HBO Is Developing Bret Easton Ellis’ Gruesome Mess ‘The Shards’ — Can This Possibly Work?

Ellis' 600+ page novel about a serial killer stalking 1981 Los Angeles is basically an unedited transcript of his Patreon serial. Can it survive a series treatment?
Bret Easton Ellis
Bret Easton Ellis, author of "The Shards"
Courtesy HBO

Bret Easton Ellis’ latest novel “The Shards” goes where only Bret Easton Ellis could possibly go: back to 1981 Los Angeles with a 600-page book, largely unedited, that’s mostly about himself.

That’s partly because the main character is named Bret, a nihilistic, 17-year-old, bisexual San Fernando Valley trust-fund prep-school brat who’s writing a book called “Less Than Zero.” Yes, this is literary-horror autofiction from the author of that aforementioned 1985 debut and shocking postmodern novels like “American Psycho.”

“The Shards” is also a more-or-less direct transcript of the Patreon serial Ellis launched in late 2020, and its unwieldiness means it’s well-matched for a long-form, flashy series adaptation at HBO. As IndieWire has confirmed, “The Shards” is now being set up at the premium cabler with Ellis as the sole writer while executive producing with Nick Hall (Emmy-winning executive producer on “The White Lotus”) and Brian Young (an executive producer on the 2008 film adaptation of Ellis’ “The Informers”).

But first, it may be in need of a serious edit. “The Shards” is a sprawling novel that details gruesome killings by The Trawler (as the killer is known; they prefer to call the acts “alterations”) as well as Bret’s many sexual exploits with his male and female classmates, including mysterious newcomer Robert Mallory. There’s also Manson-esque cult Riders of the Afterlife, mutilating animals and terrorizing LA’s most privileged. The Trawler and the cult and Mallory are tenuously connected in ways “The Shards” doesn’t entirely snap into place. Plus, there are literal grammatical errors, passages that repeat and shouldn’t, and narrative anachronisms that suggest Knopf gave “The Shards” a cursory once-over before publishing and pushing it out the door in January.

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Lynn Alston/Kingsgate/Kobal/Shutterstock (5883717x) Jessica Biel The Rules Of Attraction - 2002 Director: Roger Avary Kingsgate Films USA Scene Still Drama Les Lois de l'attraction
“The Rules Of Attraction”Lynn Alston/Kingsgate/Kobal/Shutterstock

All that said: This pulpy work of sexed-up horror should work beautifully as a series. It features Ellis’ pop-culture literacy with references to movies like “American Gigolo” and “The Shining” (the latter provides a richly disturbing sequence in which Bret may or may not have had his first encounter with Mallory in a movie theater). The pervasively doomy, sexually charged atmosphere recalls Ellis’ “The Rules of Attraction,” a 2002 indie flop directed by Quentin Tarantino scribe Roger Avary. “The Shards” also features a killer, gloom-pop synth-pop soundtrack (neatly assembled by an Ellis fan into a Spotify playlist), from Ultravox to The Clash. Already, the series’ creative team has plenty to work with.

The book’s massive character ensemble are all screwing (with) each other — from Bret’s clueless, coke-sniffing girlfriend Debbie to his best friend Thom, whom Bret sexually fantasizes about, and Bret’s best friend Susan, who dates Thom. There’s plenty of sleazy violence, graphic sex, and drugging to suggest another series in the mold of “Euphoria” or, sight unseen, the upcoming “The Idol,” Sam Levinson’s two series at HBO that feature, well, plenty of sleaze, violence, sex, and drugs.

THE CANYONS, from left: Lindsay Lohan, James Deen, 2013. ©IFC Films/courtesy Everett Collection
Lindsay Lohan and James Deen in “The Canyons”©IFC Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

Ellis has seen middling success as a film and TV writer. His 2016 web series “The Deleted” came and went on the social platform Fullscreen (which also came and went) and similarly involved doomy youths having edgy hardcore sex while haunted by memories of a cult against the backdrop of the industry. Ellis earlier wrote the script for Paul Schrader’s cynical 2013 feature experiment “The Canyons,” also about the cruel mind games of beautiful young people with beautiful problems in a dissolute Hollywood (here starring Lindsay Lohan).

His novels have seen mixed results in their adaptations, with Mary Harron’s “American Psycho” being the most successful. The satire slasher starring a then-breakout Christian Bale as homicidal yuppie Patrick Bateman remains a cult classic, while other Ellis adaptations like “Rules of Attraction” fizzled out. Ellis is prickly and possessive about his material. (And toward press opportunities these days. He declined IndieWire’s request for an interview about the novel earlier this year.)

So who better to adapt “The Shards”? It’s ultimately way too much book, biting off 1980s industry satire (there’s a grimly hilarious subplot about a closeted producer who takes Bret under his wing and into his Beverly Hills hotel room), mixed with slasher and even vaguely supernatural horror elements, mixed with coming-of-age beats and also passage upon passage of Ellis navel-gazing at the actual sordid particulars of his own, very real teen sex life.

A millennial director with an eye for nihilism and existential emptiness could shape a great series out of the mess. Brian Young was a producer on Brady Corbet’s “Vox Lux,” so just throwing that name out there. Or even any of the filmmakers on Prime Video’s “Swarm,” like Adamma Ebo on a pair of potently disturbing episodes, who made you care about a homicidal superfan with no soul. Jane Schoenbrun, director of the menacing “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” found the humanity and horror in Gen Z social isolation, and whether or not they’re an Ellis fan, could make magic of the material.

“The Shards” is an ambitious disaster — which means it stands a much greater chance of making sense as a series than it ever did as a book. If nothing else, Ellis’ prose is so vividly disturbing that any reader already saw the TV show playing out inside their heads.

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