Forty years after his death, film director Alfred Hitchcock is still known as “the master of suspense”, and his movies retain their popularity and critical acclaim. A number of his best films are based on novels, and it’s always fascinating to see what elements he and his screenwriters retained from the original story, and what trademark Hitchcock touches only appear in the film adaptations. Most of these novels are excellent thrillers in their own right—and just because you’ve seen the movie, don’t expect the book will always turn out the same way! Here are a few examples:
Excellent Thrillers to Rival Hitchcock
In the course of a very busy life, Buchan (1875-1940), the son of a Scottish minister, was the author of more than thirty works of fiction, a respected historian, a member of Parliament, and a diplomat who spent his final four years as Governor General of Canada. He is best remembered today for his thrillers, of which The Thirty-Nine Steps, published in 1915, is the first of five books featuring Richard Hannay as hero. Buchan came up with the plot and the title while recovering from an ulcer at a sanitarium, when his young daughter counted the steps leading from the building down to the beach (there were actually 78, but he decided 39 sounded better in a title). When the Hitchcock film version, The 39 Steps, starring Robert Donat as Hannay, came out in 1935, the time period was moved forward twenty years, but the plot still featured an innocent man getting drawn into a spy plot to uncover British military secrets and being forced to go on the run. Hitchcock and his screenwriters, Charles Bennett and Ian Hay, did make numerous additions to the story, including the music hall and London Palladium scenes at the beginning and end, and the tense escape scene on the Forth Bridge. Buchan has no major female characters in his book, but in the film, the spy who starts Hannay on his adventures is a woman, and an entirely new character, Pamela, played by Madeleine Carroll, is a very important part of the action. While the movie title simply refers to the name of the spy organization, in the book there is an actual flight of steps that features prominently in the concluding scenes.
Of all the writers who are considered “great British novelists”, Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) has the most unusual story. Born Josef Konrad Korzeniowski in Ukraine, he was the descendant of an aristocratic Polish family who grew up speaking mainly Polish and French and did not know much English until he enlisted in the British merchant marine in 1878. Sixteen years later, he retired from the seafaring life to write full time—in English—and over the next two decades became one of the most critically acclaimed writers of his generation, producing classics like Heart of Darkness (1899), Lord Jim (1900), Nostromo (1904), The Secret Agent (1907), and Under Western Eyes (1911). The Secret Agent was inspired by an actual 1894 anarchist plot to blow up the Greenwich Observatory and takes place in London in the 1880s. When Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter Charles Bennett set out to turn it into a movie in 1936, they knew that they would not be retaining the book’s title, because they had just finished making a film called Secret Agent, which was loosely based on two Somerset Maugham short stories. Their new project was retitled Sabotage, though its American distributor renamed it A Woman Alone. The screenplay moved the action to the 1930s but still featured the secret agent Verloc (played by Oscar Homolka), his wife (Sylvia Sidney), and her brother, Stevie (Desmond Tester). The political objectives of the terrorists Verloc become involved with are much more vague in the movie than in the book, and the planned bombing target is moved to the Piccadilly station of the London Underground. In a typical Hitchcock modification, Verloc’s “cover” job locale is changed from a rather disreputable shop to a movie theatre, allowing occasional snippets of actual films that bear some connection to the plot of Sabotage. Hitchcock also adds a tense scene on a bus involving Stevie, who is unknowingly carrying the bomb in a film canister. While Stevie was a mentally disabled adult in the book, he is a young boy in the film version, and the film’s ending, though downbeat, is not as dark as the book’s. Another interesting change is Verloc’s first name, which became Karl rather than Adolf, presumably to avoid any association with Hitler.
While crime writer Ethel Lina White (1876-1944) is not particularly well-remembered today, she was part of the so-called “golden age” of British crime fiction in the 1930s, and her books were popular on both sides of the Atlantic. She had started writing as a child, but it was not until she gave up a position in the government pensions department at age 50 that she began to publish novels. After three books of mainstream fiction, she produced more than a dozen crime thrillers, and The Wheel Spins (1936) was the first of these to be adapted as a film. It was originally assigned to a different director in 1937, but production difficulties intervened, and Hitchcock agreed to take over the project the following year: the title was changed to The Lost Lady, and then to The Lady Vanishes. Hitchcock and screenwriters Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder retained White’s basic story about a young woman named Iris (played by Margaret Lockwood) who is crossing Europe by train and becomes alarmed when Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), an older lady she has met on the journey, suddenly disappears and no one will admit to having seen her. But the screen version makes Miss Froy a considerably more complex character and also adds a romantic interest for Iris (played by Michael Redgrave) who is very different from the one in the book. Almost all of the novel takes place on board the train, while a significant portion of the film’s opening is set at an inn where the passengers must stay after an avalanche halts their journey. Many of the other travelers in the film are original to the screenplay, including the two humorous cricket aficionados Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), who proved to be so popular that Radford and Wayne brought them back for several additional movies.
Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) was the daughter of actors and the granddaughter of novelist George du Maurier, whose hypnotist character Svengali has had his name turned into a synonym for those who exert a controlling influence on others. Like the stories of her grandfather, Daphne du Maurier’s books—some set in various historical eras, others with contemporary settings—often have a moody, paranormal aspect to them. She was one of the most popular writers of the era from the 1930s to the 1960s, and since she only produced a book every three or four years, each new one was a special event. She is unique in having three of her stories adapted by Hitchcock: at the time he was hired by producer David Selznick to direct Rebecca, he had recently finished a film based on her book Jamaica Inn, and over twenty years later, he would use her novella The Birds as the framework for his movie of the same name. Du Maurier was often quoted as saying that of all the movies based on her books, the only two that were any good were Rebecca and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. She probably felt that The Birds was only peripherally connected to her story, and Hitchcock agreed with her that Jamaica Inn hadn’t turned out well—mostly because it was adapted to the particular talents of its star, Charles Laughton. But the 1940 film of Rebecca won the Oscar for Best Picture, the only Hitchcock film to do so, and it greatly advanced the careers of its stars, Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. The du Maurier novel had been the number four best-seller of 1938 in America and continued as number three in 1939. This meant that lots of people were familiar with its story of an unnamed young woman who marries the fabulously wealthy Max de Winter and moves to his Cornish estate, Manderley, where she is oppressed by his friends’ and servants’ memories of Rebecca, his deceased first wife. Selznick was something of a stickler for faithful adaptations of novels, and as a result, Hitchcock and his screenwriters, Robert Sherwood and Joan Harrison in this case, did not tweak the story as much as they may have wanted to; an earlier script that made more drastic alterations was rejected by Selznick. One change that was required by the Hollywood Production Code involved a murder being turned into an accidental death, since the Code required that murderers must pay for their crimes, and that did not happen in this case. In casting the relatively young Judith Anderson as malevolent housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, Hitchcock turned the character from a jealous mother figure into more of a contemporary of Rebecca’s, adding some implied, though certainly never explicit, sexual innuendo.
Francis Iles is one of several pseudonyms used by British crime writer Anthony Berkeley Cox (1893-1971). Cox started out as a journalist and humorist, but in the mid-1920s he began to write detective stories, mostly under the name Anthony Berkeley. He was instrumental in organizing many of his fellow British mystery writers into the Detection Club in 1930—an organization that still exists today. He continued as a prolific writer of mysteries, as well as psychological thrillers under his Iles pseudonym, until 1939, when he suddenly stopped, devoting the rest of his career mainly to book reviewing. A very private person, he never explained the abrupt end of his career as a crime writer, though there were rumors he resented the high taxes he had to pay on his literary earnings. In 1941, his 1932 book Before the Fact was made into the film Suspicion by Alfred Hitchcock and won the Best Actress Oscar for Joan Fontaine. Like the novel, the film centers on mousey Lina McLaidlaw, who appalls her family and friends by falling in love with charming but dishonest Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant); after their marriage, as Lina learns of his lies and crimes, she begins to suspect that he ultimately plans to murder her for her insurance money. Discussing the many differences between the novel and film (scripted by Samson Raphaelson, Joan Harrison, and Alma Reville) is difficult without giving away too much; suffice it to say that Johnnie’s offenses in the movie pale beside what he does in the book, including goading Lina’s father into a fatal heart attack and seducing most of the women in their social circle. The film’s ending has always been controversial, and Hitchcock biographers and critics are divided as to whether he was forced by the studio to modify the plot or always intended to alter the book’s ending in some way. In either case, both book and film are extremely entertaining, though very different, and definitely worth comparing.
