January 12, 2014

Why Screenwriter Joseph Stefano's Revamped 'Psycho' Excited Alfred Hitchcock

PsychoAlfred Hitchcock's Psycho is interesting on many levels, namely its narrative structure -- for anyone to kill off your star actress halfway through a film meant committing a screenwriting atrocity. Screenwriter Joseph Stefano took several risks while writing the script for Psycho, which ended up paying off big time with audiences (though critical reviews were mixed). Cinephilia and Beyond has shared a great making-of documentary about the film, in which Stefano talks about the development of the screenplay, as well as the changes he pitched that got Hitchcock's attention. (C&B has also made the original shooting script available online for your studying pleasure.)

Adapted from Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel of the same name, Psycho was originally assigned to screenwriter James P. Cavanagh. The first treatment that landed on Hitchcock's desk from the writer was found to be "dull", perhaps because the novel had much more gore and violence, as well as homages to the story of Ed Gein. (In the novel, Mary Crane -- who became Marion Crane in the film -- is decapitated in the shower scene.) However, it might also be because Cavanagh brought nothing new to the table.

The task of writing the script switched hands from Cavanagh to Stefano, who then changed certain aspects of the original story that greatly appealed to Hitchcock. Stefano opens the film with Marion, which, he thinks, got him the job:

The idea excited Hitch. And I got the job. Killing the leading lady in the first 20 minutes had never been done before! Hitch suggested a name actress to play Marion because the bigger the star  the more unbelievable it would be that we would kill her. From there, the writing was easy. The only difficulty was switching the audience’s sympathies to Norman after Marion’s death.

Stefano paints Marion as a woman trapped in her own life -- much like the villainous Norman Bates. Taking that further, Stefano also found that the book made it difficult to sympathize with Norman once Mary (Marion) was dead and gone -- Bloch's Norman Bates was middle-aged, overweight, wore glasses, and drank -- a seemingly unpleasant individual that characterized a typical villain. Stefano knew that Norman's look and demeanor would have to change to keep the audience's attention on, as well as their sympathies for, Norman, so he made him younger, handsome, meek, and seemingly kind.

Check out the making-of documentary of Psycho below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O9fPQG3HTZ4

Screenwriting blog Diary of a Screenwriter posted an interview between Stefano and Creative Screenwriting, which echoes a lot of what Stefano talks about in the documentary, but also goes more in-depth about the changes he made to the novel, including the final scene where the psychiatrists are explaining Norman's condition (in the book, that task fell upon Mary's boyfriend and sister -- who were also, in the book, having an affair by the way). In the interview, Stefano also talks about the effect Psycho might've had on audiences and society as a whole, an observation that might cast the film in a different light for those who may not know the historical context of the time:

Joseph Stefano

With Psycho, it might have been a heightened sense of mortality, societal violence, and moral responsibility. It was very unsettling to an audience to see a film where the star -- one they’d come to care for -- suddenly is killed halfway through the picture. Just a few years after the film came out, Americans were astonished and horrified by the much-publicized death of Kitty Genovese in New York City where she was attacked, yelled out for help, and nobody did anything -- even though many people heard her chilling, desperate cries. It was very upsetting, and it made everyone reconsider violence in our society and our responses to it. Maybe Psycho did something similar to audiences. Maybe it touched a nerve -- and still does.

Again, Cinephilia and Beyond has shared Stefano's Psycho screenplay online. You can check it out in their post here.

Have you ever adapted a novel? How did you approach it? For those who have read the book, do you think Stefano's changes made the story better? Worse? Let us know in the comments.

Links:

Your Comment

8 Comments

I kind of thought the opening with John Gavin was a bit convoluted and and drawn out. It gave a fairly weak motivation and not much of a background to the heroine of the film. It obviously picks up speed as Marion checks in the Bates Motel and the movie changes its focus onto Norman Bates.
.
FWIW, I met Vivien Leigh once in the late 1980's. She was - just as an observation - an odd individual.

January 12, 2014 at 9:18PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

0
Reply
DLD

Stefano talks about that opening and describes it as Marion's version of "going a little mad". We all go a little mad sometimes. So really, there wasn't much motivation other than madness -- it draws a parallel between her and Norman Bates.

January 13, 2014 at 12:36AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

0
Reply
avatar
V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor
Writer/Director

I thought it was more like a "merge lane" - make Marion look worse in order to make Norman Bates look better. In a modern screenplay, the Marion character would be shown helping the elderly across the road and organizing some sort of an animal rescue. In other words, the characters would be given opposing identities and values.

January 13, 2014 at 4:28PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

0
Reply
DLD

If you watch/read the interviews, the filmmakers talk at length about not demonizing Marion, 1. because she was played by a huge star, 2. because her character is seen as a victim, 3. because she was the protagonist for the whole first half of the movie.

The theme of the film isn't "Norman Bates ain't such a bad guy", it's "We all go a little mad sometimes". Drawing parallels between Marion and Norman brings that home...it says that it's not just the weird motel guy who goes crazy, it's also the seemingly normal beautiful woman. It holds up a mirror to the audience and says, "See, this could just as easily have been you."

January 13, 2014 at 4:57PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

3
Reply
avatar
V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor
Writer/Director

They're not demonizing her overtly but, regardless of what they say post facto, they were deploying the "slut gets killed" angle, a premise that eventually reached its heights during the 1980's slasher flicks streak. It's just that Hitch did it far more subtly than the folks helming Friday the Thirteens. (and, by the way, I am not saying this as a "women's rights" defender. It's just obvious as a sub-current of that era's societal mores)

January 13, 2014 at 11:35PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

0
Reply
DLD

The mother/whore dichotomy was big in the 40s and 50s, too (and the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, etc.). Film noir used it all the time with the femme fatale.

However, I don't think this was the focus for Hitchcock. Remember...Marion redeems herself when she decides to return the money. She even takes a shower to "cleanse" herself, which makes all the more powerful the fact that that's where she gets murdered.

January 14, 2014 at 4:01PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

1
Reply
avatar
V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor
Writer/Director

Most actor are. You have to be a lilt crazy to pursue this business.

January 13, 2014 at 6:27PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

14
Reply
2clock

hey DLD - It was Janet Leigh in the film not Vivian Leigh. No wonder you think she was odd. Vivian was as batty as a fruit basket by all acounts. But mistaking the star of Gone with The Wind for being in Psycho and being Janet Leighs mother has would be enough to send any one batty.

January 15, 2014 at 2:17AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

0
Reply
Otis P Thorpe