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Hitchcock's Film Sources

Alfred Hitchcock occasionally hired very good, established writers to work on his scripts (Dorothy Parker on Saboteur and Robert Benchley on Foreign Correspondent, for example). And he occasionally adapted work from great writers (Joseph Conrad for Sabotage, W. Somerset Maugham for The Secret Agent, John Steinbeck for Lifeboat) and very good writers (John Buchan for 39 Steps and Daphne Du Maurier for Jamaica Inn, Rebecca and The Birds).

But many of the other novelists whose works he adapted for the screen are either popular, weak writers (Leon Uris with Topaz) or writers whose work has rightly been lost in the inevitable attic-cleaning history performs on such writers (I'll spare their relatives and not list their names here).

But one thing remains clear: regardless of the quality of the original source, Hitchcock relied primarily on the novel for his building materials. Of the thirty-seven feature films he made from 1934 (The Man Who Knew Too Much) to 1976 (Family Plot), twenty-two were adapted from novels, four from short stories and three from stage plays.

(A note to English majors counting on their fingers: that means Hitchcock made only eight films from original material from 1934 to 1976.)

There's really no easy formula that determines which sources produced the best films. Some of Hitchcock's best films came from original ideas (North by Northwest, for example)—as did some of his worst (Torn Curtain). And a film isn't necessarily going to be better simply because its original novelist is better. While Sabotage (Joseph Conrad) is a very good film, Psycho (Robert Bloch) is a masterpiece.

Obviously, it's what Hitchcock did with the material that makes them great films. But many of the original novels are worth reading in their own right, and the list below will point you in the right direction.

Note: most of Hitchcock's source books are unfortunately out of print. The individual links below will lead you to Amazon.com, where you can purchase the book. For the others, you might check your local library.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 & 1956)
D.B. Wyndham-Lewis and Charles Bennett (story)

The 39 Steps (1935)
John Buchan (novel)

The Secret Agent (1936)
W. Somerset Maugham (novel's original title: Ashenden)

Sabotage (1936)
Joseph Conrad (novel's original title: The Secret Agent)

Young and Innocent (1937)
Josephine Tey (real name: Elizabeth MacKintosh; novel's original title: A Shilling For Candles)

The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Ethel Lina White (novel's original title: The Wheel Spins)

Jamaica Inn (1939)
Daphne Du Maurier (novel)

Rebecca (1940)
Daphne Du Maurier (novel)

Suspicion (1941)
Francis Iles (novel's original title: Before the Fact)

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Gordon McDonell (story)

Lifeboat (1944)
John Steinbeck (story)

Spellbound (1945)
Francis Beeding (novel)

The Paradine Case (1947)
Robert Hichens (novel)

Rope (1948)
Patrick Hamilton (play)

Under Capricorn (1949)
Helen Simpson (novel; also wrote dialogue for Sabotage and co-wrote the original novel for Hitchcock's early film, Murder! (novel's original title: Enter Sir John))

Stage Fright (1950)
Selwyn Jepson (novel)

Strangers on a Train (1951)
Patricia Highsmith (novel)

I Confess (1953)
Paul Anthelme (play)

Rear Window (1954)
Cornell Woolrich (story; also wrote the novels Truffaut adapted as Mississippi Mermaid and The Bride Wore Black under the name William Irish)

Dial M for Murder (1954)
Frederick Knott (play)

The Trouble with Harry (1955)
Jack Trevor (novel)

To Catch a Thief (1955)
David Dodge (novel)

The Wrong Man (1956)
Maxwell Anderson (novel's original title: The True Story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero)

Vertigo (1958)
Pierre Boileau (novel's original title: d'Entre les Morts; also wrote novel adapted as Diabolique)

Psycho (1960)
Robert Bloch (novel)

Marnie (1964)
Winston Graham (novel)

Topaz (1969)
Leon Uris (novel)

Frenzy (1972)
Arthur La Bern (novel's original title: Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square)

Family Plot (1976)
Victor Canning (novel's original title: The Rainbird Pattern)

—Article by Woody Arbunkle

Posted August 1, 1999





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