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  • by Michael Rickard II

Rear Window: How Alfred Hitchcock’s Intermediate Adaptation of “It Had to Be Murder” Took Film-Makin

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window is a masterfully worked cinematic adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s short story “It Had to Be Murder” (“Murder”). Hitchcock keeps the short story’s main character, plot, and themes while adding characters and subplots to lengthen it into a full-length feature film. Hitchcock uses his signature visual style to accomplish all of this, creating a film that has become regarded as a classic.

Desmond and Hawkes discuss the approaches to adapting a literary work into a film. When a filmmaker adapts a literary work into a film, there are three options- 1) a close adaptation “when most of the narrative elements are kept in the film, few are dropped, and not many elements are added”, 2) “a loose adaptation when most of the story elements in the literary text are dropped from the film and most elements in the film are substituted or added”, and 3) an intermediate adaptations where “some elements of the story are kept in the film, other elements are dropped, and still more elements are added” (44)

A filmmaker who adapts a short story into a feature film has to deal with the challenge of how to expand a short story into a film. A short story typically ranges from 500 to 15,000 words (assuming a typical page contains 300 words, the longest short story will be 50 pages). A typical screenplay runs 120 pages while the average film runs 80 to 120 minutes. This often translates as one page of screenplay equaling one minute of screen time which means that even the longest short story will only translate into a fifty minute film.

A filmmaker adapting a short story must develop a means of expanding a short story into a feature length film (or has the option of adapting it into a short film as done with An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge). Desmond and Hawkes discuss three methods of adaptation; 1) Concentration strategy, 2) Interweaving strategy, and 3) Point-of-departure strategy. They also note that a filmmaker may utilize different elements of these strategies.

The first strategy is concentration strategy where “…filmmakers keep most of the elements of narrative from the short story, concentrate those elements at the beginning, middle, or end of the film; and add invented elements to the rest of the film” (Desmond and Hawkes 128). Desmond and Hawkes compare Hemingway’s short story The Killers to its film adaptation The Killers where the plot of two killers looking for Ole Anderson is overshadowed by the majority of the film which tells Ole Anderson’s backstory. Anderson’s backstory is completely absent from the short story.

The second method is the interweaving strategy which is described as, “…the filmmakers keep most of the elements of the narrative from the short story disperse those elements throughout the film, although not necessarily in their original order; and interweave either invented elements or invented expansions to already existing elements (128). Frank Perry’s adaptation of John Cheever’s The Swimmer includes the story’s central plot but adds elements and characters, including more information about the protagonist.

The third method is the point-of-departure strategy in which, “…the filmmakers drop most of the elements of narrative from the short story; keep perhaps the plot premise, a character’s name, or just the title; and, using these elements as a point of departure, add an invented narrative” (128). Desmond and Hawkes use the example of director Christopher Nolan’s film Memento, an adaptation of a short story that his brother Jonathon was still in the process of writing. Christopher Nolan liked the short story’s basic premise and made a feature length film that incorporated his own direction for the film.

A film adaptation is different than a literary text in the number of parties responsible for its production. While a literary text typically has a sole author, there are different schools of thought on who should receive credit for a film’s production. Some argue that since a film has so many people involved such as actors, technicians who deal with sound and light, the film’s producer, and its director, that there is no way to ascribe the film’s success or failure to just one person. There is also a school of thought that since a film director guides the film through its various stages of production that he or she should receive sole credit (and responsibility). This is known as the auteur theory. Desmond and Hawkes discuss Truffaut’s auteur theory where he “emphasized the director as the main creative force behind a film, who imprints the material with his or her own unique personal style, vision, and thematic preoccupations” (45).

One of the directors that Truffaut referred to as an “auteur” was Alfred Hitchcock. Alfred Hitchcock was renowned for having a signature approach to filmmaking that focused on visuals. A film that embodies his approach to filmmaking is Rear Window. Although there were many talented people who participated on Rear Window, Hitchcock controlled all aspects of the film, including visuals, dramatic performances, sounds, music, and dialogue, emphasizing the use of visuals to adapt “Murder” into Rear Window.

Analyzing a film adaptation of a literary work requires a close examination of the literary work’s plot, characters, setting, point of view, and theme followed by a comparison of them to what is found in the film adaptation. Does the film add or remove any plot elements? Does it add, eliminate, or truncate characters? Does the film change the text’s setting or alter its point of view? Finally, does the film explore the text’s theme and/or add to it? Hitchcock clearly follows the plot of “It Had to Be Murder” where an invalid voyeur named Jeffries (“Jeff”) suspects his neighbor has murdered his wife and sets out to prove it, becoming the killer’s target in the process. While Hitchcock follows the short story’s plot, he expands the story by adding a number of subplots involving Jeff’s neighbors as well as a romantic subplot between Jeff and his girlfriend Lisa.

Woolrich wastes no time in establishing the plot as Jeff, driven to hypervigilance by boredom, notices his neighbor’s erratic behavior and soon suspects the neighbor has murdered his wife. In Rear Window, Hitchcock slowly builds up the story, laying a foundation of subplots based on the other neighbors and laying down a story involving Jeffries’ troubled romance with Lisa before he tackles the murder of Thorwald’s wife and Jeff’s subsequent investigation.

