Book vs. Film vs. Mini-series: 'Rosemary's Baby'

Disclaimer: I assume most people nowadays are familiar with the twist ending to this narrative, so I discuss it freely here. Even if you've never read the book or seen either movie, you probably know how they end. But just in case you don't, go watch the Polanski film at least. It's even on Netflix Instant Watch, so you have no excuse.


Whenever an iconic horror title gets the remake treatment, there will always be backlash from the fans. They will hate the "new and improved model" on principal alone—they hate it simply because it exists.

Going into the recently-released remake of Rosemary's Baby (which I'll henceforth refer to as RB2014), I knew it was going to be bad, but not because I'm the kind of fan described above. If a new film based on an old film based on a book offers something new, I'm all for it (see my review of the three Carrie adaptations for a broader discussion of this). No, the reason I knew RB2014 would be bad was because, like the 2002 version of Carrie, it was a network television miniseries, and those just never quite work out, The Stand being the exception that proves the rule.

Unfortunately, my suspicions proved correct. RB2014 is truly an abysmal adaptation, with very little, if any, redeeming qualities. It's a fun viewing experience because of all the unintentional laughs, and if you watch it with someone else, you can make fun of it together. But the fun stops there.

There is plenty to dislike about this film: the fact that it's padded out to fit a four hour time slot with unnecessary scenes (mostly involving Rosemary's slime-ball husband Guy, who we don't care about); the overall clunky dialogue; scenes that are supposed to be scary but are nothing more than cliché-ridden garbage (a cat jumps out and scares Rosemary at one point); over-the-top Omen-style hex-deaths that aren't as clever as those in The Omen, and are only a gory mask to hide the shoddy writing; the telegraphing of EVIL!!!! that robs the film of suspense; and the generally bad performances by actors who are capable of better. 

Concerning the source material, Ira Levin's novel offers the exact opposite qualities, minus the acting, of course. Roman Polanski's film adds that aspect to the mix while retaining everything else that made the book so damn good. I could talk endlessly about any one of these aspects and how RB2014 failed them miserably, but for now, I want to focus solely on the depiction of Rosemary herself, perhaps the remake's biggest misstep, and therefore its fatal flaw.

But first, let's rewind a bit, and get some context to better understand why RB2014 sucked so royally.

Levin's Novel

The book, which I'll refer to as RB1967, was a runaway success upon its publication. According to author Ira Levin in a brief essay written for Criterion, his publishers were instantly keen on the idea of a human woman delivering, by way of witchy, conspiratorial intervention, Satan's spawn into 20th century Manhattan, "standing the story of Mary and Jesus on its head." Critics loved it, the public loved it, and it sold, sold, sold.

There were, of course, cries of blasphemy and boycotts by the Legion of Decency (for Polanski's film), but overall audiences were ready for a narrative that painted Satanism in a not-so-evil light. As Stephen King writes in Danse Macabre:

Rosemary's Baby was written and published at the time the God-is-dead tempest was whirling around in the teapot of the sixties, and the book deals with questions of faith in an unpretentious but thoughtful and intriguing way.

King goes on to surmise that Levin believes in neither God nor Satan, but that he's simply using familiar themes to turn a good plot and comment upon religion's pervasiveness in a society that no longer needs it. Levin was indeed a non-believer, as confirmed by Otto Penzler, owner and proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop, in an introduction to the most recent edition of RB1967:

Levin was not a believer—not in any organized religion, not Satanism, not witchcraft, not in any of the myths or charismatic real-life figures who have engendered worship. In fact, he had rather hoped that his novel would help to increase the skepticism that had always resided with him.

The author achieves this by essentially showing us what organized religion does to a person's decision-making abilities. Rosemary is a recovering Catholic at the narrative's outset; she considers herself agnostic because, as her husband Guy puts it, "there's no absolute proof one way or the other, is there?" But later, Rosemary is offended by her doting, funny old neighbors the Castavets, who talk disparagingly about the Pope—revealing that Rosemary's agnosticism is nothing more than an inability to go full atheist, to completely let go of belief in divine powers bigger than she is. 

