Down the Rat Hole with Stephen Gilbert's Ratman's Notebooks (and the two and half films it's hatched) By Joseph Christiana, June 2012 written for Monster Librarian
I usually tell myself that it's just idle curiosity, but that's always a lie. If I were to be honest with myself (and with you), I'd have to admit that I mostly use whimsy as a pretense to keep my stodgy conscious mind from making its rational decisions so the darker parts of it can roll around in the grime and the muck.
Rats, for instance: I couldn't actually admit that I'm almost compulsively fascinated with them. (See, I can't even bring myself to say obsessed.) My rational mind would never allow such a disreputable figure of the animal kingdom to consort with my majestic lions and royal bears. So when I took a look at the wikilist of horror pictures inspired by novels and Willard practically jumped off the screen to grab me by my whiskers, I told myself that I'd take it on, but only in the spirit of capriciousness. It was a lie.
It's the rats; I admit it. I didn't realize it then, but after getting neck deep in vermin, Stephen Gilbert, and the two and a half films his novel Ratman's Notebooks spawned, I know now that I'm perversely drawn to them and always have been in that sort of denying-you’re-an-addict sort of way. There's something primordially disturbing about rattus norvegicus, something that manifests itself in the places where nightmares are written and the screaming begins. But why?
Rats mirror our existence. Where we live and eat and screw and defecate so do our rats, usually just a few feet below our sleeping heads. They live in our shadows, dutifully carrying our diseases. They bask in the rotten, the ugly, and the rancid, swimming in the putrescent rivers of the unspeakable materials we're so quick to whisk away with our alien-blue antiseptic flushes. Let's just say it: they live, happily, among our turds and lakes of urine. And they're nocturnal, so when our conscious minds go into stand-by mode in order to release the stuff of dreams-- our repressed urges and fears-- be sure that the rats are in our tunnels and basements and sewers scuttling along the fetid walls of our darkest desires, rubbing their unctuous hides into the places we refuse to look.
Stephen Gilbert is well aware of all of this. His book, Ratman's Notebooks, is a first person account of a man's intimate relationship with a league of rats. The unnamed anti-hero of the book is a vindictive, emasculated, cowardly son of a domineering mother who constantly badgers him and calls him a disappointment. She instills in him such a prevailing sense of worthlessness that he writes things like, "I'm ashamed of myself for not being more than I am."
Because of his subservience to his mother and the intense love-hate he harbors for her, he's more of an adolescent boy than a man, though technically he's somewhere in his mid-to-late twenties. His father is deceased, but has left behind some big shoes to fill and an impossible battle to win: how do you become the man of the house and prove your worth when the previous in-charge is nothing more than an omnipotent presence you can't even touch, let alone punch in the nose to symbolically claim your manhood?
Well, our Ratboy does it by finding a father-surrogate of sorts in his despotic boss, Mr. Jones. Jones took control of the business Ratboy's father built up and keeps Ratboy in his employ only out of some kind of implicit agreement. The result is that Ratboy desperately clings to a job he hates, suffering a tyrant who treats him like a spoiled brat in need of a good spanking. Adding insult to injury, when Ratboy's mother passes away at the end of the first act, realizing full well that Ratboy's salary is pitifully incapable of maintaining property expenses, Jones "graciously offers" to take over the family house for him.
While all of this bears down on our anti-hero, he finds solace in the company of the family of rats he's saved (instead of exterminating per his mother's orders). He finds his greatest confidant in one particularly bright rodent he names Socrates. In fact, he sleeps with him in his bed.
Before long, the rats become the object of Ratboy's wounded love, his source of power, and his psychological release, performing the criminal acts of spite and vengeance he's too cowardly to carry out himself. This begins with mischievous juvenile hijinks but escalates quickly into more serious criminality.
With his minions growing rapidly in number, Ratboy becomes more brazen and sociopathic, eventually hatching a scheme to exact revenge on his greatest object of aggression: his father/nemesis Mr. Jones. The ensuing climactic scene is truly terrifying, and it’s as surreal as your darkest nightmares and most shameful fantasies.
