Now that the green haze of tannis root has lifted and the public’s memory of NBC’s four-hour Miniseries Event “reimagining” of Rosemary’s Baby (May 11th and 15th, 2014) is as murky and nebulous as Rosemary’s own chocolate mousse-induced dream; the votes are all in (not very good), the results have been tallied (Rosemary en France a ratings disaster), and the line for I-Told-You-Sos starts to the right.
The idea of adapting Ira Levin’s 1967 novel Rosemary’s Baby
and its much-reviled 1997 sequel Son of Rosemary
into a TV-miniseries has been bouncing around Hollywood for years. In 2005, ABC Television acquired the rights and announced a Rosemary’s Baby
miniseries for its Fall 2006 schedule. When that project failed to materialize, the network made a similar announcement (to similar result) in 2008. In each instance, fans of Polanski's film breathed a collective sigh of relief, attributing the abandonment of each project to an 11th-hour attack of common sense on the part of the producers. Or, at the very least, a dawning awareness of the fool’s journey involved in remaking a film widely regarded as a modern classic and one of Hollywood’s few faithfully rendered adaptations of a popular bestseller.
|Your Worst Fears Realized|
In the "reimagined" Rosemary's Baby, Satanism trailblazer Steven Marcato - seen here exuding more sleaze than menace- looks like a Eurotrash runway model with blue contacts. We're asked to believe he's managed to keep his evil past a secret for decades, in spite of the fact that he looks pretty much exactly like your standard issue, garden-variety, Sunday School image of the Devil.
Having been taken down this road several times before, when I learned that NBC had actually made good on its lingering threat…I mean, promise…to turn Rosemary’s Baby
into a four-hour telefilm, my natural curiosity trumped my innate cynicism. I knew I was going to watch the TV remake, even if only to satisfy my curiosity over what degree of hubris could possibly inspire the kind of delusional, presumptuous, thick-headed arrogance necessary for one to think they should try their hand at Levin’s modern gothic masterpiece. Especially when, in 1968, a young, pre-felony Roman Polanski fairly batted that particular Satanic ball well out of the park.
And that was just my curious side.
My cynical side suggested to me that the producers, in lieu of trying to arrive at a reasonably fresh approach to justify the need to retell a story already quite expertly told, merely went in search of a marketing hook. One such hook was the simple updating of the story. A lazy but valid pandering to those viewer factions devoted to never watching anything older than the age of their cellphones. The other hook was tried and true, "Strike while the iron is hot!" angle. The horror genre was experiencing something of a renaissance on TV. The popularity of the FX Network’s anthology series American Horror Story: Coven
temporarily made witches relevant again, and NBC’s own blood-soaked Hannibal
has shown there to be a viable market for network-suitable horror. With these two ratings hits on the charts, Rosemary’s Baby: the redux
had at last surmounted its most significant remake obstacle: the ascertaining of a distinct ratings demographic to which to pitch its advertising.
|Rosemary's Baby - 2014|
Zoe Saldana, Patrick J. Adams, Carole Bouquet, Jason Isaacs
Directed by Agnieszka Holland
Well, after much ballyhoo and yo-yoing anticipation on my part, Rosemary’s Baby: The Miniseries Event
finally premiered. Two evenings, four hours and countless commercials later, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised it wasn't the unmitigated disaster it could have been (à la, the dreadful theatrical remakes of Carrie
), but annoyed that the filmmakers hadn't been able to seize upon anything pertinent enough to the times we live in to either justify a remake or discourage comparisons to Roman Polanski’s incontestably masterful 1968 original. (Two excellent examples of “remakes” successfully distinguishing themselves from their originals are Kate Winslet’s HBO miniseries adaptation of Mildred Pierce
 and Martin Scorsese's brilliantly intense revisit to Cape Fear
The original Rosemary’s Baby
is more than just an ingeniously realized thriller; it’s a deceptively subtle commentary on the enduring nature of evil, the vulnerability of innocence, and the uncertain relevance of religion in the modern world. It's a film that concludes on a note of moral and psychological ambiguity, leaving you contemplating issues extending far beyond the parameters of Levin's story. By way of contrast, NBC’s version, with roughly 30 more minutes at its disposal, was so plot-driven and devoid of subtext, I found myself not even thinking about the broader “Is God Dead?” ramifications of what it means for the living son of Satan to be born into the world today (neither does the film), merely wondering about plot points that led nowhere (the whole Roman Castevet/Steven Marcato, eternal youth thing) and scratching my head over how a longer version of Rosemary's Baby
managed to have less
character development. The miniseries left me with nothing, not even a chalky undertaste.
|Minnie & Roman|
|Roman & Margaux|
In the original film, there's a perverse, contemporary wit in having the orchestrators of Satan's plan to overthrow 2000 years of Christian hegemony all look like harmless residents of the nearest nursing home. As much as I adore Carole Bouquet in the remake, the vision of evil this Roman and Minnie (Margaux) represent is as superficial and obvious as one of those Hammer Films from the 60s.
