Top 5 Hitchcock Films Based on Books

Alfred Hitchcock Wax Model
Category: Reading

I really enjoy the films of Alfred Hitchcock. I've spent many a Sunday afternoon trying to convince my girlfriend that watching one of his films will dramatically improve the quality of our day. Hitchcock is synonymous with the suspense genre, and his dedication to the visual literacy of cinema inspired a generation of modern filmmakers.

On the train Iris meets an elderly governess, Miss Froy, and the two strike up an immediate friendship...

Many of Hitchcock’s most commercially successful films were adapted to the screen from texts. I have listed a few of my personal favourites below and tried to pick some of Hitchcock’s less well-known works.

1. Strangers on a Train (1951) based on Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (1950)

Strangers On a Train Cover
I have a strong personal connection to Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. One of the first of his films that I saw, it also gave me my first (and last) perfect mark for a university essay. Self-praise out of the way, it tells the story of an amateur tennis player, Guy Haines, and the intelligent but mentally unstable, Bruno Anthony. 

They meet by chance on a train where Bruno suggests that each of them kill someone the other would like gotten rid of (Guy’s troublesome ex-wife and Bruno’s domineering father) in the belief that the lack of a motive for each man killing someone they have never met would absolve them of punishment.

Believing the conversation to be nothing more than whimsy, Guy dismisses Bruno’s plan. However, when Bruno goes ahead with the murder of Guy’s ex-wife he finds himself trapped between the increasing suspicion of the police and Bruno’s insistence that Guy murder his father.

2. The Lady Vanishes (1938) based on The Lady Vanishes by Ethel Lina White (1936)

It’s very difficult for me to pinpoint one Hitchcock film as my favourite but The Lady Vanishes comes awfully close. It tells the story of a wealthy, soon-to-be-married English socialite, Iris Henderson, travelling home from a trip around Europe.

On the train Iris meets an elderly governess, Miss Froy, and the two strike up an immediate friendship. Later, when Miss Froy inexplicably disappears and her fellow travellers deny her existence, Iris, with the help of a roguish young British musician (played with wonderful charm by Michael Redgrave) attempts to relocate her; uncovering a far more sinister political plot in the process.

Hitchcock injects his signature visual style to the mystery elements of the plot and there is wonderful chemistry between the actors, particularly Iris and Gilbert (played by Redgrave) and the two English sophisticates and cricket obsessives, Charters and Chaldicott.

3. The 39 Steps (1935) based on The 39 Steps by John Buchan (1915)

The 39 Steps Cover
Richard Hannay is the protagonist of John Buchan’s thriller, The 39 Steps, in which he attempts to outmanoeuvre an international spy ring intent on silencing him after he inadvertently uncovers their secrets. 

The film unfolds at a wonderful pace and there’s a great scene in which Hannay attempts to escape the clutches of the police while on board the Flying Scotsman. He hides in a woman’s compartment, kissing her to try and avoid the passing policeman seeing his face.

The young woman betrays him to the police forcing Hannay to pull the emergency cord, stopping the train on the Forth Rail Bridge where he manages to avoid detection by hiding under the bridge’s truss. Hannay is played wonderfully by Robert Donat, in one of his earlier screen appearances.

Full of charm and black comedy

4. Dial M for Murder (1954) based on Dial M for Murder by Frederick Knott (1952)

Another of Hitchcock’s films based on a play, Dial M for Murder is notable for being far more reliant on dialogue than many of his other films. Tony Wendice, a retired tennis pro, now working as a sports goods salesman plots the murder of his unfaithful wife.

Things go awry when the man he blackmails into committing the murder botches the attempt. The scheming husband is played very sympathetically by Ray Milland, with Grace Kelly playing his wife (the two were apparently involved in an affair during filming).

Hitchcock was careful to contain the setting of the action to one space as much as possible, mirroring the form of stage-play. Full of charm and black comedy, one of the great things about the film is how readily the audience identifies with Wendice despite his attempts to have his wife killed.

5. Rebecca (1940) based on Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, (1938)

Rebecca Cover
Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca is perhaps the most widely-known novel on this list – and perhaps Hitchcock’s most widely known literary adaption. The film tells the story of an unnamed, timid young woman who falls in love with a wealthy widower, Maxim de Winter, played by Sir Lawrence Olivier.

They marry and return to Maxim’s grand house, Manderley. Once there, the young woman struggles to assert her position as Maxim’s wife, finding herself firmly in the shadow of his former wife, Rebecca.

As the film progresses, the young woman finds out more about the reality of Maxim and Rebecca’s seemingly flawless marriage, and the circumstances of her death. Worth watching if only to revel in Judith Anderson’s terrifically unsettling performance as Mrs. Danvers (Rebecca’s obsessively loyal housekeeper), the film also boasts a great central performance by Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs. de Winter. There are some subtle differences in the film and book, particularly the characterisation of the young woman but indulging in either (or both) is a great way to spend an afternoon.

 

I would highly recommend reading all of the texts, and watching all of the films but if you can’t quite commit to a Hitchcock marathon then you won’t be disappointed by any of these options.

The Edinburgh International Film Festival runs 21 June to 2 July 2017. Click here to find out more about the screening of 'Hitchcock on Grierson' and 'Drifters'.

Want to discover more books that became Hitchcock films? We've got a list for that.

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