Posted by Greg Ferrara on March 20, 2013
When a movie is made, that is, the actual dates in time in which the movie is completed, is often of little value to the plot. A story with well drawn characters may or may not be much affected by what year it takes place in anymore than where. Many movies of all genres have been remade or adapted into television shows multiple times with simple updating of technologies and terminologies to fit the times. The Seven Samurai works in feudal Japan, the old American west or with a bunch of insects in an animated setting. It’s an archetypal story that can be translated into many different places and times. But what of the stories that have a deep connection to their time and place? Some stories just don’t work well if they don’t take place in the universe of their making. And for some, the when and where is as important as anything in the story.
All this came to mind recently with the premiere of the television show Bates Motel. There was some fair amount of furor in certain places about updating the story from the time of the movie to the present day. Some people claimed that those complaining were just too rigid about keeping the story rooted in its original time period. But they weren’t. For whatever reason, unknown to me, the creators of Bates Motel seem to understand almost nothing of the time and place of the original movie and how important it is to the story. If one wants to make a prequel to Psycho, one should necessarily make it take place in the late forties and/or early fifties. The movie takes place in contemporary time, that is, 1960, the year it was made, thus we can assume Norman was a young man in the late forties to early fifties. So to update a prequel to a time advanced past the date of the original story would seem foolish.
Of course, it could be said that it is merely a reimagining but that’s a different thing altogether. For instance, if someone wanted to make a tv show based on Rear Window, it could easily be updated to today and made to work quite well. A prequel to Rear Window, on the other hand, should occur before the events of the film. But that’s still not the real problem here. The real problem here is that Psycho isn’t just of its time. It is integrally connected to it.
Psycho isn’t some slapdash killer movie about a nutjob running an abandoned motel. It’s a pretty remarkable commentary on postwar America with the hard working individual, the entrepreneur that starts his own business, the mom and pop store, all being pushed aside to make way for suburbia, baby boomers and television. It’s a world where an independent and intelligent woman is nevertheless so stifled in her everyday existence, and so marginalized by the world around her, that doing a cash grab and run seems like a pretty damn good idea. When she changes her mind, the world gives her the finger and jabs a knife into her about forty times.
The movie is populated with societal outliers: the motel keeper, the hired detective, the used car salesman. And Norman’s world becomes even more isolated as postwar progress decides to build a brand new highway designed specifically, it almost seems, to pass him right by. This story takes place in 1960. It does not take place in 1930 or 1910 or 1990. What people seem to miss about Psycho, often, is that it is as rooted in its time as Casablanca or The Third Man. It’s one of the reasons the almost shot for shot remake in 1998 didn’t work either. Because it took place in 1998! It would be like placing Rick and Ilsa in a club with Nazis and talking about concentration camps, only they set it in 2003. The viewer would inevitably express, “I think you guys are missing something about this story.” And what I’m saying about Psycho isn’t anything new. Hell, Richard Harland Smith has said everything I’ve said, and more, much more, and better, about a hundred times, and long before I ever said it the first time.
And Psycho’s not alone. They don’t represent the majority of movies but there are still a good amount that truly depend upon their time and place to make their stories work (exempting biographical histories, like Patton or Lincoln, that obviously have a fixed timeline they’re following). The Godfather, for instance. When it was first being bandied about for cinematic adaptation, the studio wanted to update the story to contemporary times. But it’s not just a mob story with gangsters. It’s a story of an immigrant at the turn of the century building his business his own way and fulfilling an American Dream that calls into question the entire nature of the dream in the first place (and yes, it starts in the middle of Vito’s story but at the beginning of Michaels but we still get the point long before Part II). If Michael is a war hero from Vietnam (for a version set in contemporary 1972) it just doesn’t work as the same myth-building exercise of good son turned tragic hero.
Or The Grapes of Wrath. Certainly, one could write a story about a poor family named the Joads and have it take place now but the story is so deeply informed by the dustbowl and the depression that the characters as related to in that particular story would be meaningless outside that time and place.
With other movies, it’s not so clear. Does Citizen Kane have to take place when it does? Aside from a humorous online video suggesting that in the current time a reporter would just google “Rosebud” to discover it was a popular sled model in Kane’s childhood, is there anything in Kane that holds it back from a modern updating? Could you make a show today about Charles Foster Kane in the modern age? Instead of a paper, a website? Honestly, I don’t see too many stumbling blocks to that, outside of the obvious: constructing something that won’t look inept in comparison to the original film.
And how about another Hitchcock classic, Strangers on a Train? Could we see a story about a young Bruno in the modern age? Again, I don’t think Bruno is as rooted in his time as Norman Bates but I’m thinking more about remakes than prequels. With prequels, no matter how unattached to time and place the original inspiration is, it seems foolish to ever have it take place after the original.
In the end, I think the makers of Bates Motel simply didn’t want to deal with the set and costume design hassles and the big budgets of a period tv show. And that’s fine, honestly, I understand that. I won’t deny anyone the right to a reboot about anything but that doesn’t mean it makes sense. And if money is going to be an issue, just make a show about a crazy kid and his murderous mom that takes place now, don’t claim it’s a prequel to Psycho. There’s no real weight to claiming that they had to use the Psycho brand to sell the show; television is littered with successful horror shows that claim no connection to a pre-exisiting film. If it’s a true prequel, set it in the fifties (with all the accompanying Mad Men-esque contemporary arched eyebrows at the past) and give us what the story intended: The Bates, in Eisenhower America, clean-cut and well-kept on the outside, but seething with turmoil and violence on the inside. That’s a prequel I’d watch. Any place, any time.
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