From Novel to Film pt. 12: Rosemary's Baby

Novel (1967) written by Ira Levin.
Film (1968) written and directed by Roman Polanski.

"I've always felt that the film of Rosemary's Baby is the single most faithful adaptation of a novel ever to come out of Hollywood. Not only does it incorporate whole chunks of the book's dialogue, it even follows the colors of clothing and the layout of the apartment. And Polanski's directorial style of not aiming the camera squarely at the horror but rather letting the audience spot it for themselves off at the side of the screen coincides happily, I think, with my own writing style."
- Ira Levin

This is true. The story is so identical from page to screen, in fact, that to look at the novel and film separately like I normally do in this series makes little sense. 


I'm going to assume most people are familiar enough with the story, even if you haven't read the book or seen the movie. Most of the novel's seemingly innocuous bits of foreshadowing are preserved from page to screen. Here are a few:

- "The Bramford is owned by the church next door." 

- When Rosemary shows Guy that the baby has moved) "You feel it?" she asked. 
He jerked his hand away, pale. "Yes," he said. "Yes, I felt it."

- When Guy speaks of the role he wins due to the coven's influence: "It's one hell of a part." 

Sure it's a common expression, but I like it in context.
- When Abe Saperstein, Rosemary's coven-selected obstetrician, examines her: "Listening to the stirring baby, he betrayed an excitement that was unexpected in a man who had guided hundreds upon hundreds of pregnancies." 

- "The baby kicked like a demon." 

Just a few examples, not all of them. They effectively and continually remind the reader of the danger Rosemary is in. By the time Rosemary catches up to what we know or at least suspect all along, of course, it is far too late. 

The only bits omitted from the novel are: 

- a further subterfuge on Guy's part, when he gives Rosemary tickets to The Fantasticks

- a trip Rosemary takes to Hutch's cabin in the woods after the rape scene. Guy tells her the morning after that he had sex with her after she passed out, not wanting to miss baby-making night. Hearing this and discovering her body is covered with scratches disturbs her, and she goes out of town for a few days to collect herself.

Guy's cover story "I already filed them down" is a little on the flimsy side, but luckily for him and the coven, Rosemary doesn't give it a second thought.
- and the film does not feature Rosemary's insisting at story's end that the baby's name is Andy, not Adrian. 

None of these omissions hurt anything. Levin recounts how Polanski had never adapted a novel before, so he was gun-shy about taking too many liberties with the source material. This works especially well, since Levin's source material is so carefully woven. (Stephen King and Peter Straub both refer to him as the Swiss watchmaker of craftsmen, and it's easy to see why.) Polanski gave himself much more latitude when adapting Arturo PĂ©rez-Reverte's The Club Dumas as The Ninth Gate in 1999, another story concerned with raising the devil.

For an idea of what Rosemary's Baby would look like if re-imagined and decidedly off book, look no further than the 2014 mini-series with Zoe Saldana. Make a few changes here and there, and the delicate structure Levin created and Polanski preserved falls apart pretty fast.


As officially designated by the Library of Congress in 2014, Rosemary's Baby is an institution. A lot of the credit must go to Mia Farrow, who gives a career-defining performance in the lead role. 

Guy is brought to life memorably by John Cassavetes. He conveys just the right mix of collusion, guilt, and blunt, remorseless ambition

The husband, as King notes in Danse Macabre, "lowers himself admirably to the occasion."
That Danse Macabre review, by the by, is reprinted as the introduction to the Stephen King Horror Library edition of Rosemary, released in 2003. Does anyone know whatever happened to this series? As near as I can tell, only 5 of the planned 10 volumes were ever published.

As good and essential to the film's success as Farrow's and Castevetes's performances are, though, they are all but overshadowed by Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer as Minnie and Roman Castavet.

While for me - and for most people, I guess - the ironic blend of ultimate evil with seemingly-goofy old people was exactly the right touch for the plot, my dearly-departed friend Aharon always found this element of the film to be utterly ridiculous. I'll never forget watching it with him for the first time and how angry he got by the juxtapositions of elderly with sinister. 

"Shut up with your Oh Gods or we'll kill ya, milk or no milk."
"Oh hush, Laura-Louise!"
I think he eventually came around to the film, but I can't recall for sure. But I bring it up to make the point of how pivotal this aspect of the film is. If you are down with the idea of Satan's true coven being a bunch of old biddies, I don't think you can get better than the way it's presented here. (Though Brotherhood of Satan, God bless it, gives it the ol' college try. I so wish that movie was based on a novel so I could review it as part of this series.) If you aren't, then it's a distancing effect that's difficult to overcome.

While we're here, Roman and Minnie's original choice as the Antichrist's incubator is a derelict they "rescued" from the sidewalk outside the Bramford. She's played by Victoria Vetri aka Angela Dorian.

Better known in some circles as Isis from "Assignment: Earth."
Another pivotal role, that of Hutch, Rosemary's surrogate father figure, is played by Maurice Evans. 

