Rosemary’s Baby: Novel and Film

Rosemary’s Baby screenplay is famous for being true to the book; since it is general knowledge, I’ll touch on the differences between the two. My analysis will consist of two parts, the first dealing with the changes necessary for a rendering of a novel to the screen, the second with the essential difference in the message.

1. Form

The screenplay (that is, the adaptation, which Polanski did himself – the first time ever he adapted a book and, to my knowledge, the only time to date he has worked on a screenplay without anybody’s cooperation) was nominated for the Oscar (didn’t get it, though, and it is my only issue with The Lion in Winter, which did). It is, indeed, a paragon of adaptation – and the whole movie is a paragon of how a book should be translated into cinema.

The three devices used are: trimming; (less often) adding; translating. It’s a great pleasure to watch the devices work, how everything unnecessary is pruned, and much of text is replaced by a gesture, a grimace, a movement of the camera, change of light – a visual.

1. 1. Additions

Sometimes, very seldom, a whole new line is added. In the book, quite a big part of the beginning served to get it across to us that Guy is a born liar, someone lies come easy to (“You’re a marvelous liar”, Rosemary says). In the movie, he is introduced with a lie: “Are you a doctor?” Miklas asks, to which Guy promptly replies, “Yes”. It is a quick reaction, immediate, spontaneous lie, unlike his later Hamlet and Sandpiper remark, which is an obvious joke.

Most of the first part of the movie serves to emphasize Guy, to undermine his credibility. He is intense, impatient, restless, - it’s he who stops and looks at the workman (in the book, it’s the other way: “A workman at a sculptured green door marked 7B looked at them and turned back to fitting a peep scope into its cut-out hole.”) and even into that other apartment; he touches everything, even flushes the toilet. Another line added (“There’s mint and basil.” – “No marijuana?”), serves to describes the era and the background.

There’s a lot of television in the film, including the Yamaha commercial, one of Guy’s few career achievements. We actually see it (a sorry sight indeed), as well as the happy, worshipping Rosemary who drops everything at the first sounds of the commercial and runs to watch. Later on, Guy is rehearsing his part in the play – with words (omitted in the book); the walls are decorated by the posters from the two plays he appeared in.

In the first culmination scene, Rosemary is wearing a red suit. Christian color symbolism is thoroughly pursued in the film. Except this moment, Rosemary wears either white (purity, innocence), or blue (Virgin Mary), or, rarely, yellow (hope); even at the funeral, she isn’t dressed in black. Now that Guy suggests that they make a baby, she puts on red: color of martyrdom. The only other red she wears in the movie is the skirt, when she is given the “good-luck charm”, and the dress at the party - after which, still in red, she’ll feel the baby move for the first time.

1.2. Trimming

To make the lease story less complicated and fit it into one short dialog in the street, the Bramford apartment in the film is “bigger and more expensive” than “the other”, instead of the other way round. (The “patched carpet”, by the way, becomes broken tiles, as visibly more conspicuous)

The visions part is too good for words. She closed her eyes. The bed was a raft that floated on gentle ripples, tilting and swaying pleasantly.” I think everyone who’s ever seen the film will remember this moment even if he forgets the rest. The visions appear on the screen precisely as they are written in the book (the means by which the dreamlike quality is achieved surpass my means of describing them), with one exception: the pope’s ring. “its stone was a silver filigree ball less than an inch in diameter; inside it, very tiny, Anna Maria Alberghetti sat waiting”. The filigree ball is there, but Anna Maria isn’t: what’s ok in verbal form might be ridiculous and/or distracting in visual.

In the film, Dr.Sapirstein is not explicitly defined as a Jew. “He’s a brilliant man,” says Castevet in both the book and the film, but “with all the sensitivity of his much-tormented race” (book) becomes just “very sensitive”.

The whole black candles matter is omitted altogether, apparently as too obvious. Nor does Minnie say “have a fine healthy baby; that’s all the thanks we’ll ever ask for.” – probably for the same reason. I think that’s also why the painting that should be “nude men and women dancing in a circle” became something different in the film, but I haven’t been able to decipher the meaning of that other picture yet (any help appreciated).

