“Rosemary’s Baby,” the NBC TV miniseries that premiered on Mother’s Day and concludes on Thursday (no waiting for Father’s Day for part two?), noted in the opening credits that the program was based on two novels by the late Ira Levin, “Rosemary’s Baby” and its sequel, “Son Of Rosemary.”
But if you’ve read both books, as I have, you sure wouldn’t know it.
Unlike the classic 1968 movie by Roman Polanski, which followed the book almost word for word, the miniseries scripted by James Wong and Scott Abbott adopts only the barest bones of Levin’s writing, namely that a young couple get seduced by an older couple who turn out to be big fans of Satan, and are in the market for a surrogate mother for the devil to produce his offspring.
Beyond that, the miniseries goes off in its own direction. Rosemary and Guy no longer live in New York City but Paris, Guy is no longer an actor but an aspiring novelist who works at a university, and the Satanic couple, Roman and Margaux Castevet, are younger and filthy rich.
Watching the miniseries, which was beautifully filmed by a top director, Agnieszka Holland (who did the great Holocaust drama “Europa Europa”), it was hard to believe how quickly it all settled for being predictable, stale and boring. So little of this production worked that all it really made me want to do was shut it off and then toss on the DVD of Polanski’s version.
Polanski’s screenplay, which got an Academy Award nomination for best adapted screenplay in 1969, demonstrates that fidelity to the original source material is not a bad thing at all, especially since the Levin book turned out to be an excellent thriller. What Polanski recognized is there was no need to reinvent the story; following it to a T gave him great material for a brilliant modern day thriller.
Fidelity to the source novel is a formula that Polanski has successfully employed several other times in his cinematic career, including on “The Tenant,” his Academy Award winners “Tess” and “The Pianist,” and “The Ghost Writer.” Each time Polanski adapted a novel, he stayed true to it, and his movies worked that much better as a result.
Nowadays, recreating a classic horror movie is all the rage, and “Night of the Living Dead,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Halloween,” among others, have all been dusted off and used as the source for an updated version, leaving it to the horror purists to decide if the original still reigns supreme or the newer version — in an age of high tech special effects and computer-generated tricks — enhances the scares.
Few, though, seems likely to consider the stale offerings of the “Rosemary’s Baby” miniseries as being superior to the Polanski hit. This was a can of worms nobody should have opened.
Completely reinventing the tale of Rosemary Woodhouse and her ordeal with Satan worshipers didn’t have to be a bad thing. I actually liked the idea of transferring the story to Paris, with its historic and gothic buildings that give the movie a suitably eerie ambiance.
The problem, though, is that the 1967 book and Polanski’s movie set the tale in New York in the mid-1960s – an ordinary place everyone could easily recognize, where a happy young couple find a beautiful new apartment and then hope to eventually have children. It all begins on a very upbeat, hopeful note. Their introduction to an elderly couple living next door hardly seems like the stuff of great scares. Even the suicide of the young woman staying with the Castevets, in an apparent suicide, doesn’t entirely hint of the terrors to come, since the woman was a former prostitute struggling with drug problems.
It’s only very slowly, and insidiously, that the darker elements of Levin’s story come into play. Why is Rosemary’s pregnancy so painful for her? Why do all the elderly folks caring for her insist that’s normal? Only very slowly does Rosemary come to believe there is a plot, a very terrifying one, involving her baby – or is she just paranoid?
The miniseries, though, trumpets “TERROR” from the opening scene, when a young, pregnant woman chastises her husband for selling her out, locks him out of the bedroom, and then tosses herself off the balcony to her death.
In other words: folks, we’re in a scary place from the get-go.
Okay, fine. Next, we learn that Rosemary and Guy endured a trauma when Rosemary suffered a miscarriage, so they relocate to Paris to start their lives over. On the streets of Paris, Rosemary’s purse is stolen, and when she chases the thief and he drops it, she finds another woman’s wallet inside it. She returns the wallet in person to that woman, Margaux Castevet, who lives in a luxury apartment and is so grateful that she invites Rosemary and Guy to her next hoity-toity party.
Nothing in this so-called thriller is subtle. The Castevets give Rosemary and Guy a gift – a black cat that looks ominous and meows in a real “I’m serving Satan here” tone. The cat does save them by waking Guy and Rosemary up when their tiny loft apartment catches fire; but now homeless, that gives the Castevets an opportunity to graciously allow the Woodhouses to move into a vacant apartment they own that’s about the size of JFK Airport.
And then … Roman Castevet rolls his eyes maniacally as he sets about helping struggling writer Guy rise up in the ranks of academia and literary fame in return for … well, you know. The over-the-top performance by Jason Isaacs as Roman – a villain with everything but a black cape and long moustache – is balanced by the sleepwalking-style performances by Joe Saldana as Rosemary and Patrick Adams as Guy, who change expressions and tone about once every 38 minutes. Adams in particular always looks like he is about to break out into a yawn — a feeling that may rub off on the TV audience.
Only Carole Bouquet appears to be having some fun as Margaux, but even she can’t save this mess.
The Polanski movie was scary without any graphic violence; this one tosses in buckets of blood and gore, to no particularly good effect.
Worst of all, Rosemary becomes paranoid — long before she even gets pregnant! Having lived in their new castle-sized apartment for just a short time, she already begins to suspect it has a dark and ominous history. Why? That’s never explained, except perhaps that Holland needed to justify the creepy music score that cues the audience “Be scared! Be scared!” every few minutes.
Overly explicit, tiresome and derivative, “Rosemary’s Baby” the miniseries is a bad idea, poorly executed. I doubt it’s even worth watching part two on Thursday.
Contact Freeline Media at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..