It is for this reason that, at the novel's climax, Rosemary chooses to love her devil spawn, rather than kill it, or even take it to a priest for the Church to handle. All throughout the narrative, Rosemary has only ever been the slightly "edgier" version of everything her sisters became—housewives, who raise children and clean house. She embodies the "perfect little spouse" persona that Levin would explore in more pointed detail with The Stepford Wives. After her pregnancy is confirmed (but long before she suspects any nefarious deeds), Rosemary is overjoyed. Levin writes, "Now she was alive; was doing, was being, was at last herself and complete." 

So, after the big reveal—"Satan is [the baby's] Father, not Guy"—and Rosemary realizes she can't kill it or dump it off on the Church, her only option is to love little Andrew and be his mother. Why? Because for all her rebellion—her moving from Omaha to New York City, her marrying a Protestant rather than a Catholic, her abandoning of the faith in favor of agnosticism—Rosemary needs religion. She never really escaped it, and her entire identity has been subconsciously shaped by its trappings. Now, here she is with a coven of witches chanting "Hail Satan! Hail Andrew! Hail Rosemary!" Ousted by her blood relatives as a black sheep and a heathen, here is a group of people celebrating Rosemary as the Mother of the Antichrist. They are a religious group, and they embrace her.

Thus, Rosemary isn't just choosing to love her child; she is reaffirming her belief in those divine powers bigger than she is, and she's switching teams in the process. By choosing Andrew, Rosemary is also choosing Satanism.

Again, Levin neither believes in God nor the Devil, he's simply making a point about the effect such beliefs have on people. Rosemary is so indoctrinated into the Catholic church, she still lives under its shadow even though she believes she's walked away from it; she prescribes to traditional notions of femininity and masculinity—Guy is the breadwinner, she is the home-keeper and the child-bearer—despite an itch to be independent (more on this aspect of the narrative in a moment); and when push comes to shove, when all those stories from the Bible turn out to be true, Rosemary abandons Good for Evil simply because Evil offers the loving support group that Good never could. 

In the end, Levin is saying, religion isn't about Good and Evil, it's about self-identification and community, and Rosemary will take it where she can get it.

Polanski's Film

I could write endlessly about the first film adaptation, which I'll refer to as RB1968, but when tasked with weighing the differences between it and the original novel, there isn't much to discuss. By this I mean, the number of changes made by Roman Polanski is quite low. According to Otto Penzler, the writer/director was

almost obsessive about following the author’s story. He met regularly with Levin, pages marked in the book, asking such questions as, What do you think is the color of Rosemary’s dress in this scene? and What is the date of the issue of The New Yorker in which Guy Woodhouse sees a shirt he wants...?

Levin was impressed with Polanski's strict adherence to detail. He writes:

The result was possibly the most faithful film adaptation ever made. It incorporates whole pages of the book's dialogue...It was not only Polanski's first Hollywood film but also the first one he made based on someone else's material; I'm not sure he realized he had the right to make changes.

It's plausible the director merely wanted to do a good job on his first big film, but I think it's more likely that Polanski could recognize an expertly plotted suspense narrative full of little details that hint at the horror to come, and he simply didn't want to leave any crucial clues out.

Some scenes and bits of information are jettisoned, no doubt for running time's sake. Unfortunately, those missing details give us a broader understanding of Rosemary as a woman manipulated by religion, which also generates a feminist commentary on the subordinate role of women in a patriarchal society. 

For instance, in the novel, Rosemary comes from a "fertile" Catholic family in the Midwest, but she occupies the role of black sheep. She has a strained relationship with her parents and siblings, who have ostracized her for moving to New York, marrying a Protestant, and abandoning the faith. But again, for all her supposed rebelliousness, Rosemary is really only engaged in a modern and fashionable version of the same life she left behind: she has walked away from her independent ambitions to perfect the art of wife- and motherhood. Despite her complaints about the trappings of Catholicism and the stifling nature of Midwestern living, Rosemary's goals are nonetheless rooted in pleasing her family, and their rejection of her efforts nags at her. Not so, however, in the film, which only mentions Rosemary's familial background in passing, leaving our protagonist a bit less complex in the process, and dwindling Levin's more pointed feminist statements. 

