Welcome back, readers, to “Based on the Novel By,” a series that takes a deep dive into some of our favorite horror movies that you might or might not know were based on books. This week’s entry is a real skin-crawler. I’m talking about Ratman’s Notebooks written by Stephen Gilbert.
Who was Stephen Gilbert?
Sadly, you could easily be forgiven for not knowing who this Irish author was. His place in literary history is a strange one. Though his work was lauded by the likes of E.M. Forster, many have only ever known his work in reference to Forrest Reid, another Irish author for whom Gilbert was a bit of a muse. Their friendship became a point of contention, mostly in Reid’s obsession with the younger man, but sadly to this day, many discover Gilbert’s work from footnotes about Reid’s career.
Gilbert’s first novel, The Landslide was published in 1943. The fantasy story involved prehistoric creatures unearthed in Ireland after a massive landslide. He would go on to publish works like Monkeyface, about a missing-link-type creature discovered in South America, and The Burnaby Experiment which dives into the possibilities of life after death and mirrors Gilbert’s friendship with Reid.
By the 1960s, Gilbert largely considered his career as a novelist over. He was married with four children, and he turned his sights to the larger world, protesting nuclear proliferation and calling for total disarmament.
However, in 1968, he published Ratman’s Notebooks, and it would go on to become one of the author’s most well-known works selling more than one million copies.
Inside Ratman’s Notebooks
Ratman’s Notebooks is a relatively short novel focusing on an unnamed narrator who is a bit of a social outcast who finds that he relates better to rats than he does humans. The book is written as a series of journal entries chronicling the young man’s day-to-day life working in a factory formerly owned by his father.
As his life spins out of control, the young man begins to use the rats to commit theft as well as to take revenge on his boss and some of his neighbors. After his boss kills his favorite, Socrates, the protagonist brings in an ill-tempered rat named Ben and uses him to lead the other in an all-out assault to kill the man. The protagonist flees the scene abandoning the rats in the process.
As his relationship with a young woman from his office begins to bloom, they decide to get married. However, late one night, Ben and the rats return with a vengeance after discovering the protagonist killed the rest of the rat colony in his home. They drive the young woman out of the house and trap the man in his attic. The final entry in the book is scribbled quickly by the narrator as the rats bite and claw their way through the locked door.
From Page to Screen
Ratman’s Notebooks has served as the basis for three films since its release in 1968, and even managed to spawn a pop ballad which, so far as I know, is the only one ever written about a literal rat.
In 1971, Gilbert’s protagonist was given a name. Willard was directed by Daniel Mann (Butterfield 8) and starred Bruce Davison (The Crucible) in the title role with Elsa Lanchester (The Bride of Frankenstein) as Willard’s mother and Ernest Borgnine (The Poseidon Adventure) as his abusive boss.
The film mostly stuck to the book’s plot and themes while, of course, taking a few liberties here and there, and while some of the scenes with the rats are particularly effective, they never fully reach the pulse-pounding terror as other films of its type. However, Davison gives an almost giddy over-the-top performance in the title role.
In response to the film and perhaps to drive sales of the book after the its release, it was retitled from Ratman’s Notebooks to Willard for a movie tie-in edition, as well.
Remember that pop ballad I mentioned earlier? It was written for Ben, a sequel to 1971’s Willard. Leaving behind the story of the book but still inspired by its characters and themes, this film focuses on a young boy named Danny (Canadian actor Lee Montgomery) who is constantly bullied and mistreated. Add to that, the boy has a serious heart condition, and well, he really needs a friend. The film also stars a young Meredith Baxter (Family Ties).
Lucky for him, he meets Ben the rat and his colony–formerly trained by the late Willard Stiles. The rat becomes a comfort to the boy, but his growing family ends up causing several deaths in their quest for food and shelter. Eventually the police track down the colony and destroy it with fire in the sewers. Ben survives, however, and makes his way back to Danny.
Montgomery performed the film’s theme song, “Ben” in the film, and it was recorded for the soundtrack by a young Michael Jackson. The song went on to win a Golden Globe for Best Original Song and was nominated for an Oscar that same year.
Ben received generally mixed reviews, and its favorable reviews were higher than its predecessor. This seemed to rest on the performance of Montgomery and the fact that the drama of the storyline could exist well outside of the the horrors that it also held.
All was quiet on the Willard aka Ratman’s Notebooks front for a lot of years save for those who remembered the song, “Ben,” and those creature feature fiends who kept its memory alive.
Then, in 2003, we received a new adaptation of the novel starring none other than Crispin Glover (American Gods) in the title role. This film deviated more from the original text as far as the plot goes, but for me, it held to the spirit of the original in a much more satisfying way. There are moments in the film that are genuinely unsettling as Willard sets out to get revenge on his boss (R. Lee Ermey) and anyone else who tried to take advantage of him.
Glover was almost 40 years when he made the film. The age difference, in a way, fuels the fire in the character. Willard has had longer to be beaten down by the system. He has been sitting in his discomfort for far longer, and it’s almost more believable that he’s reached a point where he might snap.
Glover was nominated for a Saturn Award for his performance in the film. He also recorded a new version of the song “Ben” with it’s own avant-garde music video to go along with it, and Bruce Davison makes a cameo of sorts as a painting of Willard’s dad hanging in the family’s dilapidated home.
All three films certainly have their own creeping energy that draws the viewer in, and enough quirkiness that they’ve earned their separate and united cult followings.
Are you a fan of Willard? Were you aware it began its life as a novel? Let us know what you think of Ratman’s Notebooks and its legacy in the comments below!