Less Than Zero
The Novel (1985)
“Less Than Zero” is, perhaps, the finest novel I’ve ever read about the decay of youth. It’s “Catcher in the Rye” for the drug-ravaged era of ‘80s America – a lacerating and unflinching examination of entitlement, wealth and the corruptibility of a fuck-it-all generation.
The novel focuses on Clay, a despondent college student returning home to L.A. for winter break. Through Clay’s first person, steam of consciousness narration, we’re privy to many a night hazed by alcohol and drugs, failed encounters with ex girlfriends, and, most significantly, a tumultuous relationship with his best friend, Julian. While Clay has been away at school, Julian has fallen ill to a debilitating heroin addiction. Julian’s story arc is one of the most intensely dramatic Ellis has ever written. He’s the character highlight of the text, no question.
At only 208 pages long, “Less Than Zero” is compulsively readable, confidently penned by a college kid (Ellis was only 21 when the book was published), who, we assume, knows his characters and their circumstances all too well. “Disappear Here,” indeed. A
The Film (1987)
Unfortunately, my praises for Ellis’ source material do not extend to Marek Kanievska’s muddled and misguided adaptation. Although the people responsible for the film have claimed that it is a very loose version of Ellis’ novel, that doesn’t excuse the film for being boring and aimless. If there is a saving grace, it is Robert Downey Jr.’s rather excellent performance as Julian. And even though the film’s Julian is unlike Ellis’ character, Downey Jr. sells it with convincing desperation. D+
What Ellis Said
“‘Less Than Zero’ was a weird case because there isn’t a single line of dialogue or a scene from the book in the movie. Yet, the movie has this reputation as the dark age brat pack movie. It’s become this weird kind of classic, but it’s not that great of a movie. I myself, I’m now nostalgic for that film.”
“It’s gotten better as it’s gotten older. It’s aged well. I suppose that if there was no novel, we’d probably be even fonder of it, but there’s that novel that keeps messing everything up. I think that movie is gorgeous, and the performances that I thought were shaky seem much better now. It’s something I can watch.”
The Rules of Attraction
The Novel (1987)
If “Less Than Zero” is perhaps the best novel I’ve ever read about the decay of youth, then “The Rules of Attraction” is certainly the best. It’s as dangerous, challenging and entertaining a book as I’ve come across, and the novel I’ve re-read the most in my life. In his protagonist, the ruthlessly vile Sean Bateman, Ellis latched onto a family tree that has defined his writing career. Sean is young, vapid and utterly confused; the kind of book character I so love to hate. And his dealings with several other students at the fictional Camden College never fail to amuse me.
I remember being a young kid reading “The Rules of Attraction” for the first time. I never knew novels could do what it did. I didn’t know you could get away with whole chapters in French (which are never translated). I didn’t know you could write pages and pages with complete disregard for punctuation. I didn’t know you could end a chapter mid sentence, just because. “The Rules of Attraction,” more so than any other Ellis novel, proved to me that if the writing is good enough, the rules can be ignored. And really, what better lesson is there to teach a young writer? A+
The Film (2002)
Whenever I watch Roger Avary’s film adaptation, I’m reminded of how ahead of its time it was. The film is a huge risk, imploring essentially every film school flourish via editing and photography. It’s overly showy, maddeningly impatient, and an all around mind fuck that never ceases to give in. I completely love it, but am very understanding to why many people do not.
One of the core strengths of Ellis’ writing is his uncanny ability to not judge his own characters. He let’s them be who they are, and never sways the reader’s opinion to how we should feel about them. That’s a difficult feat to pull off in print, and an even harder one to capture on screen. So let me put it this way, if the core actors involved in this film (including James Van Der Beek, Shannyn Sossamon, Jessica Biel, Ian Somerhalder and Kip Pardue) have given better performances elsewhere, then I haven’t seen them. A-
What Ellis Said
“There are a whole host of problems with adapting [my] works into movies, and I think Roger solved it visually. The way he set the movie up on a visual level is a nice counterpart to the novel, and I also thought it was kind of outrageous. He didn’t try to push the likability, he didn’t try to give these people sympathetic backstories.”
“My favorite movie out of the four was The Rules of Attraction. I thought it was the only one that captured the sensibility of the novel in a cinematic way. I know I’m sounding like a film critic on that, but I’m talking about that in an emotional — as the writer of the novel. I watched that movie and thought they got it in a way that American Psycho didn’t and Less Than Zero didn’t.”
The Novel (1991)
Bret Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho” will always be a cultural phenomenon. After two novels of modest size and scope, Ellis erased any and all inhibitions and penned one of the most gruesome satires ever written. In Patrick Bateman, Ellis created an impossibly repulsive man that will forever haunt (and bring fortune to) his personal career. So much can be said for the humorous complexity that is Patrick Bateman, but most of us have heard them before. In fact, “American Psycho” is so much more than its title character, or, really, its characters in general. It’s a rule breaking, genre bending exposé of uninhibited wealth and white collar entitlement. Even though it consistently makes me squirm, there is nothing about it that I don’t value.
Whenever I attempt to sing praises of Ellis’ writing to detractors of his work, I always end with a simple notion: you may not appreciate what he’s saying, but it’s impossible to deny that it’s well written. A
The Film (2000)
I’d argue that Mary Harron’s American Psycho is the most significant thing to ever happen to Ellis’ career. Sure, the man has always had a steady fan base from his novels, but this movie changed things for him. It paved way for a massive, new, young audience to explore his work.