Like Francis Iles, discussed above, Francis Beeding is a pseudonym. In this case, Beeding was used by the writing partnership of Hilary Aidan St. George Saunders (1898-1951) and John Palmer (1885-1944) for over thirty mysteries and thrillers they published between 1922 and 1946. The two men met and became friends while both were working for the League of Nations Palmer also had a successful career as a drama critic, while Saunders wrote several nonfiction accounts of World War II and spent his last years as librarian of the House of Commons. The House of Dr. Edwardes (1927) was the fifth of their books written as Beeding; the Hitchcock film version, retitled Spellbound, was produced eighteen years later, and its script (by Angus MacPhail and Ben Hecht) deviates more from the source material than almost any other film discussed here. Beyond the fact that both stories take place at a mental asylum, feature doctors named Edwardes and Murchison, have a heroine, also a doctor, named Constance and involve an impostor, they are very different in plot and tone. The script also changed Constance’s last name from Sedgwick to Petersen, to accommodate the Swedish accent of star Ingrid Bergman. The novel is more of a creepy gothic thriller, with devil worship as part of the plot, and has surprisingly little discussion of psychology and just one brief mention of Freud. The film, on the other hand, centers on an amnesia case, and there is lots of talk about repressed memories, guilt complexes, and the meaning of dreams, including a famous dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali. Spellbound was Hitchcock’s first film since Rebecca with producer David Selznick, and it was Selznick who wanted the movie to reflect his own positive experiences with psychoanalysis, making him willing to put aside his usual tendency to stick close to novels’ plots in screen adaptations. Of course, unlike Rebecca, the Beeding novel was almost twenty years old and not particularly well known, so few viewers would have been aware of the numerous changes.
Unlike all but one of the authors on this list, Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) was American; born in Fort Worth, she grew up mostly in New York City, which she used as the setting for many of her crime novels. Prone to depression and alcoholism, she spent most of her last thirty years in Europe and turned into something of a misanthrope and recluse. Her twenty-two novels included five about career criminal and serial killer Tom Ripley, the lesbian love story Carol , originally published under a pseudonym, and the much-praised Edith’s Diary. But at the time she crossed paths with Alfred Hitchcock in 1950, she was a young first-time novelist who was little known outside New York literary circles. As a result, Hitchcock, keeping his own name out of the negotiations, was able to acquire movie rights to her recently published book for the relatively low sum of $7,500. While the novel’s central “exchanged murders” plot appealed enormously to Hitchcock, as usual, he had ideas for changes he wanted to make, and writer Whitfield Cook came up with a story treatment he liked, but he was looking for a “name” writer to produce the screenplay. After being turned down by John Steinbeck, Thornton Wilder, and Dashiell Hammett, among others, he made a deal with Raymond Chandler, but Hitchcock eventually rejected everything Chandler produced, though his name remained in the movie credits at Warner Brothers’ insistence. Ben Hecht was also unavailable, but as the shooting deadline approached, he sent Hitchcock an assistant of his, Czenzi Ormonde, and working with Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, and another assistant, she produced the final script. The basic details of the traded murders plan remain much the same as in the book, but Guy Haines (Farley Granger) becomes a tennis player rather than an architect, and Charles Anthony Bruno, a rather coarse alcoholic, is transformed into Bruno Antony, a stylishly dressed mama’s boy, memorably played by Robert Walker. The story is given a happier ending (for Guy, at least), and a brief mention of an amusement park in the novel is turned into a central component of the film. Interestingly, Hitchcock and the writers borrowed, without credit, the conclusion involving an out-of-control merry-go-round from Edmund Crispin’s 1946 novel The Moving Toyshop.
Boileau-Narcejac was the name used by Frenchmen Pierre Boileau (1906-1989) and Thomas Narcejac (1908-1998) for over forty crime novels they wrote together. Boileau had been writing detective fiction on his own since the 1930s, while Narcejac (real name Pierre Ayraud) began writing in the mid-1940s as a sideline to a teaching career. They started corresponding in 1947 after Boileau read a Narcejac essay about crime fiction, met in 1948, and began their writing partnership in 1950. Boileau generally focused on their books’ plot and structure, while Narcejac contributed the atmosphere and characterization, and they continued working together until Boileau’s death, becoming known for their stories’ focus on victims rather than detectives or criminals. Only their early novels have been translated into English, and many of those never found an American publisher. Hitchcock became interested in one of their first novels together but lost out on the film rights; it became the very successful French film Les Diaboliques. He kept an eye on their subsequent work and succeeded in getting the rights to D’entre les mortes (1954) (literal translation From Among the Dead , but originally published in English as The Living and the Dead). As with many Hitchcock projects, this one went through several writing drafts with three different writers—Maxwell Anderson, Alec Coppel, and Samuel A. Taylor; Taylor was chosen partly for his knowledge of San Francisco, where Hitchcock had decided to set the story. It was Taylor’s version that was ultimately used, though Coppel demanded and was given credit as well. The novel had been set in Paris during World War II, so a lot of revision was necessary, including changing the central character from lawyer Roger Flavieres to all-American retired detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart). Taylor added the character of Scottie’s ex-fiancee, Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), but the details of “Madeleine’s” (Kim Novak) obsession with her dead great-grandmother, Scottie trailing her around the city, his fear of heights, and the events at the church tower all come from the book, as does Scottie’s chance sighting, several years later, of a woman who resembles “Madeleine”. Though both novel and film have dark endings, Hitchcock did tone down the book’s pitch-black conclusion.
