I read Rosemary’s Baby for the first time in late October. I had watched Roman Polanski’s 1968 film adaptation years ago, but I had never bothered with Ira Levin’s novel, assuming that it would have, at best, the literary merit of an Amityville Horror, and surely not rise even to the level of an average work by Stephen King.
I was wrong. From the opening lines, I was hooked; I found myself grabbing every spare moment over the next few days to read a chapter or two on my iPad or iPhone. (The iTunes Bookstore offered it on sale for Halloween for $2.99, and it’s now the first full-length book I’ve ever read on an electronic device.) The claims of film critics to the contrary, Levin’s 1967 novel is, in many ways, far better than Polanski’s film, and the few ways in which the film adaptation surpasses the novel are entirely attributable to the differences in medium. Mia Farrow can express Rosemary’s growing confusion and concern better with her downcast face and shifting eyes than Levin can with his elegantly simple language; but the spareness of Levin’s prose highlights better than Polanski’s sumptuous sets Rosemary’s increasing sense of isolation and dread. In the New York City of the mid-1960’s, surrounded by millions of people, Rosemary is far more alone and vulnerable than she was in the Omaha, Nebraska, of her youth.
And the main reason for her isolation and loneliness, which Levin’s novel fully conveys but Polanski’s film only hints at, is Rosemary’s separation from her family’s Catholicism. Her husband, Guy, is a Protestant of indeterminate origin; their marriage outside the Church has strained her relationship first with her family and later with her faith. Her fall into an unthinking agnosticism begins like an example of the dangers of a mixed marriage straight out of a Catholic marriage manual of the 1940’s; but in the end, it leads her to a darker place than even the most hardline Jesuit (back when there were hardline Jesuits) would ever have predicted. Though never baptized, Polanski had conformed to the Catholic Church in Poland as a child (his father was a Polish Jew, and his mother, a Russian-born Catholic of Jewish descent who was no longer practicing by the time of Roman’s birth), yet he struggles to convey Rosemary’s submerged Catholicism, while Levin effortlessly captures it in a line here, a line there, that often prove to be pivotal points in the story.
The most glaring failure in Polanski’s adaptation comes in the scene when, on the night she has learned she is pregnant, Rosemary lies awake, “too fired with joy and wonder to fall asleep quickly.” Her thoughts turn to the “many dangers to worry about in the months ahead,” and Levin shows her concern for the new life inside of her pulling Rosemary back toward the Church of her youth: “If only prayer were still possible! How nice it would be to hold a crucifix again and have God’s ear: ask Him for safe passage through the eight more months ahead . . . ” But her choices have led her down a different path, and in desperation she turns to the “good luck charm” that her neighbors, the Castavets, had given her as they groomed her for her unholy mission. None of her thoughts, none of her yearnings for God’s protection make it into Polanski’s film; instead, Rosemary lies awake, then suddenly rises, retrieves the charm, and places it around her neck. In the novel, the scene is as central as the Ouija-board scene in The Exorcist; in the film, it is robbed of almost all of its power.
The edition of Rosemary’s Baby that I read features an introduction by Levin’s friend Otto Penzler, written after Levin’s death in 2007, which goes to great pains to stress Levin’s lack of belief: “not in any organized religion, not Satanism, not witchcraft, not in any of the myths or charismatic real-life figures who have engendered worship.” And, by all accounts, Levin’s Son of Rosemary, written as a sequel 30 years after the original, seems to confirm Penzler’s claim that Levin had hoped Rosemary’s Baby “would help to increase the skepticism that had always resided with him.” (I have not read more than the opening pages of Son of Rosemary, so I am not in a position to judge.) But it is hard for a believer to read Rosemary’s Baby as anything other than a cautionary tale that, as man sheds his traditional belief in the God of Christianity, he does not shed his need to believe. It is not just the coven that so abuses Rosemary that believes “God is dead”; at a party that Rosemary and Guy throw, their guests discuss approvingly Thomas J.J. Altizer’s claim that “the death of God is a specific historic event that happened right now, in our time. That God literally died.” (This discussion is shortened and pushed to the background in Polanski’s film, while it is one of the longest lines of dialogue in Levin’s novel, where the characters tend to speak in short, straightforward sentences.) Altizer’s controversial argument was the center of Time’s famous April 8, 1966, cover story “Is God Dead?”—the first of the attacks on Christianity to be published in the mainstream media every year at Easter time, and a cover that plays a pivotal role toward the end of the novel and the film.
Unlike his neighbors, Guy Woodhouse is not an avowed Satanist; he is simply a man so preoccupied with making a name for himself that he is willing to sacrifice his wife and his marriage in the process. But in the end, that’s what Satanism is really all about: the worship of self, rather than of God; the elevation of the individual creature, rather than his subordination to the created order.
Or, to give it the name by which it is more commonly known today, liberalism.