Trimming also works for characterization. Baumgart (Tony Curtiz’s voice on the phone) says, in the novel: “I’ve only broken six glasses today, only fell down three flights of stairs, and only went tap-a-tap-tapping in front of two speeding fire engines! Ever day in every way I’m getting better and better and better!” It is a disgusting display of self-pity masquerading as self-irony, calculated to make the listener admire the presence of spirit of the sufferer (something I personally hate like few other things on earth); in the film, he just says, “I’ve only broken six glasses today,” which is truly self-irony, commanding respect; no jarring note distracts us from the sympathy towards Baumgart, thus nothing prevents Guy’s deed from impressing us as thoroughly vile.

Likewise, the following dialog is much neater in the film:

“Go look at His hands,” Minnie said. “And His feet.”
And His tail,” Laura-Louise said.”
And the buds of His horns,” Minnie said.

Tail and horns on a baby – in a movie - can’t honestly be perceived as horrible: it reminds of Halloween costumes and toy devils; in other words, it’s overdoing it to the extent it becomes funny, cartoonish. In the film, Minnie says, “Look at His hands,” – and Laura Louise gushes, “And His feet!!” in a way that can’t help but provoke a nervous laugh (typically Polanski kind of laugh: when you can’t help it but know that the joke is on some fundamentals of human existence, ultimately on you), and for precisely that split second the development of events allows you, your imagination is working on what those “hands” and “feet” might be.

1.3. Translating

Their dinner with Hutch doesn’t take place at a restaurant, but at Hutch’s home: he had to be introduced non-verbally, and his apartment tells all we need to know about him. They – in the film only - eat lamb, by the way, one of the many Christian symbols scattered all over the movie.

I already spoke in my other reviews of how important it is for Polanski to introduce a character just right; Guy was introduced with a lie, Hutch in a typical old-friend situation (getting the lamb out of the oven) and bookworm environment. Now, the Castevets, like in the novel, are introduced as a voice from behind the wall (“Roman, bring me some root beer!”), but the context is different. In the film, the Woodhouses are for the first time in the apartment, empty, echoing, and dark. The voice comes as a jarring note. It is funny, too, and they laugh –and immediately after this Rosemary walks to re-inspect the closet we already have uneasy feeling about. Not only have the neighbors startled us in that dark, echoing solitude; the neighbors and the closet that was mysteriously barricaded are now associated.

Theresa Gionoffrio, who in the book looked like Anna Maria Alberghetti, in the movie looks like Victoria Vetri (it’s the real name of Angela Dorian, the actress who plays Theresa); when they see her dead, the book says Rosemary wheeled, eyes shut, right hand making an automatic cross”. She does cross herself in the movie, but you only see it on rewatch: she is standing with her back to us, and the movement of her hand is hardly visible, although recognizable. It’s a typical Polanski trick: not to let the cat out of the bag too soon, but to test the watcher instead. One must know where to look.

A perfect example of translating text to image is the sequence of the morning after the impregnation: in the book we have a few pages on how “now, looking back over the past weeks and months, she felt a disturbing presence of overlooked signals just beyond memory, signals of a shortcoming in his love for her…”; in the movie - three clear pictures: her sitting at the table almost motionless, seen through two white doors, once moving her cup (one single, distinct sound); her opening the window wide; taking the shower.

Another example is when she is in bed, caressing her belly. Her thoughts of various hazards (leading to wearing the “good-luck charm”), are expressed by the sound of a police siren.

My absolute favorite is, too, both visual and auditory: to make it totally clear for us that it was the Castevets’ bell we heard ringing when Guy went out “to get ice-cream”, it rings immediately in the next scene, and we see Rosemary push the button. The timing is flawless. The first scene fades out, and the bell rings when we haven’t yet forgotten what it sounds like, but with enough delay so we know it’s not the same moment; and we hear it before we see anything, not to be distracted by a visual – then we see that it’s Rosemary, and the idea is formed.

The classic example (another thing everyone usually remembers) is how her confusion is expressed: in the book there are long speculations about the Fantasticks night and Band-Aid on Guy’s shoulder etc; in the movie, it’s her famous walk across the street in the middle of traffic (filmed with a hand-held camera by Polanski himself, by the way, since the cameraman refused – a documented fact).

