Columns > Published on May 25th, 2016

Book vs. Film: 'Psycho'

In the world of adaptations, there are rigorously faithful screen versions of novels (Rosemary's Baby, though one integral scene from Ira Levin's book was cut) and then there are films that depart so radically from the source material, they're adaptations in name only (World War Z). But there are also page-to-screen adaptations that fall somewhere in the middle—the essential bones and general characterizations are left intact, but enough little alterations are made to distinguish book and film as separate entities. Or, put another way, the movie acts as a kind of alternate universe version of the novel. That's certainly true of Game of Thrones, which is both faithful and not unfaithful, but perhaps not always monogamous, to George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series; it's also true of Hannibal, Bryan Fuller's self-described "fan-fic" based on Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter novels.

And of course, this alternate universe theory applies to Psycho, screenwriter Joseph Stefano and Alfred Hitchcock's adaptation of Robert Bloch's novel of the same name. The main story between the two is more or less the same, but Stef and Hitch made enough changes with the characters that the film takes on a life of its own. And while Sam Loomis and Lila Crane—Mary/Marion's fiancée and sister, respectively—are important characters in their own right, the changes made to Mary (the least of which changing her name to Marion) and Norman Bates offer the most significant departures from the source material and, thus, establish the film as an individual with its own existence apart from Bloch's work.

So let's dive right in and look at the differences between Norman and Mary/Marion.


If you've seen the film (and I hope you have), you know that it opens on a hotel room in Phoenix, Arizona, where Marion Crane and Sam Loomis are getting dressed after an afternoon tryst. We see that Marion is a cool, witty, intelligent, and beautiful woman who is crazy for Sam, and he for her. But his severe financial debt, and the fact he lives several hundred miles away in a "hick town" called Fairvale in California, prevent the pair from getting married and settling down, a fact that Marion desperately wants to change. She makes wry speeches about respectability, but it's easy to see straight away Marion doesn't care all that much about propriety or traditional values. In other words, her desire to "make things official" with Sam doesn't actually arise from any kind of moral standpoint, but rather from the fact she's madly in love with him. She's tired of these secret meetings in hotel rooms during her lunch breaks because she wants to hold on to him longer than an hour or so every few months. Marion wants her life with Sam to begin in earnest, not continue to stall, and she's growing just a bit impatient. Fortunately for her, Sam is willing to comply with her request for a "respectable" Sunday supper at her home, with her sister Lila and a photograph of their dead mother on the mantel.

Bloch's original depiction of Marion isn't quite as sympathetic. Again, if you've seen the film (and I'll warn you of spoilers here, even though I may not have to, though I also get to say, shame on you for having not seen Psycho yet) you know that Marion (played by Janet Leigh) is the star up until about the halfway mark, at which point she is murdered by Norman Bates, disguised as his long-dead mother. Bloch isn't exactly up to the same narrative tricks as Stefano and Hitch, as he opens his novel with Norman, not Marion (again, in the novel, she's called Mary). Norman is the primary protagonist here (we may call him an anti-hero), and Mary isn't much more than knife fodder. 

We'll get to that initial scene with Norman in a bit. For now, let's focus on our first glimpse of Mary. For one thing, we don't see her meeting Sam in a hotel room in Phoenix. This is because she lives in Ft. Worth, Texas, and her relationship with Sam is decidedly more distant and almost icy in the novel. They met each other on a cruise roughly a year prior (Stef and Hitch leave the length of their relationship unspoken), and at the end of their week-long romance, they decide to get married—and after, she goes back to Ft. Worth, and he to his little hick town which, while never said outright, seems to be in either east Kansas or West Missouri. Mary visits Sam for another week over the Summer, but apart from that, their only mode of communication is via letter. Mary still burns to marry Sam (hindered from doing so by the same financial woes as in the film), but she doesn't seem to burn with desire for him, the way Marion does in the film. It really is more about aligning with what is proper and expected of a decent lady, as well as the notion that a woman must be married before a certain age. 

