*WARNING: There may be a few spoilers*
It’s no secret that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is a clear source of inspiration for many contemporary thrillers and horror films. But can the 2013 television show, Bates Motel (based on the novel by Robert Bloch) honestly be regarded as its prequel? Is a TV show set in the modern-day really the best format to narrate Norman Bates’ backstory? In theory it probably shouldn’t work, right? But Bates Motel surprisingly exceeds most, if not all, expectations. It works well for a number of reasons. The show draws much inspiration from the film in a way that is adaptable to the contemporary while remaining true to the characterisations and the narratives of Norman Bates and his mother in Psycho. Here are five ways in which Bates Motel succeeds in its endeavour of establishing itself as a pseudo-precursor to Hitchcock’s timeless masterpiece:
- The characters are completely believable:
This is predominantly down to the actors who play the protagonists Norma and Norman Bates: Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore respectively. If I’m being completely honest, these actors are able to carry the roles so credibly that their performances alone would be enough to make the show a viable prequel to the film. Farmiga plays the overprotective mother effortlessly and Norma’s love for her son transcends so far beyond the screen it is almost tangible. Highmore is also a very convincing Norman as we can almost sense his gradual mental deterioration over the course of each season. There is a notable quality of innocence portrayed both in Norma and Norman’s characters that we can also see with Hitchcock’s characterisation of his own Norman. The difference here is that we actually get to see Norma’s innocence as well as Norman’s. We really believe that this mother has a connection with her son that certainly extends far beyond a closeness we might call a maternal bond.
- The set and costume design stay true to the film while remaining recognisably modern:
An avid lover of Hitchcock will know the iconic Bates’ house, with its looming wooden architecture and eerie quality. Bates Motel retains the design of this house almost to perfection and it even includes the steps that lead down to meet the motel. The tone of Psycho remains intact within the show simply due to this set design, despite it being recognisable within a modern-day timeframe. Norma and Norman’s costumes are a little old-fashioned which helps with their characterisation, but the one thing that makes it believable within a contemporary setting is the costumes of the secondary and minor characters, such as Dylan and Bradley. This allows the protagonists to don old-fashioned attire in order to stay true to their characterisation, while the other characters can be placed within the same contemporary setting as them.
- The backstory is believable and easily adaptable to a modern setting:
I will admit that the overall backstory isn’t difficult to get wrong, but the overarching quality of the show is in the details. We all know Norman has a lot of issues when it comes to his mother, but this show goes beyond these on-the-surface benign issues. It delves deep into the complexities of not only why Norman is the way he is, but why Norma is the way she is. We are obviously given a backstory for Norman, even though we kind of already knew what it was, but Norma’s backstory allows us to feel something for both protagonists that we wouldn’t normally be able to feel for people like them: sympathy. We understand that this single mother has been through hell and back for as long as she can remember, which gives us a pass when it comes to feeling sympathy for her and for Norman as he too carries the weight of his mother’s past with him throughout his entire life. The backstory for the pair is completely convincing and leaves us room to sympathise with them when things go wrong.
- The sub-plots anchor the all-encompassing narrative involving Norma and her son:
Oftentimes sub-plots can be boring and completely irrelevant to the overall narrative of a film or television show. Thankfully, this isn’t the case with Bates Motel. The character that should be given the majority of the credit for this is Norman’s brother, Dylan. While the film never explicitly makes reference to Norman having any siblings, it’s nonetheless forgiven that the show includes one. Dylan is a very likeable character despite his initial hatred of his mother (and her feelings were mutual). His presence also enables a jealous streak of sibling rivalry to be evoked in Norman, as otherwise, his jealously would solely be stemmed from his mother’s romantic relationships. As with the costume design, the sub-plots also cement the timeframe of the show into the modern-day, such as Dylan’s career as a drug dealer.
- The incestuous undertones within the show give credibility to Norman’s behaviour in the film:
We all know Norman has dealt with a serious case of Oedipus Complex from watching Psycho. But what Bates Motel does is it elucidates all of this through Norman’s present juxtaposed with Norma’s past. When we learn that Norma was sexually abused by her older brother as a child we have no trouble empathising with her. We even have a physical manifestation of this incest: Dylan. It’s important that Norman isn’t the product of this incest, otherwise the show would tie everything together within the film a little too neatly. It also allows both Norma and Norman to distance themselves from the possibility that their own relationship could be incestuous. This preserves Norman’s belief both in the film and in the TV show that his mother is the one who is troubled, not him.
Copyright: Anna Ní Chiaruáin, therhymingscheme 2016