But beyond this, Harron’s film is a perfect cinematic satire. It launched the career of Christian Bale, who has arguably never been better. And although many would disagree with me, including Ellis, I think Harron captured the tone of the challenging source material with utter precision. No, not every crime Patrick Bateman commits is in the movie (because, really, how could they be?) but the overall unique essence of the book is beautifully stated on the screen. American Psycho is a damn good movie on its own, but for ecstatic fans of the novel, it’s a fucking priceless piece of art. A
What Ellis Said
“If you’re going to take the material from one medium to another, you’re just going to have to make some decisions about it. The book itself doesn’t really answer a lot of the questions it poses, but by the very nature of the medium of a movie, you kind of have to answer those questions. And a movie automatically says, ‘It’s real.’ Then, at the end, it tries to have it both ways by suggesting that it wasn’t. Which you could argue is interesting, but I think it basically confused a lot of people, and I think even Mary would admit that.”
The Novel (1994)
“The Informers” is by long and far my favorite Bret Easton Ellis novel. Although it was marketed as a collection of short stories assembled under one jacket, the tone, narrative and character structure remain universal throughout. The book is split into 13 distinct chapters, all containing different first person narrators. Some of our guides may seem familiar, given that they’re (maybe) supporting characters from various Ellis’ novels, while others are wholly unique to the book itself. “The Informers” isn’t as cohesive as Ellis’ first three books, but it’s a flawless experiment all the same. To highlight just one chapter in particular would be an exercise in futility. They’re meant to be taken in together, as quickly as possible, without turning back. A+
The Film (2009)
The first and only time I saw Gregor Jordan’s The Informers was when the film premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. Not only was it my first time at Sundance, it was my first festival, period. And The Informers was my very first film at that festival. I sat down, impossibly eager to get the festival underway, pumped that I was about to see the first film adaptation of my favorite author in seven years. And, if you’ve seen the film, you know where I’m going.
A fucking disaster. That’s what I thought roughly 20 minutes into the film. I sat perplexed, wondering what the hell I was watching. This certainly couldn’t be based on one of my favorite books. And there’s no way its screenplay is actually co-written by Ellis himself.
Not surprising, no one from the film was there to give a Q&A following that screening, and since then, most have denounced it as a massive misfire, Ellis most prominently. So, in short, don’t ever bother with The Informers. It isn’t so bad it’s good, it isn’t a film that might contain some potential somewhere, it’s simply a disaster from scene one. Goddamn shame. D-
What Ellis Said
“You need [a director] who grew up around here. You also need someone with an Altman-esque sense of humor, because the script is really funny. The movie is not funny at all, and there are scenes in the movie that should be funny that we wrote as funny, and they’re played as we wrote them, but they’re directed in a way that they're not funny. It was very distressing to see the cuts of this movie and realize that all the laughs were gone. I think Gregor was looking at it as something else. I think we had this miscommunication during pre-production that it’s not supposed to be played like an Australian soap opera.”
Other Possible Film Adaptations
Glitterati (Novel: 1987... sort of, Film: 2002… sort of)
Smack in the middle of The Rules of Attraction (both in novel and film form) is a brilliant introduction of one of its characters, Victor Ward. For the movie, Roger Avary and actor Kip Pardue spent 15 days in Europe, where Avary documented Pardue staying in character for the duration of their trip. They shot 70 hours of debauchery, and edited it to a four-minute segment for Avary’s film. Glitterati is the feature length film of Pardue’s time in Europe as Victor. And while I would give anything to see, it appears the only real way to view a copy of Glitterati is to become Avary’s personal friend. He has called the film “ethically questionable” and said he will never show it outside of random private screenings. While I understand the reluctance to release it, I can’t imagine that Glitterati is anything short of pure gold.
Glamorama (Novel: 1998, Film: ????)
“Glamorama” is, in essence, an “American Psycho”-type expansion of “The Rules of Attraction.” It centers on Victor Ward getting into all sorts of shit all over the world during the early ‘90s. And although it gets a little too bonkers toward the end, I’m still a fan of the novel, and think it could make for a great film.
It was once rumored that Ellis, Avary and Pardue planned to make “Glamorama” together, but Ellis has since denied that the film is happening. However, in late 2011, Ellis tweeted that he, “Just finished reading Roger Avary’s adaptation of ‘Glamorama’ which he will direct next year. Hilarious, horrific, sad. He’s a mad genius.”
But we all know reliable Ellis’ Twitter feed is.
Imperial Bedrooms (Novel: 2010, Film: ????)
“Imperial Bedrooms” is Ellis’ 25-year follow up to “Less Than Zero,” which finds Clay and Co. all grown up and attempting to tackle the L.A. film scene. It’s Ellis’ weakest novel yet, but, as always, I’d be open to seeing it play out on screen.
When the book was published, Ellis said it would be great for the original cast of the first movie to reprise their roles for the sequel, but noted that was highly unlikely. If Robert Downey Jr. decided tomorrow that “Imperial Bedrooms” was going to be his next film, the movie would be green lit by the end of the day. But I think it’s safe to say that will never happen. One can dream.