His wiki argues his best-known role as Dr. Zaius in Planet (and Beneath the Planet) of the Apes. Really? I'd think it'd be Samantha's father on Bewitched or this one before Dr. Zaius. Not that he doesn't kill it as Dr. Zaius, just that his features are hidden under ape make-up and all.
He is kicked off the Kennedys' boat in Rosemary's rape-dream ("Catholics only.") but re-appears, waving a butterfly net and yelling warning of a typhoon.

Although the coven conspire to send him into a coma before he can warn Rosemary, he is able to get this book into her hands with the clue "the title is an anagram." Rosemary learns of Roman's true identity - but, again, alas too late.


As with Levin's The Stepford Wives, it's tempting to see the head of the group of antagonists as the main villain. (Diz in Stepford, Roman in Rosemary's.) But of Roman or Guy, who is more truly the novel's main villain? Guy after all offers up his wife to be raped by Satan - this is far worse than anything Roman does. Not that Roman's an innocent or lawful character, just his actions follow logically (if deceitfully) from his religion; Guy's crimes are worse because despite his bluster to Rosemary at the end of how he did it all for them and "we've got Paramount right where we want him," his actions follow logically from his own ruthless self-regard, not to mention a sociopathic disregard for his wife. 

In this respect, his removing of Rosemary's ring during the rape scene is key. He is, as many have noted, abdicating his role as husband and taking up the role as Best Man to Satan in the ritual to follow.

And what of Abe Saperstein, the Beast's obstetrician? 

Outside of Guy, he is the character to most actively mislead and lie to Rosemary. His role in the process is crucial, and Rosemary's reliance on his expertise is so cruelly exploited that a good case can be made that he is the story's true main villain.

Or is it Satan? Probably Satan, I guess. It's an interesting question - not from philosophical grounds but in terms of the literary construction of the story. 


King sees the novel as reflecting one specific aspect of the era that created it: "the God-is-dead tempest whirling around in the teapot of the sixties."

Chuck Palahniuk, on the other hand, writing in his preface to the 2001 edition, sees the whole thing as an allegory concerned with women's rights to control their bodies. Whether or not King or Palahniuk has identified the central concern Levin had in mind, it's certainly true that all three were fellow travelers in the 60s milieu to which King alludes.

Rosemary's dream sequence - which is actually not a dream at all, of course, but a spell cast over her senses while the devil is conjured forth to rape her - features the foremost Catholic celebrities of the age: the Kennedys and the Pope, each of whom re-assures Rosemary that all is well, all is forgiven, and that she is in the best care possible.

Back to King:

"The weakening of religious conviction is an opening wedge for the devil, both in the macrocosm (questions of world faith) and in the microcosm (the cycle of Rosemary's faith as she goes from belief as Rosemary Reilly, to unbelief as Rosemary Woodhouse, to belief again as the mother of her infernal Child. (...) In the religious pilgrim's progress that Rosemary goes through, Levin gives is a serio-comic allegory of faith."

Levin's actual intentions were less high-minded, as recounted in full here:

"Having observed that the most suspenseful part of a horror story is before, not after, the horror appears, I was struck one day by the thought that a fetus could be an effective horror if the reader knew it was growing into something malignly different from the baby expected. Several years later, the thought came back to me when, in the wake of a Broadway flop, I was fishing for an idea for a suspense novel.

I tried to figure out exactly what that fetus (might grow) into. Genuine medical horrors were out; hardly the stuff of popular fiction. I could imagine only two possibilities: my unfortunate heroine had to be impregnated either by an extraterrestrial or the devil. ETs had already fathered children in The Midwich Cuckoos, a novel by John Wyndham, and though that book had dealt with several children growing up rather than their mothers bearing them, I nonetheless felt I was stuck with Satan. In whom I believed not at all. But I had no other intriguing ideas and a family to support. I read up on witchcraft and, late in 1965, set to work. 

(Now) two generations of youngsters have grown to adulthood watching depictions of Satan as a living reality. Here’s what I worry about now: if I hadn’t pursued an idea for a suspense novel almost forty years ago, would there be quite as many religious fundamentalists around today?"

I think the answer to that last question is yes. Unfortunately. And fundamentalism isn't  exclusive to religion these days, which is even worse. But the point being - his story accurately reflects the cultural strife of the time without his explictly setting out to do so.


King refers to Rosemary's Baby as "a sinister Woody Allen film." I think that's very insightful (and given the real-world catastrophes between Farrow and Allen, has more nuance in 2015 than it did when he wrote that in the late 70s.) While many of Allen's films like Annie Hall, Manhattan, or A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy rely on a sense of the city's superiority to the country, Rosemary's Baby turns this urban paranoia in the other direction: the city is where a nice girl from Nebraska can move to and find herself impregnated by the devil, all while under the watchful care of the city's top obstetrician and her loving, budding-film-star husband. 

Tabitha King (as relayed by her husband) points something else out: Rosemary's Baby is (on the surface) conservative paranoia played out as farce - mixed marriages don't work and invite disaster. Which adds another amusing layer of irony.


Ruth Gordon returned in Look What Happened To Rosemary's Baby, a 1976 TV movie.

