Learning to Accept NBC’s Rosemary’s Baby Miniseries

Rosemary’s Baby is one of my favorite movies of all time. It plays on all of my biggest fears: intrusive neighbors (maybe without dishwashers) who force you to eat things they’ve prepared, the plight of struggling actors (“Nobody Loves an Albatross” was probably non-union), being compelled to munch raw chicken in a moment of pregnant psychosis, general insecurity about not being the best Scrabble player in the world, and being raped by Satan. It would be a really punishing movie other than the fact that it’s also somehow aspirational: The imposing Bramford building (actually the Dakota) where the Woodhouses nest suggested the optimism of a young, artsy couple in New York in the late ’60′s; Rosemary (Mia Farrow) was beautiful, bare-faced and waddling around in adorable sundresses with the pixie cut to end all pixie cuts; and, of course, the charm factor of hidden stairways, phone booths, old books, and pendant necklaces (all cursed, of course). Rosemary’s Baby is like a fever dream, one that grips you in paranoid fright but makes your senses tingle at the same time.

It’s perfect. More than Norman Mailer or Woody Allen, I want to engage my amnesia button for Roman Polanski when I think about how much I love this movie. Ira Levin’s novel — which was published in 1967, a year before the film’s faithful adaptation was released — was excellent, but the movie was even better. Ruth Gordon’s Academy Award–winning chocolate mouse, Farrow spitting in John Cassavetes’s face, that haunting melody: This is untouchable stuff.

And yet, here comes NBC to touch it. Rosemary’s Baby has received an official order for a four-hour miniseries, with production beginning next month in Paris. Lionsgate TV has enlisted Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa, which competed for an Oscar with Silence of the Lambs and lost) as director, with Scott Abbott (Introducing Dorothy Dandridge) and James Wong (American Horror Story) writing the screenplay.

While most recent remakes — not that there have been a lot of those, right? — don’t affect my blood pressure, this one is different. I want to put police tape around it, though there’s no sense in that at all. Why should a variation on an old, good idea be offensive to loyal fans? This is the noosphere, man. Borrowing, stealing, and riffing is a species pastime, and yet … I don’t want Carrie Underwood to play Rosemary Woodhouse. It’s the irrational fear that someone will write over a masterpiece, irrational because it has already happened and nothing bad has come of it. Remember Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby? No? Really? What about Son of Rosemary, Ira Levin’s sequel novel, which actually was kind of good? What about when we all freaked out because Michael Bay was thinking of trying his hand at the story, and we were all worried that Jessica Alba was going to be cast as the lead? Actually, I do remember that. It was scary, but it never came to fruition.

The most concerning aspect of the remake is that it’s going to be limited by the constraints of network TV. I’m a big fan of Wong (he co-wrote one of the most memorable episodes of The X-Files as well as some of the best episodes of American Horror Story) — but I’m not a big fan of rules, especially in psychological thrillers. Farrow’s nude scene, which occurs during a dream sequence, is strangely instrumental to the entire movie, contrasting Rosemary’s vulnerability with her maternal ferocity. You should not adopt a dog and watch Pet Sematary in the same day, but even more than that you should not watch Rosemary’s Baby while you are pregnant (oh, whoops, I did). The strangeness of the body and the way that strangers feel entitled to invest themselves in your pregnancy are captured so well that it almost seems like Levin and Polanski had been there, girl. Rosemary’s body belongs on cable, where she would at least have the option to hang out on a dream boat in the buff while horrible things happened to her.

There’s also the casting, which isn’t even fun to play with now because the original cast was so good. It came together by accident, and the film almost featured Tuesday Weld as Rosemary and Jack Nicholson as Guy. The drama surrounding the production (Farrow being served divorce papers from Frank Sinatra while on set, producer William Castle becoming convinced that the film was cursed because of the composer’s death and Sharon Tate’s murder) was unfortunate, but only serves to make the movie more legendarily creepy today. Casting Farrow as Minnie Castavet seems at first like a good idea, then (after a moment’s consideration) just a cute idea, and finally a terribly bad idea: This is how re-casting Rosemary’s Baby is, across the board. Impossible.

Ira Levin, who died in 2007, wrote in a way that begged for adaptations. Stephen King is a fan of his, and with good reason: He’s responsible for The Stepford Wives, A Kiss Before Dying, and Deathtrap. It is so tempting to poke your finger into his pies, but sometimes you just leave an embarrassing hole in a great idea when you simply can’t resist.

Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby will always be an only child (“Satan’s only living son,” with his father’s eyes), and 1966 will always be year one. There is no way to think of this remake other than to calmly choose to think of it as the story of Satan’s stepchild once removed, his luggage packed with Scrabble tiles, tannis root and pre-disappointments. Maybe we can grow to love him, to be a real mother to him. And on the upside, I can think of someone who looks nice in a pixie cut.

Filed Under: NBC

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Tess Lynch is a contributing writer to Grantland.

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