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  • by Michael Rickard II

"'Rear Window': How to Turn a Short Story into a 112 Minute Film. Part One of Four.&quo

Here's a final paper I wrote in 2015 on Hitchcock's classic Rear Window.

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.

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.

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