When she is told by Doctor Hill to do another blood test, she marks it in her calendar. Book: “…in the next day’s square wrote Lab”. Film: she writes “BLOOD” in bold red letters.

A short sentence - ‘she got a Vidal Sassoon haircut – brings forth the visual solution of her transition from a [nominally] free woman to the painted bird, the chosen victim. The face, the neck, the collarbones – a concentration camp prisoner. Mark that it’s when she appears in this new image that she first complains of pain. (In the book, Joan says “You look like Miss Concentration Camp of 1966,” but Polanski, understandably, left it out.)

Through many pages of the novel, she remembers the information from the witchcraft book, and replays the situations in her mind. In the film there are no flashbacks. The only Polanski movie that includes flashbacks of any kind is Bitter Moon, where it is an important structural element. At the moment, I can think only of three other movies where flashbacks are structurally necessary: Casablanca, Itinéraire d'un enfant gâté, and El secreto de sus ojos; most anywhere else it’s just a lazy device – with the exception of Nolan films where everything hinges on the elaborateness of structure. Rosemary, in the film, just goes and buys another two books, from which she gets another two crucial concepts; her analysis of the events is reserved for her talk with Dr.Hill, which, as we will see later, kills quite a few birds with this stone.

A man with his back to the booth turned as she came out; he wasn’t Dr.Sapirstein though, he was somebody else” becomes a wonderful cameo appearance of William Castle, the producer.

When Sapirstein comes to take her from Dr.Hill’s, Guy stays in the background, and his face stays in the shadow - unless he talks to her; then recedes back to the dark.

Some other delightful details: “They had a car. Mr.Guilmore was driving it” – the unforgettable smile when Guilmore turns to her. People tiptoeing behind her back when she is sure she’s finally safe. In Castevet’s apartment, the burning church is on the right, as it should be, but on the left, visible through the open door, there is – Sabbath or no Sabbath - the tiny bathroom with a mop and Jokes for the John on the can. Laura-Louise pulls her tongue at Rosemary when sent to sit with the others. And so on.

And finally, another of my favorites:
In the film, Rosemary doesn’t drug her sentinel (that spares her uttering the rather weak “Yes, I killed her. I stabbed her to death. And I cleaned my knife and I’ll stab to death whoever comes near me”, which is neither here nor there), but Guy comes in, without noticing her. In case we doubted she was ready to do anything at that moment, we are given a thoroughly unsettling image: the empty (no, worse: containing a doll) cradle rocks, and, lest it be noticed, she stops it with her gleaming knife.

This article is already too long, and I am only halfway through, so I won’t dwell on the sound here (Komeda’s music, Mia Farrow singing the theme, Beethoven’s Fur Elise, the metronome etc); I think I will try to write something on how Polanski uses sound later.

2. Essence

2.1. Evil is Not Charming

At some moment, the neighbors, who used to be only voices behind the wall (in the film, by the way, the chants are first heard when Guy and Rosemary start making love), appear, walking towards us like on music-hall stage. And the way Minnie looks and behaves is dramatically different from the way she is described in the book.

…a tall, broad, white-haired woman (.. later: “her hips and thighs were massive, dabbed with wide bands of fat.”) wrapped in light blue, with snow-white dabs of gloves, purse, shoes, and hat.” Fat chance. No, she is all gaudy, lurid - rouged cheeks, costume jewellery and all, - like a mummified bird of paradise, and though her hat and gloves and bag are actually white, the image created is totally different, - consistently different, throughout the film. Her image in the book vs. same in the movie is that of a Protestant matron vs. a Jewish auntie.

Here, in the movie, she, with her exaggerated grimaces, is a comical figure, a caricature; watch what is done with such a simple sentence as “Mrs.Castevet put on her glasses and looked at her.” All her mannerisms, exclamations, sneers, her talks without full stops, where an affirmative sentence turns into the next, interrogative, without a slightest pause, all about her is comic.
Such people can’t be scary because they are laughable. They just can’t be taken seriously. They are here for our entertainment and mild annoyance. They don’t pose a threat. Look at her doing things: later on, in their apartment, when dishing out the cake, she steadies the piece with her finger, right in the middle of the cream, and actually licks it before handing the plate to Guy; when she gives him a second helping, she doesn’t bother with the spatula and uses her own fork. Or how in the finale she pulls the knife out and rubs over the scratch in the floor. (Ruth Gordon got her well-deserved Oscar for this, thank God.)