Rosemary’s Baby: The feature film
, is a seminal horror classic, integral in moving the horror film from the B-movie bargain basement into the mainstream. Rosemary’s Baby: The miniseries
, while respectful, ultimately proved itself an innocuous work of professional competency. By any qualitative standard that makes a movie resonate with me (character development, physiological sensitivity, narrative cohesion, use of cinema vocabulary, subtlety) there really is no comparing the two.
However, what does intrigue me is how these two films–so vastly different in approach, yet adapted from the same book–illuminate the intricacies involved in adapting a novel to film. Forty-six years have transpired between these disparate book-to-screen adaptations of Levin’s 1967 bestseller; and what is reflected in the artistic choices taken by the filmmakers says as much about how significantly movies have changed over the years as it does about our culture.
NOTES ON AN ADAPTATION
First off, let me address the word, “reimagined.” There is no such thing. Like the Devil, reimagined is a corporate invention. “Reimagined” is “remake” with its negative connotations surgically removed after first passing through the obfuscating, verbal camouflage of legalese and marketing. Rosemary’s Baby on Ice
?: now we're talking reimagined. Rosemary's Baby
as Kabuki theater performed by The Muppets?: that's reimagined. Merely updating it, moving it to Paris, and throwing superfluous characters and elements from The Omen
and 666 Park Avenue
into the mix...that's a remake. A desperate, starved-for-ideas remake, but a remake, nonetheless. If you doubt it, imagine what would happen if every year they gave an Oscar or Emmy for Best Remake; the word "reimagined" would go the way of the word "rerun" (which we all know has transmogrified into "encore presentation").
(In the interest of brevity, Rosemary’s Baby
and its remake will hereafter be referred to as RB1
The Manhattan setting of RB1
is a purposeful upending of traditional horror genre conventions. In lieu of a gothic tale of ancient evil set in a dark, abandoned castle somewhere in Europe, RB1
stages its horrors in broad daylight, in the middle of a crowded city, framed against the steel and glass backdrop of New York City, circa: 1966. A Western Age of Enlightenment where reason and logic have replaced fear and superstition. A world where science rules -“I want vitamins in pills, like everybody else.”
; our welfare is entrusted to authority figures -“He’s very good. He was ‘Open End.’”
; and religious faith has grown irrelevant -“I was brought up a Catholic. Now I don’t know.”
Contemporary culture’s disavowal of all things spiritual -“There are no witches, not really,”
coupled with the credence granted surface appearances -“Honey, they’re old people, and they have a bunch of old friends….”
is precisely how it is possible for an unimaginable evil to flourish, undetected, right under everyone’s noses. RB1
plays with our notions of safety by showing us how easy it is for evil to hide in plain sight.
|Standing in for The Bramford, La Chimere: an exclusive Paris apartment building|
is a departure from gothic tradition, RB2
is more a reversion to type. It’s set in Paris, a city more than 10,000 years old, crammed with gargoyles and gothic structures. in short, exactly the kind of place you’d expect
to find witches. Roman Castevet, cast as perhaps the least disarming person you've ever seen in your life, looks about as trustworthy as a Bond villain, and this Rosemary is required to ignore one blatant red flag after another while a virtual torrent of dead bodies piles up around her. Why? For no logical or character-based reason beyond the story demands it. And therein lies the problem with this remake. Superficial changes to location and character description are no substitute for understanding that Rosemary's Baby
has always been more than just a "scary movie." Which is why it has endured. Without making this version be "about" anything other than the mindless tracing of the footsteps of its predecessor; character identification suffers, narrative coherence is lost, and RB2 becomes just another forgettable, plot-driven horror film with nothing to say about anything except, "Boo!"
RB1 was released at a time when the Catholic Church was in a state of reformation. Pope Paul VI (his 1965 new York visit is referenced in the film) took strides to modernize the church’s image, while simultaneously, Christian theologian Paul van Buren was making headlines with his “God is Dead” theories. Into this atmosphere came a horror film whose premise was viewed by many to be a bastardization of the allegory of the Christ child. A reversal of the New Testament Christian myth complete with a divine father figure, a chosen vessel, and a birth–signifying the dawning of a new era–attended by adoring followers.
In Levin's fantasy, Satan, Rosemary (significantly, a lapsed Catholic) and the birth of the anti-Christ, all signaled the dawning of a new Dark Age for the world. A bleak period all too imaginable given the climate of the times (gun violence, political assassinations, urban riots, the Vietnam War). In the socially-conscious world of the 60s, Rosemary's Baby
as a quasi-religious horror parable had an eerie urgency that struck a chord with the public.