For Alfred Hitchcock, a literary text was merely a starting point for him in making a film. Hitchcock recognized the difference between literature and cinema. Hitchcock’s approach to adaptation was explained in an interview, “What I do is read a story only once, and if I like the basic idea, I forget about the book and start to create cinema” (Truffaut 71). Although Hitchcock followed “Murder’s” plot, the fact that he had to expand it into a full-length film gave him the chance to add to the story.

“It Had to Be Murder” features the protagonist Jeffries, his friend Boynes the police detective, Jeff’s houseman Sam, and the suspected murderer Thorwald. In Rear Window, Hitchcock replaces the Sam character with a female nurse named Stella, and adds the major character of Lisa, Jeff’s love interest. While Woolrich mentions the neighbors in “Murder’s” opening, they play no role in the story other than to establish that Jeffries is so bored that he watches them intensively. Hitchcock adds the neighbors Miss Torso, the Newlyweds, the Composer, the Sculptor, and the Old Married Couple.

The subplots involving the neighbors do far more than just pad the story in Rear Window. As Howe points out: But all of this watching fails to divert him from his own problems because the stories he infers from his nearly obsessive observations of his neighbors’ lives are variations on the theme of his own ambivalence about committing to marriage. Figures like Miss Torso and Miss Lonelyhearts represent opposite poles of gaiety or despair in the single life, while, as divergent examples of coupling, the newlyweds in the apartment adjacent to Jeff’s represent the enthralling novelty of marriage, and Thorwald and his invalid wife its burdensome drudgery. As he continues watching, the identifications multiply in conflicting ways. For example, Jeff is identified not only with Mrs. Thorwald in that both are invalids, but also with Thorwald who seeks to be rid of his wife just as Jeff looks to evade what he sees as the marriage trap. (22). The Lisa character provides a love interest as well as a damsel in distress. Hitchcock adds the plot of Lisa and Jeff’s romance and the cultural and class differences getting in the way of their thoughts of marriage. It can be argued that the Lisa character also provides the audience with an emotional investment when she risks her life breaking into Thorwald’s apartment.

Hitchcock’s substitution of Stella for Sam not only expands the short story but creates more opportunities to explore the film’s themes. In Murder, the character of Sam is one dimensional but Rear Window’s Stella is a well-rounded character who provides a foil for Jeff, dispensing wisdom on romance as well as neighborly relations. Like Sam in the short story, she questions Jeff’s penchant for watching his neighbors but she proves to be a loyal ally once Jeff convinces her something foul has happened. The Stella character also provides for additional dramatic situations with the Lisa character. Lisa and Stella are parallel characters. Although they come from greatly different socioeconomic backgrounds, they are both resourceful women and protective of Jeff. The two women act as Jeff’s agents since he is trapped in his apartment. Stella reminds Lisa that life is not as antiseptic as the modeling world she lives in. This is seen when Stella talks of the blood Lars may be cleaning off of the bathtub wall. Lisa is taken aback but Stella reminds her that there is no nice way to describe murder. The police detective Boynes is a flat character in “Murder” with his name changed to Doyle in the film. Although he has an expanded role in the film, he is a flat and static character. He serves the same presence in Rear Window as he does in “Murder”, investigating Jeff’s suspicions about Thorwald and erroneously concluding Jeff is wrong. In “Murder”, Boyne fatally shoots Lars in self-defense but in the film, Lars is not shot.

Hitchcock keeps “Murder’s” setting of a metropolitan city with Jeff living in an apartment in between his neighbors. Woolrich does not specify what city the story takes place in but we know from dialogue in the film that it is in New York, presumably New York City. The important thing is that the city setting is kept in order to explore the theme of people living close to one another but who do not act like good neighbors. This close proximity also makes it easy for Jeff to spy on his neighbors.

“Murder” is told through the first person point of view. Hitchcock maintains this point of view in the film adaptation through his use of camera shots. A large number of the film’s shots appear as if they are being shot through Jeff’s window (hence the film’s title). With Rear Window, Hitchcock could have used a variety of camera shots to provide multiple perspectives to the audience. For example, he could have shown Mrs. Thorwald’s murder from inside the Thorwalds’ apartment (the murder is not shown on-screen) or shot the scene where Lisa sneaks into Thorwald’s apartment from Lisa’s point of view. Hitchcock could have employed cross-cuts of Thorwald getting closer with shots of Lisa searching the apartment, building suspense. Instead Hitchcock maintains the point of view of Jeff looking out of his windows as Lisa conducts her search and Thorwald returns, then cuts to shots of Jeff and Stella’s panicked faces.

Works Cited

Desmond, John M. & Peter Hawkes. Adaptation: Studying Film & Literature. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005.

Fawell, John. “Torturing Women and Mocking Men: Hitchcock’s Rear Window”. The Midwest Quarterly. 44.1 (Autumn 2002). 88.

Hirsch, Foster. The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2008.

Howe, Lawrence. “Through the Looking Glass: Reflexivity, Reciprocality, and Defenestration in Hitchcock’s Rear Window.” College Literature, 35.1, Winter 2008. 16-37.

Rear Window. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter, and Raymond Burr. Paramount Pictures, 1954. Film

. Spoto, Donald. The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures.. New York: Doubleday,. 1992.

Toles, George E. “Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window as Critical Allegory”. Boundary 2. No. 2/3 (Winter-Spring, 1989) 225-245.

Truffaut, Francois. Hitchcock. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.

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