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Literature / Ratman's Notebooks

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"Tear him up!"

Ratman's Notebooks is a 1968 British horror novel by Stephen Gilbert. Written as a series of diary entries, it tells the story of a reclusive man who discovers he can train rats to do his bidding. Initially, he uses them for some creepy-but-innocent fun. Then he graduates to using them for less innocent purposes. Much like Robert Bloch's Psycho, the book seems to have been influenced by real-life murderer, Ed Gein.

It is perhaps best remembered for its two movie adaptations, both called Willard. The first was made in 1971 and starred Bruce Davison and Ernest Borgnine. The second, made in 2003, starred Crispin Glover and R. Lee Ermey. The 1971 movie also had a sequel, Ben, released in 1972. The Michael Jackson song of the same name was written for this movie and plays over the end credits.

Another thing that may or may not be worthy of note is that the novel is set in Britain while all three movies are set in the USA.

This work contains examples of:

  • Adaptation Name Change: Novel-Ratman's boss is named Jones, whereas film-Willard's is Mr. Martin.
  • Adoring the Pests: The central premise of the story is its Villain Protagonist's relationship with the rat colony, and it starts out with him sparing them because he admires the mother rat's determination to rescue her babies from drowning.
  • Age Lift: Willard is suggested to be around his early-mid 20s in the book. The 1971 movie increases it a little bit to 27, while the 2003 film portrays him much older at 32.
  • Animals Lack Attributes: Presumably the case, as the novel's Ratman claims he can't tell male rats from females despite male rats having very obvious testicles in reality.
    • The rats used in the 1971 film are clearly all females or neutered.
  • Anti-Villain: Ben is suggested to be one; he was initially following Ratman/Willard's commands until he decided to take over the rat colony because the protagonist was endangering the colony and got one of their members killed during one of his outings. In the 2003 film; this is a bit more ambiguous because Ben was disobedient from the beginning, the death of Scully the cat was for the sake of food and so Ben can prove himself as a new leader of the colony. Ben and the colony were also abandoned by Willard when he sent the elevator down while they were eating Mr Martin, which would have gotten them killed by pest control in the morning. From Ben's perspective; Ben is taking control of a colony of rats which were objectified and abandoned by their previous leader, then he provided them with the means of getting revenge.
    • In the films, Willard himself, due to being a depressed man with no friends that the viewer is more liable to pity than hate.
  • Apocalyptic Log: Ultimately ends up as this.
  • Artistic License Animal Care: Ratman describes a training session in which he challenges the rats to haul a leek he's stolen from a neighbor's garden into the shed, calling it "food". Raw leeks are toxic to rats, damaging their red blood cells.
  • Artistic License Biology: The narrator claims that he can't tell the difference between male and female rats. Unless he's dealing with a fictional variety where the males don't have a large, distended and very visible scrotum, the two sexes can easily be told apart at a glance.
  • Asshole Victim:
    • A good number of the people that Ratman plays tricks on or robs, or kills are either known to be this or revealed to be this after the fact
    • The Ratman himself can come across as this, due to his rather anti-social, arrogant and narcissistic inner monologues.
  • Avoid The Dreaded R Rating: The remake was shot for an R rating. However, after the studio saw that recent PG-13 horror films were making big buck (such as The Ring), they asked for language and some violence to be edited down to compete.
  • Award-Bait Song: "Ben". Who knew such a successful and heartfelt ballad could be written out of a movie about killer rats.
  • Becoming the Mask: Sort of. Ratman eventually becomes bored with his criminal activities, but he's proud enough of his exploits to keep a diary in the hope that his grandchildren will find it after he's dead.
  • Bolivian Army Ending: Ratman's last diary entry finds him trapped in his attic with the rats gnawing their way through the door.
  • The Cast Show Off: Crispin Glover sings over the end credits of the 2003 movie.
  • Cerebus Syndrome: This book is actually more like a dark comedy in the first half.
  • Character Title: The movies.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Mr. Stiles's knife from the 2003 movie (but only after Executive Meddling altered the ending).
  • Clingy Jealous Mouse: Ben is jealous of Willard's love for Socrates (not in the 1971 film, however).
  • Composite Character: In the 1971 film, Mr. Martin fills the function of at least one other character from the novel.
  • Dead Man Writing: The entire novel is heavily implied to fall under this trope.
  • Deadpan Snarker: The main character. He often comes across as a satirist or an observational comedian rather than the Ed Gein-inspired criminal that he really is.
  • Death by Adaptation: Ben in the 2003 movie.
  • Does Not Like Women: Ratman. He gets better.
  • Downer Ending: The 1971 movie.
  • Dragon-in-Chief: Ben.
  • The Ending Changes Everything: By the end of the 2003 movie, all we know for sure is that the main character is in an insane asylum and has bite marks on his face. Whether anything else in the movie actually happened or if it was his damaged mind creating a fictional history for his wounds, we'll never know.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Averted in the book, but played straight in the movies.
  • Fantastic Caste System: In the novel, the rats have a rudimentary one, with the highly intelligent "furry-tails" being privileged and the simple-minded "scaly-tails", deprived. Omitted from the films, as only normal-tailed rats were available for the productions.
  • Focus Group Ending: The 2003 movie, which removed the title character's death.
  • Foreshadowing: Ratman is originally perplexed by the newspapers being left laid out on the table when he is gone, he even jokingly wonders if the rats could be reading them. Then he finds Ben looking at his diary and he puts it together.
  • From Bad to Worse: From the POV of the townspeople.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: With Mister Martin (but only in the book; a certain deleted scene from the 2003 movie should NOT be watched by the faint of heart), very much not the case with Socrates