During a sixty-year writing career that started when he was in his teens, Robert Bloch (1917-1994) produced numerous short stories, novels, and, in later years, screenplays and teleplays, in genres ranging from crime and horror to science fiction and fantasy, but his single greatest claim to fame is his 1959 novel, Psycho. As a young writer, Bloch was a disciple and imitator of H. P. Lovecraft and contributed many stories to Weird Tales and similar magazines, but as he matured he developed his own distinctive writing style. Psycho draws a few elements from real-life killer Ed Gein, who lived not far from Bloch’s own town in Wisconsin; Gein, like Bloch’s anti-hero Norman Bates, was a mother-fixated loner who managed to blend in with his small town for a number of years before his crimes were uncovered, though there are more differences than similarities between the two. Hitchcock was immediately attracted to the story, and he dealt with film studio executives’ aversion to the material by offering to reduce costs by filming it in black and white, using the crew of his Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show. After rejecting one screenplay, he hired Joseph Stefano, who produced the version that was filmed. In the novel, Norman Bates is an overweight alcoholic, but Hitchcock had decided to cast Anthony Perkins in the part, so Stefano made the character younger and cut out his drinking and his interest in spiritualism. The screenplay also focuses considerably more than the novel on the character of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), whose name was changed from Mary in the book because there was an actual Mary Crane in Phoenix. Norman Bates appears at the very beginning of the novel, and Mary is only in two out of seventeen chapters, while Marion is at the center of the action for much of the film’s first half. The movie’s famous shower scene received a lot of criticism in 1960 for its violence, but it must be pointed out that the same scene in the book is even more gruesome.
Winston Graham (1908-2003) was born in Manchester, England, the son of a wealthy tea importer who died when Winston was still young. From an early age, Graham knew that he wanted to be a writer, and his mother supported him financially until his career as a novelist took off; the first of his more than fifty novels was published in 1934. Feeling that his real last name (Grime) would not look well on book covers, he used Graham as a pseudonym and eventually changed it officially. Graham is best known for his twelve Poldark novels, set in Cornwall, where he lived for thirty years, between 1783 and 1820, but he wrote numerous books with contemporary settings as well, including his 1961 novel Marnie, about a young woman who has deep-rooted psychological problems that cause her to steal from a series of employers. When Alfred Hitchcock became interested in a film version of the book, he rejected treatments by two writers he’d worked with before—Joseph Stefano, Psycho, and Evan Hunter, The Birds, before approving the work of Jay Presson Allen. Hunter had balked at including the marital rape scene featuring the story’s two central characters, Marnie; Tippi Hedren, and Mark; Sean Connery, but as Allen later told him, that scene was one of the main reasons Hitchcock was interested in the story. The movie version, which was not a huge success, has, if anything, become more controversial with the passage of time, with some critics now hailing it as a major film while others deplore its sexual politics, particularly given Tippi Hedren’s later statements about Hitchcock’s treatment of her. The film makes a number of changes from the novel’s plot, resetting it in various U.S. East Coast locales and altering some elements of the Marnie-Mark relationship and the novel’s first-person Marnie narration. Additionally, the key final revelation about Marnie’s mother is significantly different, and the book’s ending is considerably bleaker.
Be sure to check out the following documentary films and e-books about Hitchcock as well, all available with your library card.
- Alfred Hitchcock: More Than Just a Profile
- Hitchcock/Truffaut: The Timeless Legacy of Alfred Hitchcock
- Alfred Hitchcock: Master of Suspense
- Hitchcock and Adaptation: On the Page and Screen
- The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures
- Alfred Hitchcock
- Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho
- Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie
- Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System
- It’s Only a Movie: Alfred Hitchcock, a Personal Biography