More than 50 years after Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho hit theaters (and forever changed the way you feel about showering), A&E is set to bring us the early years of Norman Bates. Of course, Bates Motel, which premieres tonight at 10 p.m. ET, isn't the first time fans have revisited the Psycho universe. Though Hitchcock never returned to the Bates Motel, other filmmakers picked up where he left off. The original film spawned three much maligned sequels — the first of which came a staggering 23 years after the original's release — and the movie-turned-franchise eventually spawned an even more harshly received shot-for-shot remake, as well as an oft-forgotten 1987 made-for-TV movie titled, ironically enough, Bates Motel.
Bates Motel also isn't alone this year in revisiting a famous cinematic killer on TV. In just a few weeks, NBC will premiere Hannibal, which will depict Silence of the Lambs villain Hannibal Lecter in the years before he was caught and arrested. Anthony Hopkins' instantly iconic depiction of the cannibalistic killer launched a franchise unto itself, with a sequel and two prequels hitting theaters in the years after Silence of the Lambs' release — and like Psycho, those continuations weren't nearly as well-received as the celebrated original
So let's be honest: How much story is there really left to tell about these killers? Will these series be able to escape the shadow of their beloved source material?
Let's start with Bates Motel, which comes from Lost co-creator Carleton Cuse and Friday Night Lights writer Kerry Ehrin. The show's creative team has worked hard to emphasize that Bates Motel is a completely new and different reworking of the Psycho oeuvre, serving as both prequel and contemporary remake. The series kicks off in the modern day, focusing on a teenage Norman Bates (Finding Neverland's Freddy Highmore) and his mother Norma (Up in the Air's Vera Farmiga). In the pilot's first six minutes (which are available to watch online), Norman's father is killed in a mysterious accident, which prompts Norma to start anew by buying a seaside motel and the accompanying house that looms over it.
The most striking thing about Bates Motel is how tonally different it feels from Psycho and any of its sequels. Highmore's Norman seems fairly normal: He attends high school parties with pretty girls, makes friends, and even gets smoochy with a classmate (Olivia Cooke). Farmiga's character — who, while not physically present in Hitchcock's original, was the impetus for Norman's psychosexual madness —displays an understated but smothering hold on Norman, and the series is built on how her uncomfortably close relationship with her son will develop and ultimately shape his psyche.
Hannibal, on the other hand, is less a provocative re-imagining than a procedural in the vein of the CSI. The show, which comes from Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies creator Bryan Fuller, is a marked departure from either of those relatively whimsical shows. Hugh Dancy stars as criminal profiler Will Graham, who specializes in tracking down serial killers. Graham enlists the help of respected doctor Hannibal Lecter (Casino Royale's Mads Mikkelsen) when his cases become too psychologically overbearing. While the pair work together to track down brutal serial killers, the show also explores their budding relationship and the early days of Dr. Lecter's murderous (and carnivorous) habits.
The previews for Hannibal show a lot of promise. The stellar cast also includes Laurence Fishburne and Gillian Anderson, who have a proven track record making serialized procedurals about killers and bizarre happenings. And the latest trailer looks to capitalize on the "ick factor," with shots of ripped-out guts, impaled bodies, and a garden of dismembered limbs that suggests a level of bravado not seen in the average series. Like Bates Motel, Hannibal has one obstacle on its way to success: Convincing Silence of the Lambs fans that it's necessary.
These shows hardly represent the first (or second) time a film franchise has undergone the prequel treatment or been adapted into a series for the small screen. We've seen the good (Friday Night Lights, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, M*A*S*H); the bad (Clueless, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles); and the weird (Clerks, My Big Fat Greek Life). Most recently, The CW debuted The Carrie Diaries, a prequel series to Sex and The City, with middling results — offering a Carrie that bears only a faint resemblance to the beloved character that fans know from Sex and the City, and leaving Charlotte, Samantha, and Miranda out of the story altogether.
But like The Carrie Diaries, Bates Motel and Hannibal face a problem: We already know how it's all going to turn out. By exploring the early years of these already-established characters, each show's creator is essentially digging himself out of a hole that's already six feet deep. How many seasons of story can they pack in before the characters eventually catch up with their prewritten fates? Bates Motel is clearly attempting to skirt that problem by setting the series in contemporary times, which eliminates the possibility of entering into Hitchcock's original narrative framework. But with Hannibal, it seems unlikely that they'll be able to keep Dr. Lecter's murderous alter-ego a secret for long without keeping the narrative stuck at a standstill. (But then again, Dexter is on its eighth season...) If both of these shows are going to make it past their first season, they'll need to do more than coast on the goodwill of the originals; they'll need to make these familiar faces fresh and surprising again — and history shows that's no easy task.