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In adapting Rosemary’s Baby, Polanski traded ambiguity for dreadfully inevitable horror

Rosemary's Baby (Photo: Getty Images)
Page To ScreenIn Page To Screen, we compare a movie to the book that spawned it. The analysis goes into deep detail about specific plot points—in other words, you’ve been warned.

When Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby arrived on screens in 1968, it was delivered intact, with the equivalent of the book’s 10 fingers and 10 toes (and yellow eyes) all accounted for.

The film—a slow burn of a thriller about expectant mother Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) and the baby-crazy satanists next door—is about as faithful as an adaptation can be. It didn’t adjust anything major about the book’s structure, and it even keeps a decent chunk of the dialogue verbatim. It tracks the book so closely that if you calculate when certain events occur (as a percentage of the total running time/pages), they match up nearly exactly.

According to the introduction in the paperback edition (written by Otto Penzler, an editor of mystery fiction), Polanski, who also wrote the script, “was almost obsessive about following the author’s story.” He even asked “such questions as, what do you think is the color of Rosemary’s dress in this scene? And what is the date of the issue of The New Yorker in which [husband] Guy Woodhouse sees a shirt he wants?” (Levin, Penzler added, “had no idea how to answer.”)

This fidelity extends to the story’s themes. Rosemary’s Baby is a quintessential work of feminist horror; the book was published in 1967, a few years after the widespread introduction of the birth control pill, and it’s hard to not read it as being about the backlash to women’s lib. (Levin’s other lasting title, The Stepford Wives, does something similar.) The villains of the story are those who force child-making decisions on Rosemary, while the most explicitly evil moment is one of spousal betrayal, hardly a supernatural occurrence. While it’s era-appropriate, Levin’s and Polanski’s decision to have the satanists characters frequently refer to Rosemary as “Mrs. Woodhouse” rather than by her own name (as her friends do) underlines how she’s subsumed by her husband and his identity. Notably, when Guy takes a book about witchcraft from Rosemary and places it out of her reach, Polanski shows him putting it atop the Kinsey studies about sexuality.

With reproductive rights still (especially now) under siege, the story retains a queasy kind of resonance today. When Rosemary’s male OBGYNs lie to her and favor their agendas over her desires and safety, it’s an uncanny parallel to the doctors today who refuse to provide birth control or abortion based on their personal politics or, shall we say, religious views. Rosemary’s Baby has somehow escaped the remake treatment pressed on famous horror titles—outside of a dull 2014 miniseries with Zoe Saldana—but a version where she wants to terminate her pregnancy but can’t would be an easy way to give it modern-day potency.

Because of the film’s faithfulness to the book, Rosemary’s Baby is an interesting test case for considering what makes literary horror work compared with cinematic horror. (The Shining, the other example of an acclaimed horror book becoming an acclaimed horror film, is a study of contrasts, comparing how different the two are.) While the two tell the same story, in basically the exact same way, they’re quite different to experience, and in ways that are illuminating about the different characteristics of their respective formats.


The biggest difference between the two versions is this: If you were to chart how tense the book is on a page-by-page basis, it would be a steady slope upward, with a spike at the end. The film, in contrast, has its big spike midway through—if you know the story you can no doubt guess the scene—operating at a comparatively low boil elsewhere. (For as often as Rosemary’s Baby is named as one of the great horror films, there’s only one moment that qualifies as a traditional scare: When it is suddenly revealed that someone is not alone in her apartment.)

Part of this is a simple issue of time. Levin’s version is relatively short for a book, at 245 breezy pages, while Polanski’s is 136 minutes, on the longer side for a film (especially a horror one). Even though it’ll take most less time to watch the movie, it feels expansive in a way the book doesn’t, allowing the tension to ebb and flow rather than accumulate.


But the bigger issue is how Levin and Polanski depict the most important scene of the story. In order to further his acting career, Guy “gives” his wife to the satanists. During an occult ritual, she is raped by Lucifer as part of a plan to birth the antichrist and bring on a new reign of darkness.

What’s important to remember about this sequence is that it’s an event Rosemary doesn’t understand. Having been roofied via drugged mousse, she experiences the violation in a blur of fantasy and reality. (Guy takes credit for the next morning: “kind of fun in a necrophile sort of way.”)