Different as the two Minnies are, the message is the same: Satan’s minions are not charming. I feel that Levin was more inclined towards the witches being just every-day people, while Polanski emphasized their grotesqueness – they are the worst of every-day people: just like you and me, only much, much more so, - but the point is very much alike: there’s no fascination about them. Both the book and the film insist that that evil is not attractive – it is, actually, the main message of all Polanski films – evil in general, and Satanism in particular (see also the pathetic Satanists in The Ninth Gate); seeing the witches with their middle-class middle-age bodies is so funny it’s creepy. No romantization of evil or Satan here.

While casting, Polanski (who didn’t know anyone in Hollywood at that time), drew pictures of how he imagined the characters, and gave the sketches to the casting director. All the characters, down to the ones who only appear for a minute, are awesome; my second favorite (after Minnie) is, of course, Laura-Louise. The “short, plump, and smiling”, as she is described in the book, doesn’t begin to describe the awesomeness of that face and figure. She is not crocheting, by the way, when they come to Rosemary, nor is Minnie darning – they are, respectively, embroidering and knitting. No changes were made for no reason: embroidering is funny in itself (you don’t only come uninvited – no, you install yourself, like, forever: with an embroidery hoop), and knitting looks sinister to anyone familiar with European history.

There are, however, more significant changes.

2.2. Ambiguity, Carole and the Tenant

One of the essential differences between the book and the film is quite evident: an agnostic (“I don’t believe, period”), Polanski couldn’t honestly depict a woman impregnated by Satan. Tons of stuff have been written on this by critics, so I’ll try to make a point that is a little different.

The film only gives us Rosemary’s point of view (typical Polanski – of his 19 films, 9 give only the POW of one main character). He says that the book “was almost written in the first person”, but literature as a medium, unlike cinema, actually has this possibility – writing in the first person - and Levin did not use it. The third person confirms that the events actually happened. In the film we just don’t know. It might very well be her delusion (as critics point out), or, as I am inclined to think, the group insanity of the Satanist circle becomes contagious and swallows her.

There’s really no such thing as “Apartment Trilogy”, largely invented by critics; but there definitely are three movies: Repulsion, The Tenant, and Rosemary’s Baby, - whose main action takes place inside an apartment (which is itself an important character), and that tell about growing paranoia. In Repulsion, all menace is imaginary; in The Tenant, as I argued here, the grotesqueness of the visions is only a bizarre form given to the actual horrors existing quite independently; Rosemary’s Baby is strategically placed in between.

Her growing insanity – in the film, not in the book – is of little doubt. See her giggle in that phone booth: “All of them. They were all in it together. All of them witches”. It’s a clinical moment.

When she finally gets to Dr.Hill and tells him everything, there’s no direct speech in the book; all we know is “she tried to keep everything coherent and in sequence but she couldn’t. She got it all out without getting hysterical though…”

What we actually see in the movie is a totally undone, crazy woman who says things like: “He sleeps in pajamas now, you know, he never used to before. He’s probably hiding a mark. You know they give you marks when you join.” What with her good-girl earnestness and intense sincerity, all her mannerisms are those of a schizophrenic. “They hold Sabbaths there,” she carefully articulates, emphasizing the word Sabbaths with a little nod, looking directly in Dr.Hill’s eyes. “You can hear them singing through the wall.” And so on, till she tops it with, “I’ve got books here, look!” and she gets down on the floor to reach into her trunk. Certifiably insane.

She may be insane all right; but there’s no doubt that the nice people next door are after her. Whether their reasons are rational (and Satan actually exists), or merely delusional, is not very important in the context of the film. They are after her; they’ll get her. Because they are an organized group, and she is alone. Because she is a living (living = able to suffer, in Polanski’s metaphysics) soul, and they are agents of the implacable order of the universe. Thus, even if she is insane, her insanity is closer to Trelkovsky’s than to Carole’s.

There’s another message, too, one I am not sure the director meant exactly as I see it.

