I just recently re-read Ira Levin’s chilling horror classic for the umpteenth time, so I thought I’d also look up the even more famous 1968 film adaptation with Mia Farrow.
I had a very vague memory of watching Rosemary’s Baby more than twenty years ago, when both my English and my appreciation of film weren’t really up to scratch, so this might as well have been the first time.
Though it’s commonly cited as one of the greatest horror films ever made, there’s not much actual horror in the movie, and in this era of jump scares and graphic imagery I imagine it would leave a great chunk of the modern-day audiences scratching their heads and wondering what the fuss was all about. Even its understated slow-burn contemporaries such as Don’t Look Now ended things with a heart-stopping gory finale, whereas Rosemary’s Baby (wisely) leaves the final horror faced by its heroine up to the viewer’s imagination. I’d probably describe it as more of a psychological and supernatural thriller about the banality of evil, which brilliantly builds a disturbing, creepy atmosphere of unease.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film adaptation that was more faithful to its source material than Rosemary’s Baby; with the novel still fresh in my mind I could tell when the actors reproduced the original dialogue word for word – which was most of the time. Though the movie streamlines and omits some scenes and details, there are virtually no changes to Ira Levin’s original story about the newly-weds Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse (Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes), who move into an apartment in The Bramford, a picturesquely Gothic New York building with an unsavoury history of witchcraft and cannibalism among other things.
Rosemary does a splendid job redecorating their gloomy apartment while Guy, an up-and-coming actor, is chasing his big break, and everything seems peachy until they’re aggressively befriended by their elderly neighbours, brash and nosy Minnie and worldly Roman Castevet. At first they’re just a mildly irritating nuisance, but is there something more sinister behind their interest in Rosemary and her new pregnancy? Hell yes, with emphasis on “hell”.
Faithful adaptations can often cross into being overly reverent and slavishly dull, amounting to little more than watching your favourite book as a series of moving images, but the greatness of Rosemary’s Baby comes from more than just sticking to the novel and retaining Ira Levin’s mixture of the mundane and fantastical. There’s Roman Polanski’s masterful, elegant direction and a touch of wry black humour, Mia Farrow’s iconic performance as Rosemary, and a strong supporting cast, including Ruth Gordon’s Oscar-winning turn as loud and pushy Minnie, the most unlikely member of a satanic conspiracy you could conjure up.
It’s a bit hard to untangle how much of Mia Farrow’s effectiveness in the role is about a great performance, and how much is about her striking wide-eyed, waifish presence (it’s probably both). Until late into the story, Rosemary in the book is fairly naive and trusting, a good Catholic girl with a strict family background, but Farrow adds an extra layer of fragility and childishness, reflected in her penchant for shapeless frocks and flat little girl shoes. At first I was irked that the movie cut out a part of the book where Rosemary, angry at her husband after he admits to having sex with her unconscious body, shows some spirit of independence and briefly leaves Guy in order to mull over things (that she talks herself into excusing him is still all sorts of wrong in the book, but sadly not at all far-fetched). I suppose that, with this more childlike and passive Rosemary, the movie wanted to save her eventual rebellion against the monstrous gaslighting all around her until much later.
I almost wish I could watch Rosemary’s Baby without knowing the original story inside and out, so that it could keep me guessing about Rosemary’s doubts, suspicions and confusion, and how bad the actual truth really is. Until the finale strips all the ambiguity away, you could see the supernatural elements as a mix of bad dreams and anxieties of a first-time mother, who’s having one of the worst onscreen pregnancies ever and who’s married to an insensitive, egotistical prick. But the film was still gripping to watch, with the imagery that I found unsettling in the book – the hallucinatory nightmare sequence, Rosemary figuring out a secret with the help of Scrabble – made even more vivid.
P.S. Apparently Robert Redford was considered for the role of Guy, before he opted to do another project instead! John Cassavetes does a fine job, but I can’t help but feel that he almost instantly gives the real Guy away with his sinister kind of handsomeness. It would have been interesting to see what darkness Polanski would have unearthed in Redford.
P.P.S. Though the ending doesn’t exactly change, the feel of the ending – Rosemary accepting her new role with that last tender smile – is rather bleaker than in the original novel, where we’re privy to Rosemary’s thoughts and her determination to work against the coven in the future. It works for the film I guess.