This dwindling effect, unfortunately, continues. Polanski's most glaring omission occurs after the infamous "consummation" scene, in which the coven conjures the Devil to impregnate Rosemary. The next morning, Guy takes the blame for the gnarly scratches running along Rosemary's back and sides, admitting that he had his way with her while she lay unconscious, insisting that he didn't want to miss "baby night." "It was fun," he jokes, "in a necrophile sort of way." Horrified and hurt, Rosemary says, "I dreamed someone was...raping me...I don't know, someone inhuman."

In the novel, shortly after this exchange, Rosemary borrows her friend Hutch's cabin and gets away from Guy, in the hopes of clearing her head and sorting out her feelings about her husband's behavior. Here's what happens there:

On the third day she thought about him [Guy]. He was vain, self-centered, shallow, and deceitful. He had married her to have an audience, not a mate...

She would give him a year to shape up and become a good husband; if he didn’t make it she would pull out, and with no religious qualms whatever [emphasis mine]. And meanwhile she would go back to work and get again that sense of independence and self-sufficiency she had been so eager to get rid of. She would be strong and proud and ready to go if he failed to meet her standards.

Despite her willingness to give her husband "a year to shape up," Rosemary is quite resolute in her disgust with Guy, and her desire for a self-sufficient, self-reliant lifestyle is apparent. But then, on the fourth day of her respite:

...she awoke missing him and cried...What had he done that was so terrible? He had gotten drunk and had grabbed her without saying may I. Well that was really an earth-shaking offense, now wasn’t it? There he was, facing the biggest challenge of his career, and she—instead of being there to help him, to cue and encourage him—was off in the middle of nowhere, eating herself sick and feeling sorry for herself.

With this cabin sequence, Levin gives us an inside view into Rosemary's self-doubting personality. I argue that she doesn't actually believe the things that run through her head on the fourth day—it's simply that the independence she dreams about the day before is too frightening a notion. It's that "religious guilt" kicking in, convincing her that she's in the wrong. It's just too scary to be anything other than a submissive housewife, the very thing she was brought up to be. Furthermore, Rosemary is incapable of being alone: Levin mentions elsewhere that she moved straight from her parents' house into an apartment with roommates in New York, then straight into an apartment with Guy. In short, Rosemary feels no sense of empowerment, because religious and patriarchal conventions don't allow it; and when empowerment presents itself in her mind, she runs from it like a frightened mouse.

The entire sequence helps us understand why Rosemary sticks around, but it's sadly missed in RB1968. While it is certainly possible, I don't think the cut was a sexist move on Polanski's part, merely a practical one: how do you film scenes that are visually static and convey Rosemary's inner thoughts without resorting to voice over, a device unnecessary in every other instance? Sure, Polanski establishes Rosemary early on as a woman who talks to herself, but this habit becomes more than soto voce mumbling only after her paranoia intensifies, and to show her carrying on with long passages like the ones reprinted above at that particular stage in the narrative would too quickly establish her as a potential nutcase, and thus destroy the core question that hangs over the third act: has Rosemary lost her marbles, or are these fantastic things really happening to her? A scene between Rosemary and Hutch or some other friend could have substituted for the cabin sequence, but given that Polanski wanted to make a literal adaptation, that option was no doubt out of the question (and besides, I doubt Rosemary would have vocalized her desire to leave her husband anyway).

Watching RB1968, we do get a sense that Rosemary wants something more out of her marriage and her life, even with the cabin sequence missing. This notion is most obvious in an early scene depicting Rosemary and Guy having sex in their new, mostly empty apartment, and it's the most significant change Polanski makes to the source material. The scene is nothing major in the book—it's a romantic, spontaneous act, showing us that the characters are not afraid of the infamous Bramford building, despite Hutch's warnings. But in RB1968, things play out a little differently. Rosemary suggests they make love. She waits, a smirk on her face. Guy, without saying a word, unplugs the lamp and begins undressing. Rosemary waits a moment longer, then proceeds to take off her own clothes. One suspects she was waiting for Guy to crawl over to her, to take her, to undress her and kiss her, seduce her. He doesn't, and Rosemary goes along with it, making for a sex scene that feels sterile and lifeless, and clearly demonstrates our protagonist's unfulfilled desires.

