Occasionally there will be a small news item that will seize hold of the nation’s collective subconscious, generating dozens of famous stories. One such story was the arrest of deranged loner Ed Gein, who provided the basis for dozens of horror stories, the best of which was Robert Bloch’s novel/screenplay “Psycho”.
Movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre imagined what it might be like to be one of the Gein’s victims, but Bloch’s genius was to ask himself, “How could I make this guy sympathetic?” (The answer, as always, was a disapproving parent.)
Likewise Zoe Heller’s novel “Notes on a Scandal”, which Patrick Marbur adapted into an excellent movie of the same name, dared to find empathy with a female high school teacher who begins a sexual relationship with a student. The title of the American release of the book spelled out the source of Heller’s idea: She read a spate of news stories about similar cases and wondered, “What Was She Thinking?”
The most famous example of all was probably Citizen Kane. Far from being the cruel denunciation that William Randolph Hearst imagined it to be, the movie is actually an extraordinary act of empathy. Welles may have set out to topple a giant, but he wound up ennobling his deeply-flawed target. Instead of finding a villain in Hearst, he found a kindred spirit, and the movie acts as an unheeded cautionary tale for Welles’s own life.