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Literature / The Rules of Attraction

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"No one ever likes the right person."

The Rules of Attraction is an 1987 novel, a Black Comedy Satire by Bret Easton Ellis about students at an East Coast liberal arts school in the USA. Set during The '80s, with Ronald Reagan still in power, there's boatloads of sex, drugs and booze (as per every Ellis book ever), as well as rampant disaffection and angst.

Though it occasionally detours to other people, the story switches mainly between the points of view of three different characters:

  • Paul Denton: A bisexual who seems to favor men over women. He's probably the most intelligent and eloquent of the narrators. Considering how many people compliment him on his looks, he's apparently quite foxy. Paul used to sleep with Lauren...
  • Lauren Hynde: A painter/poet who's pining for Victor, her boyfriend who's off traveling in Europe. Not that that's stopped her from sleeping around a little bit. She finds herself dating Sean...
  • Sean Bateman: Brother of Patrick Bateman, and a dense and usually drugged out/drunk frat-boy type. He deals drugs for a local townie to whom he owes money. Though he's very involved with Lauren, he might be sleeping with Paul...

The book explores a Love Dodecahedron or two amid a thick mire of substance abuse and seemingly endless parties. The story is told through three distinct voices and though this book fits the Ellis mold, it offers up some great twists and does intriguing things with the narrative device of POV-switching. A must-read for anyone who likes Ellis' work. Given its subject matter, it isn't nearly as gruesome as Ellis's other works, though it is still dark. As such, most events - including the suicides of background characters - are played for laughs as college students being melodramatic.

There was also a movie adaptation of the book in 2002, from Roger Avary, which Ellis names as his favorite of the adaptations of his work.

The book and the film adaptation feature examples of the following tropes:

