Some books are better known as movies. I suspect that I, like many, saw the movie Rosemary’s Baby without ever reading the book. It turns out that they’re very similar. The book takes the action a few minutes beyond the end of the movie, but otherwise they’re quite close. Reading a horror novel where you know everything that’s going to happen isn’t exactly the recipe for thrills and chills, but I’m nevertheless glad to have done it. For a book published as long ago as it was (1967) it still isn’t easily found used. New copies tend to be just as expensive as new books. I just wanted to have a read to see if Roman Polanski stayed close to Ira Levin or not.
Levin had a string of successful novels, but Rosemary’s Baby is probably still his best known. He is quoted as saying he didn’t believe in the Devil and felt guilty that his book (and movie) may have led to many people taking on that belief. In many ways Polanski’s movie kicked off the age of modern horror, being released the same year as George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Rosemary, however, opened the door to horror with overt religious themes. It paved the way for The Exorcist and The Omen. The latter, written by David Seltzer, was another example of a movie based on the Devil by an author who didn’t believe in him. Personal belief aside, that trinity of movies remade the horror scene and led to one of the strangest cooperations in cinematic history.
In the book versus movie scenario often there’s a clear winner. On other occasions the movie is so powerfully made that it overshadows its novel. Rosemary’s Baby, along with The Exorcist, tended to do so. (The Omen was novelized from the screenplay by the screenwriter.) I wonder if that might not be because religion pays right into cinematic representation. The novels, after all, can take several days of reading on a normal workaday schedule. The film, if well done, transports the viewer there for a couple of hours and leaves you feeling as if you’ve been through, in the case of Rosemary, a traumatic pregnancy. It so happened that the unholy trinity of religious horror tapped into that rapt storytelling of which celluloid proves so capable a medium. Still, reading the novel fills in many of the gaps and brings to mind the benefits of the written word. And this is, like a birth, something to be celebrated.