You only need to know Freud by osmosis to see the drama of Ratman's Notebooks as a fairly obvious Oedipal construct, but employing a sea of rats as the manifestation of the anti-hero's id is a quite brilliant turn of anthropomorphism. Amalgamating and aligning human traits with non-human or inhuman characteristics has been a staple of storytelling since the time of the first cave paintings, and it's been a driving force of the horror genre before it was even so- called, but Gilbert's intent on the exploration of the rat-like human psyche of his main character elevates the story above being a mere tale of schlock-genre horror.
And it doesn't stop there. Gilbert isn't satisfied to merely tell the story of one man's psychoanalytic roller coaster ride into manhood. In fact, perhaps more overtly present in the subtext is the tale's socio-political class struggle. So in the closing pages, when Ratman becomes as much of an avaricious fat-cat big-wig as Jones was before him, he traitorously turns against the very rats that helped him get to his new position of esteem. His ultimate fate soon presents itself, however, and it becomes evident (and illuminating!) that the collective force of the rats was only temporarily in the employ of the individual. Indeed, the rats are the grimy little soldiers of Natural Order, doing what they must to ensure that justice prevails. In any case, it's clear that what Gilbert had in mind was a cautionary tale that's higher reaching than genre fiction or even individual psychodrama. As such, he did well to leave his antihero nameless.
Unfortunately, you only need look as far as the movie poster art to see that the film versions of the book (Willard, 1971 and 2003 respectively) missed that fine point entirely. By naming the main character, the story becomes solely about that main character, and so the scope of the work is narrowed considerably from Gilbert's vision.
The 1971 Willard, directed by Daniel Mann, is by far the lesser of the two cinematic incarnations. Though it remains relatively faithful in its dramatic construction, very little of the ickiness of Ratman is evidenced in the performance of Bruce Davidson; certainly only dim echoes of his psychological depth remain. Even the rats seem more loveable than willies- inducing or menacing. Generally speaking, the film seems to lack the emotional gravity of its source.
It is true that, at the time of its release, the film was a cult hit and seemed to have struck a chord with the general horror-going public, so you may chalk up my negative response to the film as the cliché you hear so often, that I simply thought "it wasn't as good as the book," and that the film might be good anyway. However, this is not the case here. Granted, the psychological and emotional nuance of a novel is achieved by different means than that of a film, but I submit that any competent filmmaker should be able to translate the nuances of a well-written book effectively—it’s not an impossible task.
The key to a successful novel-to-film translation has something to do with artistic gestalt. The written word engages a reader's imagination on every page—every word, really—because the reader must envision the scenarios presented by the writer: we fill in the story with our own conceptions and experiences. When we're presented with the words "creepy laugh," for instance, we instantly search for a creepy laugh that’s filed in our mental rolodex to graft onto the character who's laughing. In essence, we're collaborating with the author to create the story on that stage that lives in all of our minds, but yet is unique to each of us.
Often, the biggest mistake made by a film based on a book is the attempt to capture, define, and illustrate what's written as efficiently and meticulously as possible. (Ironically, this is usually in an effort to sidestep that "not as good as the book" audience response.) The biggest trouble with this is that the motion picture is inherently an economizing medium. Because so much information is intrinsically presented within every frame of film, illustrating every word that's scrawled on the page is simply not necessary. If it all was wholly recorded and presented, we'd be left with a breathtakingly boring film whose running time would be a week or so. That's OK, maybe, for Andy Warhol, but not so OK when you're trying to sell popcorn. So when a great scene in a book is translated to a commercial film, it is often mistakenly written to play out much more quickly, and all the gravity that was in the novel version is sucked out, and then all of a sudden it’s "not as good as the book."
In contrast, action scenes are easy to film— the cinema loves action. So a chase scene which is usually terribly boring in a book can be extended almost ad infinitum on film, and in the hands of a great action filmmaker it's not only perfectly acceptable, it's perfectly thrilling. (I should mention here that even the action scenes in Willard '71 aren't so great. In fact, they're shockingly unimaginative.)
But the main translation trouble is in conveying the nuances of human drama. The solution has something to do with employing concealment and intimation to get us to "fill in" the story. The best films leave the most terrifying menaces lurking unseen, the most heart-wrenching emotions painfully unspoken. These films tend to jump into scenes in the middle of the action and cut out of them before we're given the resolution; the most mysterious incidents and motivations are left unexplained when the final frames roll. By presenting a tale in this way we find that, like reading a book, we're participating in the story, collaborating with the author (or auteur) because our imaginations are engaged. The trick is to focus on the spirit and major themes of the source material, take a double shot of artistic license, and then endeavor to make a good film, not an audio visual record of the written word. While a complaint can be made that the "movie was different than the book," it'd be difficult to say that "it wasn't as good as it" because basically what you have is your apples to oranges scenario, which you're stuck with any way you slice it.