We see it elsewhere too, in the way Rosemary (via Mia Farrow's emotive blue eyes) looks at Guy the morning after the consummation scene—unblinking, shocked, confused, wide-eyed and then narrowed; the way she unconsciously covers her exposed breasts following his terribly nonchalant "necrophile" comment; the way she sits at the edge of the bed, shoulders slumped, despondent. Polanski even inserts the "vain, self-centered" line in a conversation between Rosemary and Hutch later. And if you have any doubts about non-sexists motives driving the film, note the sculpture sitting on Guy and Rosemary's credenza: it's a woman's torso, without a head or limbs—exactly what the coven turns Rosemary into, a vessel for their devil-baby, an object void (they think, anyway) of a mind and the ability to fight and run. Rosemary proves them wrong. This statue is not present in the book.

The information is there, it's just that, with RB1968, everything's in soft focus, while RB1967 examines the details with tack sharp clarity. In other words, Polanski lets us glean information through visuals and dialogue, while Levin lays everything bare on the table. It's an incredible film adaptation overall, and one of my favorite movies, but I do lean more toward Levin's take.

The TV Remake

As we can see, there was an area of opportunity in re-adapting Rosemary's Baby. If Polanski's take on the main character was less complex than Levin's, the goal here should have been to magnify those complexities and make the main character a little more rounded, right? Furthermore, with religion and women's bodies rights at the forefront of political discussion in this country, a proposed revamped narrative should encompass the current political climate, just as Kimberly Pierce did with her Carrie remake, tackling the modern-day scourge of bullying. Right?

Sadly, RB2014 does none of these things. It was co-written by James Wong, who has worked on The X-Files and American Horror Story, among other shows (promising!) and Scott Abbott, most famous for ruining Queen of the Damned (you lost me). 

As I said above, this TV remake substitutes violence and gore for psychological suspense, leaving the characters to dope around with little meat to chew on (unless you count Rosemary eating a chicken heart in more graphic detail than I care to see). They relocate the narrative to Paris, a place where religion isn't nearly as oppressive and women are generally more liberated than here in America, and they depict Rosemary (Zoe Saldana) as this shy, non-French-speaking, constantly hysterical (even before the pregnancy), simpering moron, with no religious beliefs to speak of, and no discernible reason for abandoning her successful career as a ballet dancer to play housewife to Guy (Patrick J. Adams), who out-douches John Cassavetes at every turn.

Oh God, please don't make me watch any more!!!

Sadder still, Agnieszka Holland, the director, who has some impressive accolades and credits under her belt as well, believes this update to be more psychologically driven than its predecessor. From an article in the New York Times by Rachel Donadio:

Mr. Polanski's version was made "before the feminist revolution, really," Ms. Holland said...Back then, Rosemary "was in some ways a victim—to the men's world, to the world of power and Satan...My Rosemary is much more willful and stronger."

Okay...First, Levin is not mentioned at all, and this combined with other indicators leads me to believe no attempt to "stay closer to the novel" was ever employed here. This is simply a remake of Polanski's film.

Second, I hope I've established that, even though the feminist movement was not in full swing at the time RB1967 and RB1968 were released, there is a strong feminist undercurrent playing out through the narratives, glaringly so in Levin's novel, less so with Polanski's film but still there if you're paying attention. I mean, you could be a feminist prior to the "feminist revolution," since feminism was around long before it exploded into the mainstream consciousness. 

Third, this Rosemary is categorically NOT "much more willful and stronger." Sure, the character as written by Levin and brought to the screen by Farrow and Polanski, comes off as naive, but she never appears downright stupid. Take for instance the "morning after" scene I discussed at length above. Remember, Rosemary wakes up with fresh scratches all over her body, and Guy takes responsibility for them, revealing that he had sex with her while she was passed out, which horrifies Rosemary. This scene plays out more or less the same way in Holland and company's remake, but with one distinct difference: Guy also has scratches all over his body, and suggests Rosemary was awake throughout their animalistic love-making session.