  • All Just a Dream: The ending of the film implies that everything that occurred in the opening sequence (including Sean sleeping with Kelly in anger over Lauren's actions) was part of Sean's fantasies. This is further justified by Lauren and Paul walking out of the party and talking nonchalantly, despite the former having just been raped and vomited on, and the latter having been beat up during a failed hookup.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: The basis of the Love Dodecahedron. Sean wants to be with Lauren, but he is tricked by Lara to reject her. Paul wants to be with Sean, and whether they actually consummated their feelings is ambiguous (but may be a Dream Sequence). Lauren wants to save herself for Victor, but the latter doesn't know who she is and only wants to sleep with women in Europe. Mary wants Sean to notice her, but he doesn't and she ends up killing herself in despair.
  • Alpha Bitch: Lara, Lauren's roommate who's manipulative as hell - under the disguise of helping Lauren, she's actually undermining Lauren. This culminates in Lara seducing Sean even though she knows Lauren has a crush on him, and Lara herself doesn't even seem to genuinely like him and to do it more For the Evulz.
  • Ambiguously Bi: Sean apparently becomes involved in a sexual relationship with Paul Denton. However, whether these encounters are real or simply a product of Paul's imagination is left ambiguous; Paul narrates sexual incidents between himself and Sean, while such incidents are absent from Sean's own narration.
  • Attempted Suicide: Sean attempts suicide at multiple points in the book, first by hanging, then by slashing his wrist with a dull razor, and then by overdose after a falling out with Lauren
  • Bath Suicide: Sean's admirer (Mary in the book, the "Food Service girl" in the film) who sends him anonymous love letters. She does this in reaction to realizing that Sean doesn't feel anything for her (or even realize she exists) and hooks up with other girls.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The book contains a brief chapter that follows the thoughts of Sean's roommate, Bertrand. Since he's French and the book follows the inner monologues of its current protagonist, the chapter is written in French.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Lara, who manipulates Lauren's feelings towards Sean to bed him herself.
  • Book Ends: The film begins and ends at the "End of the World" party; both the book and the film begin and end mid-sentence.
  • Bungled Suicide: Sean tries to off himself because Lauren doesn't want anything to do with him anymore after he slept with Lara. The book does it semi-dramatically, but the movie plays it for laughs with Sean trying three different times and waking up with damp trousers.
  • Canon Welding: In the book, both Clay and Patrick Bateman get a chapter from their perspective. Inversely, Victor, Lauren and Bertrand "The Frog" make appearances in Glamorama, and Sean appears in American Psycho. One character refers to something they were told by a Vanden Williams, who later appears in American Psycho, where (in the book) she's still said to be attending Camden.
  • Catchphrase: Sean constantly spouts the phrases "Deal with it" and "Rock and Roll".
  • Characterization Marches On: Patrick Bateman's appearance gives no indication that he's a monstrous serial killer. In fact he comes off as relatively normal and Sean's sensible older brother.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: During the first sequence after the credits of the film, Sean goes to get lunch from the school cafeteria and is served by a woman who stares at him longingly. However, he either doesn't pick up on it or doesn't care and throws his meal in the trash before walking off, leaving her stunned. A few seconds later, he passes the same woman as she glances at him while standing by a tree. The audience later discovers that this woman (named Mary in the book, left unnamed in the film) committed suicide because he didn't understand her overtures.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: In the film, a drug dealer goes on a tirade against Sean (who owes him money), and he manages to utter the f-word 9 times in 16 seconds (plus a "shit"). Probably helped by the fact that he was high on cocaine himself.
  • Compressed Adaptation: Enforced Trope: Director Roger Avary explained to The Guardian in an interview, "There are a number of missing scenes, some intentional, some actually shot and removed for practical purposes of running time - or flow. I purposefully approached the school year within abrupt jumps of time. All the narrators are unreliable, and the scenes you don't see are meant to be like blackouts, the failure of memory - or perhaps the idealism of imagined false memories, something I've long been interested in. It's all perception and reality."
  • Continuity Nod: Sean Bateman is the younger brother of American Psycho's Patrick Bateman. His introductory scene in the film even has him sporting a sinister sneer before reverting back to a pleasant demeanor.
  • Crapsack World: You might be pressed to find a harsher depiction of the life in and around college.
  • Crossover:
    • It's implied that the book shares the same universe with Donna Tartt's The Secret History, since one chapter mentions "that weird Classics group... probably roaming the countryside sacrificing farmers and performing pagan rituals." Ellis and Tartt were at college together and read first drafts of each others' books.
    • One chapter is narrated by Clay, the main character of Ellis' Less Than Zero. His trademark lines begin "People are afraid to..." Still unhappy while at Camden, Clay longs to return home to L.A., the reverse of the original book.
  • Defiled Forever: Subverted. The film sets up Lauren's need to protect her virginity and save it for Victor, who is shown to have no care for her at all. When she does lose it (being drugged and raped at a party), the act itself doesn't bother her so much as the fact that she lost hers to a "townie". The final scene hints that this event never happened, as Lauren is none the worse for wear and walks out right after Sean when he exits the party instead of sleeping with Kelly.
  • Depraved Bisexual: Paul, who's beaten up for coming on to another man and has an unrequited note  crush on Sean. Sean himself is arguably this, more so in the book.
  • Downer Ending: By the end, everyone is single, broken, and miserable. However, this also runs into Bittersweet Ending territory — it's shown that the events of the opening sequence were All Just a Dream, as Sean doesn't sleep with Kelly and simply leaves the party after glowering at Lauren and Paul. He drives off for parts unknown as the film ends:
    Sean: I started driving faster as I left the college behind. I didn't know where I was going. Someplace unoccupied I hoped. At first I thought there were things about her that I would never forget, but in the end, all I could think about (beat) was—