It is these stuffy, antiquated beliefs—this adherence to tradition—that makes Mary a bit unsympathetic as a character. Granted, she is really only a product of her Midwest, conservative environment (not pointed out specifically by Bloch, but evident when you read the subtext), and in that way we can't wholly blame her for the way she thinks. But at the same time, we see that Mary can be a bit mean-spirited, sharp-edged and condescending, and (ultimately) not as desirable as her sister Lila, who mirrors Mary's strong will, but does so in a softer, almost keening way—she's got moxie, in other words, whereas Mary is depicted more like a cat, both sly and brutally determined.

This distinction between Mary and Marion shades the way we see her spur-of-the-moment decision to steal $40,000 from a rather skeezy businessman, who insists on dealing in cash so he doesn't have to properly declare his income on his taxes. Bloch, Stef and Hitch all handle this guy as he should be handled—like a total scumbag. In Bloch's version, he even goes so far as to offer Mary $100 to spend the weekend with him in Dallas. His overbearing flirting rises in Mary (and in us) a sense of injustice—that there should be people in the world who have so much and can flaunt their wealth, while people like Sam have to struggle and toil for years on end, paying off debts they didn't even incur themselves (Sam's father saddled him with his financial burdens after his death). In both film and book, we can completely sympathize with this woman, treated like a "common whore" and expected to feel impressed and/or turned on by this repulsive man's wealth, while at the same time her true love has nothing. Any one of us might make the same decision and decide to run away with four Gs in cash in a Robin Hood-like gesture of justice, and a miracle solution to our personal woes. 

In the book, Mary's rash decision to steal the money goes off without a hitch (that is, until she arrives at Bates Motel). She's crafty enough to switch cars three times before finally arriving in Missouri (or Kansas). Stef and Hitch, on the other hand, ratchet up the difficulty of this mad escape attempt by demonstrating just how much Marion hasn't thought her plan through. She only gets the idea to switch cars after being rousted by a local cop (and naturally fears her movements might be traced this way), and by the time she makes it to that fateful rainstorm hindering her ability to see the road ahead of her, compelling her to pull into the Bates Motel, Marion is a taut coil of stress and paranoia, ready to pop at any moment. 

Now, it is her arrival at Bates Motel that reveal's Mary/Marion's true character, and offers us a brief segue into the very different depictions of Norman. We'll get to a more detailed analysis of this complicated character in a moment, but from a purely physical level, Bloch's version of Norman is that of an overweight, decidedly unattractive, balding and bespectacled middle-aged man—a far cry from the young, good-looking Anthony Perkins, whose turn as Norman in Stef and Hitch's Psycho skyrocketed his career (and, in some ways, derailed it, since no one could see the actor as anything other than the deranged, mother-dressing killer). Book Norman's appearance, coupled with his sad, isolated life and blind devotion to his mother elicits scorn and a certain mean-spiritedness in Mary. She has to stifle her laughter at this pathetic, "awful" man, and when he begins to discuss his love for his mother, she "cannot help" needling him, poking fun at him, trying to get a rise out of him. And after their impromptu dinner, when Mary finally retreats to her own room, she resolves to return to Ft. Worth in the morning not merely because she realizes the folly of this venture, and her foolishness at thinking she could actually get away with it, but also because she is resolved not to end up like Norman, old and pathetic, alone and trapped. 

We all know what happens from there—except, if you've never read the book, you'd be unaware that in addition to being stabbed multiple times in the shower, Mary also has her head cut off.

Norman Bates

And now, much like Psycho's narrative, we're switching gears and focusing on Norman Bates. I've already mentioned the major physical differences between the characters as depicted by Bloch and Stef and Hitch, respectively, and the decision by the latter to alter the character's appearance in such a drastic way is not an instance of "sexier" Hollywood casting. See, Mary's dislike of Norman in the novel isn't entirely unwarranted, even though her reasons might be a bit misaligned. Norman as Bloch writes him is thoroughly unlikable. Yes, he's a victim of his mother's abuse (which the author suggests might have also been sexual in nature), and his antiquated notions of sex and propriety one hundred percent stem from this unhealthy relationship (to understate the matter completely). But at the same time, it's quite hard to really sympathize with him when he refers to all women as "bitches" and displays shade's of "mother's" hatred of women with the conscious, Norman-controlled side of his brain. Not to mention, Norman is also a raging alcoholic, who frequently blacks out from his drinking, and this combined with his rather nasty outlook on women almost telegraphs the twist ending, that there is no "mother" at all, at least in the physical world.