In the book, the reader is just as adrift as Rosemary in understanding what is and isn’t real. While some of the details turn out to be accurate—the satanists are watching the ordeal and painting her body—Levin also transports her consciousness across locations and has her speak with people who aren’t there. At one point “Jackie Kennedy” cameos, which makes sense in a dream-logic kind of way, and supports the idea that the rape was a bizarre and violent nightmare. The book drops some clues that Guy isn’t the rapist—Rosemary thinks he’s wearing “a suit of coarse leathery armor” and recognizes that the penetration feels different: “bigger he was than always; painfully, wonderfully big”—but these are easily brushed off as confused details or byproducts of the drugs. The full details of what happened, including who exactly was so big and leathery, aren’t revealed until the final pages. That sudden reveal—which pulls together and gives context to all the clues Levin carefully parceled out before—is what makes the book so unforgettable.


In contrast, the film makes what transpires explicit (to the audience, not to Rosemary). Polanski features some surreal imagery, such as a bed floating on water, but it’s easy to suss out what parts are hallucinations and what parts are the ritual. (His direction of this sequence is masterful, the editing creating the impression of a vortex by spinning through repeated images faster and faster. He also uses nudity very effectively: Each step deeper into horror coincides with a cut to Rosemary’s chest or rear, underlining her vulnerability.)


Because those parts, the comparatively realistic parts, are where Satan appears—his eyes get a close-up and Rosemary is shown pawed by leathery claws—there’s more confirmation than shock at the climax, which means there’s more dread than uncertainty leading up to it. As Roger Ebert put it, “When the conclusion comes, it works not because it is a surprise but because it is horrifyingly inevitable. Rosemary makes her dreadful discovery, and we are wrenched because we knew what was going to happen—and couldn’t help her.” The few seconds where Satan is an onscreen character creates an entirely different viewing experience than would have been otherwise.


Polanski’s method was a storytelling choice—had he wanted the same ambiguity as the book, to achieve the same shock ending, he could have simply left Lucifer on the cutting-room floor—but his hand was also likely forced by the nature of his art form. Within the context of the scene, his imagery could only be interpreted in so many ways, especially given the differences in realism between the floating bed and the apartment. So, rather than playing coy with what happened, he barrels straight ahead and uses the audience’s knowledge to his advantage.

Levin does the same with his readers’ lack of knowledge, and this, too, seems related to the medium he worked in. In the case of the rape scene, he was able to slip between fantasy and reality far more seamlessly than Polanski could, and he leaned into that ambiguity. Compared to the objective way a film can be seen (if not experienced), prose can be envisioned in any number of ways by the reader, and it’s usually interpreted in the way that’s most effective for them. Consider this: Once Beelzebub Jr. is born, Levin has dialogue that refers to the brat’s tail and budding horns. Those lines, while fairly central to the total shock of the ending, are among the rare ones that Polanski drops. Why? It could be that what’s haunting and horrifying when read in your head risks sounding silly when spoken aloud, regardless of the actor’s delivery. While film directors have more tools at their disposal than a writer—editing, music, etc.—there are certain ways that they’re more limited.


In the case of Rosemary’s Baby, both Levin and Polanski told their story based around the strengths and limitations of their art form. The question of which format was better for the story is debatable, but it’s safe to say that both did what was more appropriate for their medium. Ultimately, that’s all you can ask of an adaptation.

Start with: Rosemary’s Baby feels like the Polanski movie, in that it features all the themes that would obsess him throughout his career: the occult (seen elsewhere in MacBeth and The Ninth Gate), sex-related family betrayal (Chinatown), a woman losing her grip on reality (Repulsion), even the trials of apartment living (The Tenant). And of course, it’s impossible to take a Polanski story that revolves around roofies and rape and not connect it to his drugging and raping a teenager (an event that occurred after Rosemary’s Baby was made).


That said, it isn’t his best work. While it has no real flaws in technique or storytelling, and it features strong performances by the major players, the film feels somewhat removed, lacking the emotional immediacy of The Pianist or the psychological power of Repulsion. One of the things that makes the story of Rosemary’s Baby so effective is that the supernatural elements are a small part of an otherwise realistic world (to play Guy, Polanski cast John Cassavetes, the patron saint of naturalistic cinema). Perhaps he overdid on this element. This is an art version of a pulp novel that needs a bit more pulp.

Polanski’s version is worth experiencing, but pound for pound, the book is the more successful version. If possible, set aside a few hours so you can read it all in one go. Just make sure the doors are locked.


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