  • Driven to Suicide: Mary (in the book)/the food services girl (in the film) does this after discovering that Sean has no feelings for her.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: One chapter in the book is narrated by Patrick Bateman, the protagonist of Ellis' next book, American Psycho.
  • Evil Versus Evil: All the characters are bad, unlikeable people who you will never want to meet in real life.
  • Five-Finger Discount: Allegedly Sean engages in this for fun, if Paul's accounts of their relationship are to be believed.
  • Get Back in the Closet: Despite Word of God and Paul's account (as well as a comment from Lauren), the whole Paul and Sean relationship is severely downplayed in the movie by comparison, and Paul and Mitchell's relationship is completely cut.
  • Good Bad Girl: Lauren is arguably an example in the book. She gets around despite pining for Victor, but seems to be a genuinely good person, if emotionally wrecked and disaffected.
  • Gossipy Hens: Nearly every chapter in the book refers to a handful of minor characters who are heard gossiping about everyone else.
  • Groin Attack: A student kicks Paul in the crotch after the latter attempts to seduce him during the opening sequence of the film.
  • The Hedonist: All the characters. Yes, ALL of them...
  • How We Got Here: The film opens at the End of the World Party which concludes the film, then rewinds (literally) back several months.
  • Jerkass:
    • Sean Bateman, who consciously or unconsciously strings Paul along even though he must at least suspect Paul has a crush on him. And who has no qualms sleeping with the roommate of the girl (Lauren) he supposedly has a crush on himself.
    • Lara, the girl he sleeps with, herself is even more this (see Alpha Bitch).
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight: When Sean attempts to bed Kelly in the film, he discovers that he's not as interested as he usually is because he's not drunk.
  • Male Gaze: Invoked, when Raymond (the film student) stares at another woman's chest while talking to Lauren in the opening scene of the film.
  • Motor Mouth: Victor's voiceover narration of his European escapades is practically devoid of punctuation.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Lauren is based on author Donna Tartt, who attended college with Bret Easton Ellis.
  • No Ending: The last chapter of the novel ends with Sean leaving Camden and picking up an unnamed girl to an unknown fate as the novel ends mid sentence.
  • One-Hour Work Week: The story follows students at a college campus during a Fall semester, but none of the characters ever seem to attend any classes or do any coursework. Even more remarkable, the one professor who makes an appearance had cancelled his class at the beginning of the story, when Sean and Lauren first meet, and is never seen teaching, but he is seen attending his students' college parties.
  • A Party, Also Known as an Orgy: Played more or less straight, so much so it's lampshaded with the "Dress to Get Screwed" party.
  • Popular Is Dumb: Sean is highly sought after as a sexual and romantic prospect by other characters. He's also both Book Dumb and almost fatally Street Dumb, and in general just not a very bright guy.
  • P.O.V. Cam: In the film, when Sean is bedding Kelly in the opening sequence, we see his perspective as he stares at her moaning in bed.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The film cuts numerous minor characters (and merges some), and removes several plot lines.
  • Queer Romance: Possibly Sean and Paul, depending on your interpretation. A section of Paul's chapters details a budding sexual/romantic relationship between the two of them, but Sean's don't mention it at all. Is Paul merely fantasizing or is Sean hiding their relationship? Word of God declares that Sean is in fact gay/bi. That being said, it could be that Sean never mentions Paul simply for the fact that Paul is nothing but free sex, his only true aim is Lauren. Or Ellis could be fucking with us, he's kind of ambiguous with his own sexuality.
  • Rape as Drama: Lauren in the opening scene, while she's drunk, passed out and being videotaped by another guy watching. Disturbingly, it's how she loses her virginity. Both book and film come within a whisker of playing it for comedy.
  • The Rashomon:
    • Paul and Sean tell conflicting, contradictory accounts of their relationship.
    • The ending of the film implies that the events of the opening sequence are not what really happened, as Sean leaves the party without bedding Kelly, while Lauren and Paul do not appear to be disheveled, despite having traumatic incidents happening to them supposedly minutes before.
  • Really Gets Around:
    • Lara, who is said in her introductory scene in the film to have had sex with the entire football team in the span of a single night.
    • This also forms the basis of Victor's character, a college student who spends a large chunk of time travelling around sleeping with any woman he finds. This also extends to his characterization in Glamorama, where he's stated to be bi.
  • R-Rated Opening: The first scene of the film depicts Lauren drunkenly passing out in her dorm room, only to be woken up by a man raping her in her sleep while another man films the rape. The rapist continues penetrating her even after drunkenly vomiting on her face and back.
  • Setting Update: The film updates the setting from the mid-1980s to the early 2000s, as evidenced by the clamshell mobile phones and broadband Internet.
  • Shout-Out: The sleazy film student in the beginning of the film is talking about a certain movie that everyone says is "just a Tarantino film."
  • The Sociopath: Sean is heavily implied to be somewhat of a sociopath, showing incredibly impulsive behavior (sleeping with Lauren's friend Judy, and at one point, breaking a box of singles he owns for no reason at all) and having no consideration for other people. This appears to run in the family.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Sean's admirer (called Mary in the books). Her chapters about her desperation for Sean in the book, and her letters to him in the movie, are practically poetry. Sean thinks Lauren is the one writing him, is disappointed when Lauren reveals she isn't; and he doesn't even know who Food Service girl is.
  • Travel Montage: In the film, Victor is introduced via a four-minute sequence in which he (being filmed by a friend wielding a camcorder) travels across Europe, gets into all sorts of strange situations and hooks up with multiple women.
  • Virginity Makes You Stupid: Lauren's actions in the film run headlong into this. She claims that she's saving herself for Victor, but events late in the film make the audience question whether he even knew who she was (and make it seem like she was a Stalker with a Crush).
  • Would Hit a Girl: When Lara acts as a catalyst for ruining everything between Sean and Lauren, she proceeds to try and rub it in, only for Sean to punch her in the face.

Alternative Title(s): The Rules Of Attraction