Charles Petzold

Ira Levin, 1929–2007

November 15, 2007
New York, N.Y.

Roman Polanski's film of Ira Levin's 1967 novel Rosemary's Baby was the first of Polanski's movies that he adapted from another source. Rather than engaging in the customary practice of drastically changing the novel, Polanski stuck unusually close to it, keeping all the major characters, huge chunks of dialogue, and even the images of Rosemary's dreams. At one point in the novel, Rosemary's husband Guy comes home and says "I got the shirt that was in The New Yorker," and Polanski asked Ira Levin exactly which issue of The New Yorker that was because he wanted to get the exact shirt for his film.

Ira Levin's novel — about mother-to-be Rosemary Woodhouse who fears that her neighbors are witches who are plotting to take her baby to use in their rituals — is an intricate mix of hints and red herrings, an exquisite psychological thriller with not an ounce of fat, and I suspect Polanski feared that he might break something if he changed too much. The strategy worked, for Polanski's film of Rosemary's Baby is a near-perfect work of art, one of the few exceptions to the rule that good novels make bad movies.

Rosemary's Baby (both the book and the movie) is suspenseful and unnerving. Obstetricians of the era warned their pregnant patients not to read the book or see the movie. Towards the end, all the people Rosemary can trust drop away one by one, until she is totally alone, and still today it tears me apart. (I probably watch the movie at least once a year, and the last time was October 6, 2007.) Rosemary's Baby is also — and this may be a little harder to grasp now than it was 40 years ago — deeply subversive. In an earlier era, Ira Levin would have been burned at the stake for heresy.

Levin's plots and twists and denouements were so original, so unusual, that they almost immediately found themselves exposed in the collective cultural consciousness. It is truly unfortunate that even people who have never read the books nor seen the movies know what makes The Stepford Wives (1972) tick, and who The Boys from Brazil (1976) really are. But anyone who enjoys finely crafted plots must go back to the original texts, for apparently only Polanski knew how to bring Levin's novels to the screen. Try to empty your mind of what you think you know, and let these books work their magic.

Copies of Levin's A Kiss Before Dying (1953) and This Perfect Day (1970) might be a little harder to track down but are still worth while. This Perfect Day is about a computer that runs the world, and the people trying to take it down.

Levin also wrote plays. In the late 70s or early 80s I had the opportunity to see Deathtrap (1978) on Broadway. The sudden twists and surprises provoked screams from the audience. Long before I knew my wife Deirdre, she was Assistant Stage Manager in a 1983 regional tour of Deathtrap produced by Syracuse Stage, and she reports that people in the audience screamed at every performance, and the actors never got tired of provoking that response. A good play still has that power; the film of Deathtrap barely raises the pulse.

Ira Levin's last two novels are best ignored: Sliver (1991) is just plain bad (not as bad as the movie, however), but reading Son of Rosemary (1997) — yes, a sequel — made me fear that Levin had suffered brain damage. ("Unspeakable, unspeakable," Rosemary would have said.) Son of Rosemary should never have been published, and I'm pleased to see that it has apparently dropped into obscurity.

Ira Levin wrote only seven novels, and nothing first rate in the past 30 years. Although his early novels are very much of their time — the chronology of Rosemary's Baby, for example, is extremely precise and refers to real events and even a magazine cover of the era — they are also timeless.