I've never seen it, but as this review details, it is not well-regarded. It does, however, feature Tina Louise in the role of "Satanized prostitute," so there's that, I guess. Even less well-regarded is Levin's official sequel to his novel, released in 1997:

I actually enjoyed it. I read it immediately after finishing the original novel and maybe that was the key. I seem to recall Stephen King (or maybe it was Peter Straub) having praise for it, but I can't seem to find confirmation of this out there on the web or elsewhere. Nevertheless, I feel this is misunderstood, particularly the twists in the last act. I'll not spoil its secrets, but I'll let you in on one poorly-kept one: your interpretation of things probably hinges on how you solve the book's mystery anagram ROAST MULES. 

This and the following 'caps are not re-arrangements of Roast Mules - I'm just re-purposing the Scrabbled-pieces scene from Rosemary's for this section.

Levin died without solving the anagram officially, though nowadays a quick visit to Wordsmith's internet anagram server will give you the answer that most agree is the one he intended: SOMERSAULT. How you interpret this - and I apologize for being coy; it doesn't really make any sense outside the context of the novel - likely informs your opinion of whether the sequel works or not.

Myself, I kept getting stuck on SOUL MATES. Which is one letter shy. SOUL MATERS looks and sounds awkward, but I'll be damned (ahem) if it doesn't tie the book together more to my satisfaction than SOMERSAULT.

THE VERDICT: As a novel/ film/ adaptation - all brilliant. 


  1. I think a case can be made for all three authors (King, Palahniuk, and Levin) are essentially right.

    King with Macro and Microcosm, Palahniuk with the question of sexual equality, and Levin with his fears of fundamentalism. The irony is, even if you put all three differing views together, they make a more or less seamless whole. If anything, I think this must mean that all three concerns are in both novel and film.

    There is one final thought to add to all the above, and it comes from one of the producers of the film (not Polanski). I forget his name, but his words (more or less) were: it's a horror film where the horror doesn't exist. Basically it's just the story of a girl going insane from Pre and Post-Partum depression".

    This actually does tie into Palahniuk's concerns, now I think of it, and perhaps also Levin's. Looked at from this angle, it means a great deal of the film (including the entire ending in various ways) is a hallucination suffered by the heroine.

    To go further, thematically what it could be argued the story is saying is that Rosemary is slowly driven to madness first by religious fundamentalism, then conversely in the opposite direction of secular fundamentalism (I'm not sure if such a thing has ever been portrayed in a work of fiction before). In which case, it could be argued that both book and film are arguing for a more healthy middle ground of sorts. Just a thought. It would certainly count as a commentary on how American values are definitely off balance.

    As for the Castevetts, while it's been a while I've never forgotten them, yet when I saw that door iris shot of Mini I though "Eyyurrgh! Something Hieronymus Bosch thought up in a fever dream and then thought better of.


    1. The producer was probably William Castle, or maybe Robert Evans. I don't think he was a credited producer on the picture, but he was involved, definitely.

      I think Polanski's "Repulsion" is better described as the representation of a woman whose mental illness is what we see onscreen more than "Rosemary's Baby" is. But this question is revisited and explored in Son of Rosemary, should you care to venture beyond its bad reviews! I don't want to say too much.

      I do agree, tho, that the story is rooted in American values out-of-wack. Koyaanisqatsi, NYC/60s-devil style.

  2. I've never read the novel, and I've only seen the movie once. I have to confess that it did not engage me at all, but I have to further confess that there was a lot of distraction going on while we watched it; so I strongly suspect that I need to revisit it at one point.

    I don't think I've heard of that King-produced line of horror novels you refer to. Very interesting!

    The Woody Allen comment is an interesting one. Goodness, what would this movie have been like if Allen had co-starred instead of Cassavettes? (Not that that was ever in the cards; just hypothetically.)

    I'm always resistant to bringing real life situations into play when interpreting a movie, but it's also tempting to view this through the lens of Polanski's life, and the various things that happened to him afterward. The presence of cults and rape in his life were certainly not limited to this film, to say the least.

    I'm intrigued to hear that you are a champion of the sequel; I'd heard nothing but loathing for it. I am NOT intrigued by that tv remake, which seemed like a bad idea from the outset.

    1. Wow - a version of this film with Woody Allen in the Cassavettes role is genius. That would be something.

      My buddy and I used to have a joke about Schwarzeneggar playing the lead in a Woody Allen film, but wearing glasses and delivering all of his lines in that clipped, Woody-Allen-esque way he often has his leads adopt. I would like to cross this stream with the above stream and see what happens... Damn you, lack-of-Ur-Kindle...

      Son of Rosemary - I'm giving Levin a lot of benefit-of-the-doubt for certain scenes that would make little sense out of context. But I enjoyed reading it, and the things I thought weren't working made sense to me in light of the ending. But the ending pissed everyone else off, I guess - except me and Stephen King. Not bad company, I guess!

    2. Not at all!

      Woody Allen from that era would have been very interesting casting. He's got the chops for it, too, and it'd be an interesting twist to have a nerdy guy in the role as opposed to a hunk.