2.3. Hail, Mother

The matter-of-fact, detached narrative in the book (what Polanski called a perfect material for a screenplay) doesn’t really let us follow the changes Guy undergoes. For example, when she tells him that she is pregnant, we don’t know what his “It’s great!” actually sounds like. In the movie it sounds entirely phony. Guy is much more visibly sliding into evil. Only Rosemary, with her white-and-blue innocence and her horrendous platitudes, could not see that something was desperately wrong.

She is someone who quite seriously says things like “Let’s make this a new beginning, okay? A new openness and talking to each other. Because we haven’t been open.” Or, “when you hear so much about apathy, and people who are afraid of getting involved”. Or “parent figures”. And the worst is just how she says it all, in just the right voice: earnest, solemn and sincere bordering on idiocy. She uses the same kind of intonation while repeating – verbatim! - anything anyone told her, carefully articulating the words.

And it’s something she does all the time. Her speech consists of borrowed words; likewise, her head must consist of borrowed ideas she swallows whole. In the novel, she reads Dumaurier and Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and professes her love of Dickens; no such luck in the film. What she reads is Yes, I Can, and her bookshelf contains books of the same kind. If given enough time and a chance to develop, in a couple of decades she would have evolved into Foster’s character in Carnage.

Levin’s Rosemary has doubts, tries to find out the truth: she speaks to Minnie about Roman’s father, and to Guy about how he knew Dr.Shand played the recorder. Polanski’s Rosemary does nothing of the kind. She believes everything as unreservedly as she will believe anything, and as unreservedly abandons her beliefs when another set of ideas turns up. It used to be God and the Bible; then it was modern values and Yes, I Can. It was Guy and the Castevets and Dr.Sapirstein; then it was what she read in a book. This is how I personally see it: a soul that has turned away from God fills with all kinds of stuff, and becomes an easy prey.

That is why the ending is so hopeless.

Polanski disposed of Levin’s ending, with Rosemary’s little victories, which gave the reader hope that something – “positive influence”, most likely – could actually change things, or at least that we don’t know how things might turn up now that she proved to be strong and cool. The film stops when she starts rocking the cradle, with a look on her face which may be mother’s fondness or irreversible madness, or both. Considering her history of accepting beliefs, there’s no doubt for me that the Satanists got their strongest, most loyal adept now. Just give her time to empty her head of one set of ideas and fill it with another, and she will earnestly, solemnly, sincerely, articulately preach the gospel according to the Castevets. Hail, Mother.


Barbara maestra said...

Very well written. Here's a reference I believe is new to Rosemary's Baby critique. A life long Polanski fan, "Dr. Saperstein " was my sarcastic reference to the arrogant, ill-informed physicians we all have known. I was in a Torah study group ( I'm an agnostic Jew) when I read the introduction to a highly respected 19th century interpretation - THE SAPERSTEIN version.....apparently well known to observant Jewish scholars - but new to me. Seems the
Saperstein edition to the Chumash (bible) has yet to be discovered by Polanski critics!

Jean said...

Yes, it's definitely something to look into! Thank you Barbara!

Anonymous said...

The painting in the film is Goya's 'Witches Sabbath'.

Jean said...

Thank you Anonymous!

Kal said...

thank you for this! interesting read... and it seems as expected Polanski no doubt improved the whole thing.

Jean said...

Indubitably! Which, as you said, was to be expected.

Thank you for commenting!

Sheleeza Khan said...

I'm so happy I found your page ! I am obsessed with this movie and am just now starting the book. Your dissection is amazing. I can't wait to start comparing. Thank you very much !

Jean said...

Thank you Sheleeza! It's great to see that my thoughts can be helpful - and I am so happy (even proud :))that you are happy! I understand obsession with a Polanski film - am totally obsessed with The Tenant.

Thank you!

Preta said...

Really enjoyed what you wrote here, thought provoking as well, having a bit of trouble with the "main idea" of the movie (haven't read the book though).

Anonymous said...

Brilliant analysis, I watched the movie for the first time in decades as they ran it continuously on a network that I had never watched before. Commercial breaks included very funny camp humour directed at the movie. I am now going to watch it closer and read the Levin book that I might to read decades ago.

Thank you for rkindling my interest