Comparing ‘Bates Motel’ to Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’

Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga in 'Bates Motel'
Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga in 'Bates Motel' - Photo Courtesy of A&E

By Roberta Valdez

There has been a renewed interest in Hitchcock lately, witness the theatrical film Hitchcock with Sir Anthony Hopkins & Helen Mirren, the 2012 TV movie, The Girl, and now the A&E TV show, Bates Motel.   Bates Motel stars Vera Farmiga as Norma Bates and Freddie Highmore as her son, Norman Bates. It’s a prequel to the 1960 film Psycho except that it’s set in the present. And there have been other interpretations of the original film or characters: a sequel directed by the star of the 1960 film, Anthony Perkins; a 1987 TV series also titled Bates Motel; and Gus Van Sant’s 1998 color remake of Hitchcock’s original black and white film, also titled Psycho.

The casting of Vera Farmiga is inspired not only because she’s an outstanding actress (a reason in itself to watch the show), but she also has the look of a classic Hitchcock lead.   Tippi Hedren (The Birds and Marnie), Grace Kelly (Rear Window), Kim Novak (Vertigo), and Janet Leigh in the original Psycho, were cool, lovely blondes as is Vera Farmiga.    It’s also quite believable that Freddie Highmore’s Norman could become the Norman of Anthony Perkins’ portrayal. In fact, Nestor Carbonell, who plays Sheriff Alex Romero, bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Anthony Perkins – even if it is coincidental.

The connections, of course, don’t end with casting. While the setting has been changed to a seaside village, much of the action takes place in a creepy-looking old house as in the original, complete with old style furniture and refrigerator, and even a rotary dial phone on the wall (even though the characters use iPhones). There are similar plot points: as in the film, a knife is used in the murder in the first episode of Bates Motel, a bathtub in a motel room plays a role, and the victim is disposed of in a body of water as was Norman’s first victim in Psycho

Janet Leigh in Psycho
Janet Leigh in 'Psycho' - Photo © Paramount Pictures
However, it’s not at all surprising that the depiction of violence in a 2013 TV show and a film released in 1960 is markedly different. There is graphic on-screen violence in the very first episode of Bates Motel, while in the film the violence in the famous shower scene is not actually shown. Hitchcock’s studio, Paramount, tried to discourage him from making the film because the material might be gruesome or seem like exploitation, according to David Thomsen’s 2012 book, Big Screen, a Story of the Movies. Thomsen indicates that Hitchcock worked his way around the censors using camera angles and careful editing. It was also shot in black and black, by nature less realistic.

Hitchcock’s Psycho is an iconic film that definitely has staying power as this latest effort, Bates Motel, shows.

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