How does she respond to this? By covering her face and squealing and saying (and this dialogue is paraphrased; I couldn't be bothered to go back and double check it), "Oh my God, I'm so sorry, how could I not remember?" GOOD QUESTION, main character. How could you not remember? Because you certainly weren't shown drinking a significant amount of alcohol the night before (as we see in the original narrative). You DID eat Mrs. Castavet's baby-making voodoo stew (I'm not joking, she makes a nasty fertility stew after she sniffs Rosemary—still not joking—and declares, "You are RIPE! It is time!). 

So put this together, Rosemary: you have NO REASON not to remember fucking your husband's brains out the night before. The ONLY thing that might have prevented you from remembering is the nasty voodoo fertility crap your weird, all-too-nice, all-too-loving neighbor gave you. So don't you think it might have been THAT which caused you to black out and remain conscious at the same time? Shouldn't this be a huge, flaming red flag? The Rosemary we've known and loved for damn near fifty years now would have worked this one out in a heartbeat, naivety or no. This other Rosemary, however, just smiles and accepts whatever her douche-bag husband tells her. Does this seem "much more willful and stronger" to you, dear reader?

There are numerous examples of Rosemary's idiocy in RB2014, but this is perhaps the most egregious, so I really don't think I need to go on here. The point is, the creative team behind this remake missed a real opportunity to update a classic narrative for our modern era. They make no mention of Rosemary's religious beliefs, they never once mention her family, they set the story in the wrong country, and they opt for cheap thrills in place of psychology and suspense. Rather than beefing up the protagonist's interior self as seen most prominently in Levin's novel, the filmmakers de-evolve Rosemary into a stereotypical 1940s hysterical woman who falls to pieces when she gets a nosebleed (that's not hyperbole, by the way). As far as remakes go, this is one of the worst I've ever seen (not as bad as the TV version of Carrie, because at least this one offered unintentional humor). Read the book or watch Polanski's film, either again or for the first time, but steer clear of this piece of shit at all costs.


Thoughts? Am I being too harsh on RB2014? Did you find anything of value in it? Did you even bother to watch it? How would you have updated Rosemary's Baby? Let us know what you think in the comments section.

Image of Rosemary's Baby
Manufacturer: The Steven King horror Library
Part Number:
Price: $47.08
Image of Rosemary's Baby (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Director: Roman Polanski
Starring: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer
Rating: R (Restricted)
Image of Rosemary's Baby [Blu-ray + Digital HD]
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Starring: Bud Abbott, Zoe Saldana, Hillary Brooke, Jason Isaacs, Lou Costello
Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Christopher Shultz

Column by Christopher Shultz

Christopher Shultz writes weird, dark fiction. His stories have appeared both online and in print, including most recently in Apex Magazinefreeze frame flash fiction and Grievous Angel. In addition to LitReactor, he has also written for Ranker.comCultured Vultures and Tor.com. At times, he dabbles in digital art and photography. Christopher lives in Oklahoma City with his fiancée Lauren and their two mostly well-behaved cats. More info at christophershultz.com.

To leave a comment Login with Facebook or create a free account.

Comments

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing July 11, 2014 - 7:28am

"Unspeakable. Unspeakable." I love that line. I also love Ruth Gordon, of whom there can be no equivalent on the printed page.

--Ed

 

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Stories of YOUR Life July 11, 2014 - 9:28am

I got my Criterion Blu-ray. Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer are the best.

cshultz81's picture
cshultz81 from Oklahoma is reading Best Horror of the Year Volume 8 July 12, 2014 - 8:56am

That Criterion Blu-Ray is gorgeous. And yes, the Castavets are castes perfectly, and this played brilliantly. John Cassavetes's turn as Guy is one of the most underrated performances in film. I love going back and watching him specifically--that sly and mortified look he gets in his eyes whenever Rosemary comes close to the truth. Very subtle, but noticeable only when you know what you're looking for.

Carey Smith's picture
Carey Smith August 21, 2015 - 7:10am

Love this comparison and it's spot on. Just wondering if you were unfortunate enough to read Ira's sequel, "Son of Rosemary"? It was..... Hideous. As if someone else had written it, or perhaps it was an outline or rough draft that was printed and not a completed manuscript. Just awful.