But, I can say that if you're an Ernest Borgnine fan (and who isn't, really?) Willard '71 is worth a quick look. He does a damn fine job of portraying the bane of Willard's existence, the tyrannical boss, here renamed Martin. Unfortunately, other than Mr. Borgnine's unique variety of charisma (even when he's playing a villain), there's really not much else to recommend about the film.
(By the way, I refuse to even mention Ben, the sequel of Willard '71, at all except to say that its greatest artistic achievement was that it somehow produced Michael Jackson's first “big hit,” and even that was an utterly forgettable composition.)
The 2003 Willard, on the other hand, is one for the books (pun intended). Though it is baffling that Stephen Gilbert's name doesn't appear in the credits at all (the onscreen claim is that the 2003 screenplay by Glen Morgan was based on the Gilbert Ralston 1971 screenplay, though IMDB does list Stephen Gilbert in the writing credits), it gets pretty damn close to the bull’s-eye of the source material's seething tone, psychological gravity, and dark humor. The direction by Glen Morgan is meticulously calculated and painstakingly well-executed. Mark Freeborn's brooding production design and Shirley Walker's gleefully macabre score appropriately references some of the darker cinema of Tim Burton and his go-to composer, Danny Elfman, respectively. Generally speaking, the atmosphere is perfect.
But, the real triumphs here are the performances. The supporting cast is spot on, finding that elusive balance between the looming dread and the wry, black humor that was present in Gilbert's book. Of particular note is Jackie Burroughs as Willard's mother and R. Lee Ermey, whom you'll recognize from his performance as the iconic drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, playing Willard's tyrant of a boss.
But most of all, Willard is the role that Crispin Glover was born to play. He inhabits Willard's torment with a sort of natural ease that makes you think that maybe this role wasn't all that much of a stretch for him. You believe, when he snuggles with a rat and rubs it against his cheek, that he actually loves it in some vaguely perverse way. When he's awkwardly interacting with other humans, you're inclined to look into his soul to try and discern his mysterious inner churnings. You want to know just what the hell it is that's so twisted inside this guy that he is essentially having a love affair with a rat. And, let's just say it, Crispin Glover is creepy in real life, anyway, and he looks more than just a little like a rodent; I say this in the most complementary of ways.
It's worth noting here that unlike the 1971 version, 2003's Willard was not accompanied by a reprinting of Gilbert's book. I suppose that says something about Hollywood (a way to skirt financial or legal obligation?) and the state of reading books in general. Whatever the reason may be, it's an injustice. The copy I was able to dig up fell apart in my hands while I was reading it. Though a quick Google search turned up a few copies to be had for purchase, it seems that the work is on the brink of obscurity. This suggests an urgent argument that our public libraries should play their part to help preserve this book.
So, it's obvious that Ratman's Notebooks gets at least a recommended rating from me. If I were pinned down and forced to lodge some sort of complaint against it, I suppose it would be that the work seemed a little light. It's not necessarily the length of the piece (it's a scant 190 pages, which I read in a single afternoon); many great monoliths of fiction have had fewer pages. The Old Man and The Sea, for instance, weighs in at a hundred and twenty-some pages, but feels like it could go fifteen rounds with Moby Dick at over eight hundred. I suppose what struck me about Ratman's Notebooks is that the book just doesn't resonate as other like- minded novels written as first person journals. (Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes and Dostoevsky's masterpiece Notes From Underground come readily to mind.)
And, perhaps it's the culture from which Gilbert's writing that the narrative voice feels staid. Though the main character is driven eventually to murder, absent is the sense that his soul is performing the strange contortions of true existential crisis. There's no sense of hell's own fury, or irrational self-torture, or the flailing desperation of human extremes.
That said, as a work that's relatively accessible and with obvious relevancy to coming-of-age teen angst, the book would appeal to young adult readers and is worthy of classroom study and discussion as a discourse in Freudian literature; I certainly know I would have appreciated it when I was a kid.
Rats, whimsy be damned, I had a damn fine time with it as an adult.