It’s not chocolate syrup in the shower
In horror movie icon characters, most are known by a single name: Michael, Freddy, Jason, et al, but seldom is a character included that could justly be denominated the grandfather of them all – and he has two names. Norman Bates is titular character of the Hitchcock masterpiece, Psycho. Made in 1960 as a response by Hitchcock to the 1955 French film Les Diaboliques, a film he wanted to make himself and emulated very closely with this comeback - black and white photography, small budget, shock twist ending etc.
Indeed, so enamoured with Les Diaboliques was Hitchcock that he almost gave up on film, believing that nothing could top it. Thankfully such was his verve that the rights to Psycho, the novel by Robert Bloch, were bought (Hitch also bought up as many of the novels as he could to preserve the ending!), a suitable screenplay was written (and re-written) and with a then miniscule budget and a TV crew, Psycho was born. Much has been written about this seminal film, and it’s far beyond this article, however I must say that the film’s success is as much to do with Bernard Herrmann’s magnificent score as it is to do with the master of suspense himself.
It set a precedent for film, and has never really been matched for sheer power and shock value. The earlier Les Diaboliques is probably its closest rival; however, Takeshi Miike did very well with the shocking Audition which owes more than a great deal to the pacing, turn in storyline fortunes halfway through and ultimate revelation. But more than anything it made an icon of Norman Bates. A softly spoken, ‘want to cuddle him’ mummy’s boy whose devotion and rage was so staggering to audiences of the 1960’s that it is little wonder that character actor Anthony Perkins failed to ever get away from it.
Perkins further cemented his place in horror iconology by resurrecting the character, 23 years later, in the aptly named Psycho II which, while not quite living up to its illustrious forbearer, nevertheless managed to take a slightly different take with reasonable success. Not so much with the subsequent follow-ups, though, turning more into cash-cows on the back of Perkins’s name; but it is with Psycho IV: The Beginning that may have been the spark of inspiration for the topic of this article.
So we come to 2013 and Bates Motel. This is a series devised by Universal TV (who incidentally own the rights to the 60’s Psycho despite it having Paramount in the credits) and is a ‘contemporary retelling’ of the early life of Norman Bates – or how he became a 'psycho’. As I see it there are a number of issues with this series, so let’s have a closer look.Be prepared there may be spoilers ahead
Psycho the film was set in its own contemporary setting, i.e. 1960. The reasons for the update are very simply: financial and commercial. Financial because it’s cheaper to make it ‘now’ rather than retrograde everything to the early fifties; and commercial because making it for a contemporary audience means they can identify with the situations and characters on the same level and thus it can be sold easier. However, being set in 2013 bring with it a multitude of problems; despite what the media will have you believe children’s services are actually quite good; at risk children are normally identified and any situations are dealt with very early on.
Remember ‘psychos’ are made they are not born – thus their early childhood development combined with abuse tends to bring out the foulest and it continues cyclically until the very worst happens. As such, it is highly unlikely that a seventeen year old would have managed to get to that age without some authority stepping in to assess development. OK, I know the program has addressed this with the family ‘moving around’ a lot, but the argument still stands. Child services were not as efficient sixty five years ago, as such it was ‘easier’ for a child to slip through the cracks and turn out bad. All this brings about the next issue:
The character when we first meet him is a teenager, we are shown (told) his first act of violence occurred at that age and, as such, the program is dealing with Norman already in his ‘psycho’ stage. (This, of course flies smack in the face of the established lore of Norman being alone with his mother since the age of five). Freddie Highmore, who plays Norm, is excellent in the roll and he has a very ‘Perkins’ look, complete with mannerisms. I can’t really fault his interpretation – he has managed that sweet and innocent part wonderfully, though he does lack the scare depth and secretive nature, things are looking up at the end of season two though. This is, in part, due to the fact that his mother is still alive and he is still ‘becoming’ and yet, throughout the episodes we watch him commit heinous acts and have conversations with himself but we never get to the root of the issue – because he is already there. This show is being billed wrong; this is not how Norman became a 'psycho’ it’s Psycho as an adolescent! Which brings us to the crux of the matter:
Why Norman is how he is
This is a massive cop-out by the series and the very nub of my gist. Why is Norman the way he is? Because he is. Or rather, he already is and no one knows why, not even his mother. Seriously? But hang on, this quote from IMDb credited to A&E Television Networks explicitly says “gives a portrayal of how Norman Bates' psyche unravels through his teenage years” – What? No it doesn’t, the show is as much about the twisted town, the twisted characters that inhabit that town and how the Bates family cope with all the insanity that descends upon them, as it is about Norman and his ‘unravelling psyche’ which, as I just stated has no explanation. Still, it could be worse; we could have a sympathetic mother character and not the evil monster that torments here son so much he becomes a monster himself – but wait …
One of the most defining characteristics of Norman is his sympathetic nature, why he has endured so long and what made his turn so shocking to the 1960’s audience was; he was turned into a monster by the very person who should have loved him the most: his mother. Thus, whilst Norman is beyond reproach in his atrocities we can understand why he does what he does – but the delicious twist is we cannot understand what drove Norma to torture her son so, thus we have no sympathy and no love. Where Bates Motel puts its foot so far into the wrong camp is that this Norma Bates is simply a struggling single mum trying to do the best she can with the hand she is dealt – yes she makes poor choices (some are in and of themselves reprehensible) but we can understand some of them due to her own abused childhood.
The show gives her reasons a voice and thus we, as an audience, begin to understand her motives and thus sympathy develops. She stops being the inscrutable monster that turned her son into a killer, and becomes a human being. This, of course, is a logical step in the show because, as discussed above, Norman’s behaviour is already set. She, in effect, had nothing to do with it and thus the complicated dynamic between mother and son that should be the heart of the show is irrevocably and irreversibly damaged. The show does not try to examine a breakdown but chooses to concentrate on external factors while we watch the Bates’ react to them.
So, What Should be done Differently
Simple really; readdress the balance between the external town influences on the Bates’ family and their reaction to them to the internal conflict between the mother/son relationship giving far more emphasis to Norma’s domineering and irascible behaviour that makes Norman both adore and despise her in equal measure. This will push him further and further into madness and her reaction and solution to Norman’s driving test are perfect examples and we definitely need more of this. Wouldn’t it also be great to have far more modern day exercises that give rise to flashbacks which explain and interpret the decisions made, or expand, in greater detail, horrific (or otherwise) experiences, other than just the one with Cody and Norm in the closet? Again we need much more of this.
And yet...Despite all I’ve said above, the show is thoroughly entertaining - absorbing even. The characterisations are all together excellently realised. I've already spoken about Freddie Highmore’s interpretation; he does a terrific job of capturing the nuances of a troubled teenager. But equal regard must go to Vera Farmiga as Norma, her performance is so natural, so desperate and so forlorn that you become very attached to her desire to give her family a better lot in life; even if the choices she makes are very questionable indeed. A great deal of this has to do with the backstory, which, as discussed above, is both infuriating and wonderful. But all of the characters are well rounded and as the series enters its third season, they are all becoming deeper, darker and full of life!
Bates Motel, then, is an enjoyable piece of TV viewing which only takes a very loose string from Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece and that is how it should be enjoyed at its best – know about the film, know what it’s about, but let this series (pretend) to fill in the blanks. As it now enters its third season the ante has definitely been upped; Norman’s acceptance of his mother’s actions in his own mind during the polygraph test will be the series’ answer to everything… Just don’t expect the show to answer all your burning questions – it’s just not that deep.
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