No such social urgency occurs in RB2
. To an almost hermetic degree, the real life horrors of today fail to intrude upon the cliche horrors on display in RB2
. Just going from my own idea of what a contemporary embodiment of Satan on earth would be like, I envision him as one of those conservative, ultra-right wing, billionaires using his vast fortune to convince middle class people that the problems of the world are the fault of the poor. He would use his money to help perpetuate fear, oppress the powerless, accelerate global warming, and subtly promote war, gun violence, and international terrorism. That sounds evil to me. A story proposing Rosemary's pregnancy unleashing this kind of evil into the world, I would find compelling, to say the least.
How is ultimate evil embodied in RB2
? The best this movie can come up with is that Satan is like Charlie Sheen crossed with Jack the Ripper. He’s a wealthy whoremonger who hangs around in sex clubs. That’s the entirety of this this movie’s idea of evil, folks. Seriously...one more douche on the planet would hardly be noticed, and as depicted here, Satan comes off like one of those eligible contestants on The Bachelor
Polanski knew the only way RB1
would work was to ground it firmly in a recognizable reality. RB2 goes ludicrously in the opposite direction and situates itself within a reality known only to television. The world inhabited by the Parisian Castevets is of the elite rich (are we supposed to be impressed, or repulsed?); racism is non-existent (the film is either unaware or purposely ignores the implications of what it means to present a solitary black woman at the center of a horror narrative in which she is ceaselessly exploited by a league of white people); and Catholicism plays no part (can't risk offending anyone, for ratings sake). It's a world so artificially realized that some viewers actually thought this Rosemary’s Baby
had a happy ending (!!).
Had Roman Polanski been as enamored of Levin’s spawn-of-Satan plotline as those who’ve unofficially cribbed from it over the years (The Stranger Within, The Devil Within Her, It’s Alive, The Devil’s Advocate, The Astronaut’s Wife), Rosemary’s Baby might have turned out as undistinguished a thriller as the above-listed. In choosing to place the emphasis on character, Polanski puts the supernatural, genre-dictated aspects of the plot in service of the motivations, interactions, and relationships of the principals of the story. This approach perhaps produces a horror film too slow and bloodless for today’s ADHD mode of moviemaking, but mercifully spares us the sort of leaps in logic and character inconsistencies which plague RB2’s more action-driven adaptation.
I've never seen Zoe Saldana in a film before, yet without actually becoming Rosemary for me (or any human being I've ever known, the script has her behaving so erratically), I think she is very good. She's written and portrayed in such a blank matter (so little is provided in the way of narrative thrust for her character, when things start to go horribly wrong, there's no risk placed on any of her goals because she has none).
Saldana is not given much assist with the epically inexpressive Patrick J. Adams, whose sole, all-purpose expression (noodly wimp) supports a Guy Woodhouse that makes absolutely no psychological sense. He's not ambitious enough to be convincingly evil, and seems too slow-witted to be wily. On the plus side, Adams is so unrelentingly awful, his work has the potential of making folks look more kindly upon the subtleties of John Cassavetes' underappreciated performance.
's saving grace and sole element of inspired casting and character is Carole Bouquet's Margaux Castevet. I absolutely love the changes in the character, how she's written, and how she's played. Mysterious, maternal, malevolent, VERY sexy...it's the only part of RB2 to which I'd give an unqualified thumbs up.
|Mrs. Castevet, you're trying to seduce me. Aren't you?|
I've been crazy about Rosemary's Baby
since it scared the crap out of me as a child in 1968. It has always seemed to me such an ideal, perfectly realized film...I never seriously thought anyone would really attempt remaking it. Well, they finally did, and after seeing it, I would be lying if I said I didn't feel a slight sense of vindication in my belief that Polanski's film is precisely Levin's novel, ingeniously adapted, and should be left alone. With Hollywood hooked on so many remakes and continually returning to the well of past successes, a great deal of our culture today seems on a fast track course of mediocrity.
Example: Had NBC's Rosemary Baby
proved a ratings hit, I'm almost positive it would have spawned a series. But who really ever needed to know what happened after Rosemary's child was born? Isn't it more rewarding to have our individual imaginations fill in whatever grim or happy future we envision for The AntiChrist? The notion of a TV series is just another indication that TV too often panders to the literal-minded who are made uneasy by ambiguity. Those who require every detail and consequence S-P-E-L-L-E-D O-U-T.
A genuine, bonafide classic motion picture is a rare thing. When it occurs, maybe we should just let it be and just enjoy it, dated material and all. It has value. Even if only to remind ourselves that excellence, not imitation, is something we should all strive for.
Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby
, the ill-advised 1976 TV-movie sequel to Rosemary's Baby
, is available on YouTube
. Has to be seen to be believed. It stars Patty Duke as Rosemary, George Maharis as Guy Woodhouse, Ruth Gordon (shame on you), Ray Milland standing in for passed-away Sidney Blackmer, and Tina Louise...as The Movie Star.
"You're trying to get me to be his mother."
"Aren't you his mother?"
Copyright © Ken Anderson