Crime fiction commentator Barry Forshaw muses on the pros and cons the author of Psycho faced when his novel was bought for film.
The much-acclaimed suspense and horror writer Robert Bloch had reason to be both very grateful to Alfred Hitchcock – and to be annoyed at him. When Bloch’s Psycho – the first major modern serial-killer novel – became a phenomenal commercial hit, it was inevitable that Hollywood would come calling.
But it came in anonymous guise, and a relatively low bid was accepted for the film rights from a company unknown to Bloch and his agent. Apparently it was a fairly standard tactic for Alfred Hitchcock to option literary properties anonymously, and no doubt this made sense – commercial sense, at least. For as soon as the name of the most famous director of suspense films in the history of cinema was mentioned, there would be the expectation of several zeros being added to any film rights deal. So Bloch received a relatively modest amount, and the subsequent film became the director’s greatest commercial success.
What’s more, Psycho virtually changed the face of modern cinema. Another cause of irritation to Bloch was the fact that he was never involved in the film-making process, i.e. writing the screenplay (and the author was to have a lengthy career as a screenwriter, alongside his endeavours as a novelist).
But that is not the whole story, and on both these points, the advantages to him would outweigh the niggles. First, for the rest of his career, the novelist would be known as ‘Robert Bloch, author of Psycho’, his name for ever associated with the most impressive of all modern suspense films, one which is still influencing movies in the twenty-first-century – not a bad cachet for any writer.
Second, the man chosen to write the screenplay was the talented Joseph Stefano, who, in close collaboration with Hitchcock, created the perfect adaptation, fleshing out the characters in very different fashion to Bloch himself.
Which is not to say that Bloch’s novel needed improving upon – Psycho is as adroitly written a suspense novel as anything (apart from Boileau-Narcejac’s Les Diaboliques), with every carefully honed word devoted to the task of keeping the reader’s pulse rate high. What makes the book particularly fascinating today is its contrast with the Hitchcock film; Norman Bates, unlike the charmingly gauche Anthony Perkins characterisation, is fat and unattractive, and such details as the celebrated shower murder are very different to the film.
But any admirer of Hitchcock’s film should most certainly read the source novel, which functions perfectly in its own right.
Barry Forshaw is a writer and journalist whose books include British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia and The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction, along with the first British biography of Stieg Larsson, The Man Who Left Too Soon. His latest books are Euro Noir and British Gothic Cinema. He is editor of Crime Time, the foremost crime fiction news and reviews website.