distinguished, and cemented Bloch’s name in the horror genre.
He would continue to write through the end of his life in 1994 when he died from cancer, producing numerous books, television episodes, screenplays, and more.
Robert Bloch very loosely based the story of Psycho on the life of convicted serial killer Ed Gein, though he reportedly did not find out about Gein until the novel was almost finished.
It centers on a man named Norman Bates who runs a fading roadside motel while caring for his aged mother. Late one night, a woman named Mary–on the run with $40,000 she stole to start a new life with her lover–stops in at the hotel and sets off a chain of events that will change all of their lives for better and worse.
The pulpiest of pulp novels, it was a most outrageous story that shocked readers in the late 50s with its perceived depravity. In fact, with its discussion of matricide, Satanism, the occult, and what psychology understood of dissociative identity disorder at the time, it’s little wonder that Alfred Hitchcock was the only film director with the nerve to pick it up and say, “Let’s make this movie.”
It’s interesting to note that Bloch actually wrote two sequels to his novel. Psycho II was released in 1982 and Psycho House came in 1990. Neither film actually resembled any of the film sequels in franchise.
In his Psycho II, Norman escapes the asylum dressed as a nun and makes his way to Hollywood. The book had plenty to say about the film industry’s splatter films and the studios were not interested in adapting it. Psycho House takes place after the death of Norman Bates. When a man reopens the motel in hopes of turning it into a tourist attraction a strange set of murders begin to take place.
Norman and Hitch
Hitchcock and Psycho were indeed a match made in hell. The director seemed to navigate the narrative with an alacrity that was almost scary, though he and screenwriter Joseph Stefano did edit out some of the more salacious material in the adaptation.
Hitch also went against type in casting his Norman Bates. In the book, Norman is described as middle-aged, relatively unattractive, and with a menacing quality that makes people uncomfortable.
The director instead tapped young, handsome, and charming Anthony Perkins in the role. The actor rose to the occasion beautifully, giving a performance that was at once disarming but with a slight edge that makes one question their perception.
Of course, the cast would not have been complete without Janet Leigh’s brilliant performance as Marion, a woman on the run from herself as much as the law. Add to that already potent mix John Gavin and Vera Miles and it was an abundance of riches for a film that some would initially try to write off as a “only a horror film.”
In addition to casting, Hitchcock brought together every trick he’d learned in an already long career with a dynamite Bernard Herrmann score to create a chilling atmosphere and sense of tension that most filmmakers would kill to duplicate but have never quite managed in the decades since the film debuted.
To say the film was a success at the box office would be an egregious understatement. With Hitchcock’s famous guidebook on how to promote and screen Psycho as well as his insistence that no one reveal the film’s ending, audiences were soon lining up around the block to see what the director had in store. It was indeed, unprecedented in many ways, with its depictions of sexuality, violence, and for being the first film to ever show a toilet in a bathroom.
This film had everything!
On an estimated budget of just under $1 million–most of which Hitchcock put up himself–the film earned a record breaking $32 million in the worldwide box office.
It is a gold standard film that remains one of the best of its kind.
Of course, it eventually spawned sequels, though not for a couple of decades, but none of them ever lived up to the prowess of that first film. Then in the 90s, director Gus Van Sant decided to make a shot for shot remake of the original and only managed to prove that even following Hitch’s direction to the letter, that magic could not be recreated.
Norman on the small screen
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Bates Motel, mostly because if I don’t, someone will complain. I enjoyed this recreation of the story of Norman Bates and his mother, Norma. What was most interesting to me about the series, however, had little to do with the book. In fact, the entire show seemed to only use Bloch’s book as a destination. I loved it, but it just didn’t get Bloch the way that Hitchcock did. I can’t help but wonder what the author would have though of the series, however.
Are you a fan of Psycho? Have you read the book and seen the film? Which do you love more? Let us know what you think in the comments below!