Stef, Hitch, and Perkins's Norman is only addicted to candy, and this is important. The film's iteration of the character is, for all intents and purposes, a little boy, hopelessly devoted to his mother because he'd be lost without her. Perkins exudes this boyishness brilliantly, the way he bounds down the steps leading up to his ominous home, the way he smiles and jokes in a dopey, innocent manner. When Marion agrees to have dinner with him, she does so because he appears so harmless and one hundred percent non-sexual. They might very well be close in age, but the way Marion interacts with Norman, it's almost like watching a grown woman interact with a child (although, of course, she understands he is an adult, and in this way pities him, feels sorry for him, as opposed to her page counterpart, who cannot help but ridicule this sad man). When Norman "goes dark" at the mention of putting his mother in a home, it's a genuinely shocking moment for the first-time viewer, because prior to this moment he didn't seem capable of being so angry, and eloquent in his ire to boot. 

Thus, while Bloch's clues that Norman is, in fact, the murderer are fairly apparent if you're paying attention, Stef and Hitch go out of their way to cast doubt on this matter, to make us think Mother might be a living, breathing, and murderous individual. They don't open their narrative, as Bloch does, with Norman reading about a native victory ritual, in which the skin and muscle of a fallen enemy is flayed to reveal the stomach, which is then distended and banged upon like a drum, the gaping mouth of the warrior acting as a resonator. They don't show Norman taking perverse delight in such a grotesque image. They only show us a boy in a man's body who will do anything to protect his mentally ill mother. In this way, we're not only fascinated with this character from a lurid or macabre standpoint, we also, like Marion before us, feel sorry for Norman. We can see clearly that he's been abused and brainwashed into unwavering loyalty, and when we learn the truth of his dual personalities, it's rather hard to demonize him in full. Yes, he committed horrible acts (more of which than we know, since his killing appears to predate the confines of the narrative), but at the same time, can it really be said he actually murdered all those people? As the grandiose psychiatrist states at the end of the film, "it was Mother who killed the girl" (paraphrased). Just how conscious was Norman when his hand brought the knife down? The answer, it seems, is not at all.

The Winner?

I'll always hesitate to state definitively that a book is better than a film, or vice versa, as they are different mediums with their own set of tenets by which to critique their merit. That being said, I will say that watching Psycho is generally a more enjoyable experience than reading the book because of the work Stef and Hitch did on both Marion and Norman, making them far more likable and empathetic—specifically with Marion, whose motives are far more nuanced and rooted in love rather than tradition, and with Norman, who breaks the confines of the typical, undesirable "mama's boy" and becomes something more complex and sinister, rather than simply DANGEROUS in all-caps.

Still, Bloch's novel contains aspects not seen in the film that make it a worthwhile read, specifically Norman's interest in metaphysics and the occult, an interesting aspect absent from Stef and Hitch's take on the narrative. Moreover, that iconic line from the film, "We all go a little mad sometimes," is a central theme in the novel (though the line is slightly different on the page). Bloch plays with the notion that any one of us could be as crazy as Norman, that our notions of reality could be just as skewed and distorted. As with the film, Norman becomes Norma by the end of the tale, the dominant "Mother" side of his personality taking control of the body. Mother is convinced that her nasty son was merely a character in a dream, a boy who in reality died a long time ago. Now, though, the nightmare is over, and she is awake, back in the real world. She "knows herself," and feels secure in her mental faculties, which for Mother, defines sanity. We know this not to be the case, of course, but Mother doesn't—so can it be argued reality as Mother sees it is any less real than the reality we call normal and "sane"? Stef and Hitch are less interested in skirting into mind-fuck territory, which is fine and well, but in this regard at least, Bloch wins out.

Have any of you read Bloch's Psycho? Share your thoughts on the book as it relates to the film in the comments section below.

About the author

Christopher Shultz writes plays and fiction. His works have appeared at The Inkwell Theatre's Playwrights' Night, and in Pseudopod, Unnerving Magazine, Apex Magazine, freeze frame flash fiction and Grievous Angel, among other places. He has also contributed columns on books and film at LitReactor, The Cinematropolis, and Christopher currently lives in Oklahoma City. More info at

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