  • Half-Human Hybrid: The general public believes Ratman to be one of these (in no small part due to his disguise)
  • Happy Ending: Ben (the movie, not the song of the same name, though it definitely complimented it).
  • The Hero Dies: Probably in the original book. Definitely in the 1971 movie. Not at all in the 2003 movie.
  • Ironic Echo:
    Willard: What's the matter, tiger? Afraid of a little blood?
  • It Can Think: Ben's intellect has varied from each adaptation but the main theme is that he's smarter than the other rats and takes control of the abused colony after the protagonist abandons them. In the novel; Ben somehow learned how to read and took control of the colony to kill Ratman out of revenge for getting one of the rats killed during his crime spree.
  • Kick the Dog: Pretty much every scene with Mr. Martin in the 2003 movie counts as this. Willard himself has a moment like this when he grabs a Pomeranian that was barking at him and put it in the bag with the rats. He does let it go, though.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: The end of the book, although the "killed" bit is open for debate.
  • Knight of Cerebus: Mr. Martin, when he kills Socrates. Up until this point, the novel reads something like a dark satire about various human foibles. Only from this point onward does it truly feel like a horror story.
  • Kubrick Stare: One of the elevator scenes in the 2003 movie.
  • Large Ham:
    • Ernest Borgnine, in the 1971 film.
    • Anytime R. Lee Ermey is in front of the camera in the remake. Crispin Glover really has his moments as well.
  • Le Film Artistique: Parodied in Crisper Glover's music video "Ben", complete with women getting sexually aroused by rats, a lesbian headmistress and various German dictators, including Adolf Hitler.
  • Lighter and Softer:
    • Ben tones down the horror, and is to some degree rather sentimental.
    • The character of Willard from the movies when compared to how Ratman acts in the novel.
  • Meaningful Name: The name "Ben" is a shortened version of "Benedict", so in a way, Ben from the book and the films could be compared to Benedict Arnold.
  • Mythology Gag:
    • In the 2003 remake, a television is turned on to a radio station, and the song Ben by Michael Jackson is played. This is especially interesting, because the song, Ben was written for the sequel of the same name to the original 1971 Willard, but it would stand to reason that in the world of the 2003 remake, there has been no movie Willard and thus no sequel. So in the 2003 film, the song exists out of nowhere; possibly in that continuity, Jackson was singing about his dog.
    • Also, Bruce Davison (Willard in the 1971 film) portrays Willard's deceased father in the new film (via photographs and a painting) and even provided voice-over narration for one of the new film's promotional documentaries.
  • Nameless Narrative: In the novel, nobody has a name but Jones, Ben, Socrates, Major Robinson, the Malcomsons, and three dogs. Averted in both film adaptations.
  • Oh, Crap!: Ratman, upon realizing that Ben has read his notebook.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: In the book, the main character is only known by the name of his criminal alter-ego, The Ratman. The other characters know his real name, but they sure don't tell us. The films name him, obviously, Willard.
  • Pet the Dog:
    • In the 1971 movie, Mr. Martin sends Willard home early when he gets a frantic call regarding his mother.
    • Ben seems to form a legitimate bond with Danny in the sequel.
  • Posthumous Character: Mr. Stiles in the 2003 movie due to a subplot about him having committed suicide long ago.
  • Pragmatic Villainy:
    • Even after Socrates dies, Ratman is still largely concerned with using the rats to make ends meet and puts his plan for vengeance on the backburner for a while.
    • Ratman suddenly takes pity on Mr. Martin at the last second but leaves him for dead anyway for the sole reason that he saw Ratman without his mask.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!:
    Willard: You! Killed! Socrates!
  • Rat Men: Ratman dons a rat mask when he and his trained rodents go out robbing houses by night. Chance witnesses who catch a glimpse of him start rumors that an actual rat-headed mutant is on the loose.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: In the 2003 film, Willard gives a particularly scathing one to Mr. Martin when confronting him the night after Martin kills Socrates.
  • Rodents of Unusual Size: Ben's role in the 2003 remake is played by a Gambian pouched rat, a species about five times the mass of a normal rat.
  • Scrapbook Story: The notebook of the title providing the "scrapbook" telling the story.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: In the 2003 version, Mr. Martin acknowledges his illegal actions against Willard... then mocks him for being unable to afford the legal fees to file a breach-of-contract and/or wrongful-termination lawsuit. After Socrates's death, Willard finally snaps and just invokes Vigilante Execution altogether.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Willard in the 2003 movie.
  • Spell My Name With An S: Is it Ratman's Notebooks or Ratman's Notebook? The title seems to vary depending on what copy you have.
  • Swarm of Rats: Once the rats start multiplying due to Willard feeding and taking care of them all, swarms of them take over the entire house.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: The book is told entirely through Ratman's thoughts so it's possible his sanity can be called into question. If taken as full fact Ben is a really impressive rodent. But some things are up for debate within the narrative as uncertain just because Ratman himself wasn't there to witness it so he's only guessing. The 1971 movie seems to go with the narrative being full on right. The 2003 movie however uses a twist ending and was actually advertised as "an unforgettable journey into the mind of a madman".
  • The Unfavorite: Ben to Willard. Subverted with Danny in the sequel.
  • Unusual Pets for Unusual People: A weird social misfit, and his rats.
  • You Dirty Rat!: Even when he's as fond of the rats as he ever gets, Ratman himself can't entirely shed this trope's assumptions, so can't seem to bring himself to believe they might have minded that one of their colony-members got killed on a criminal outing of his.

Alternative Title(s): Willard