Arguably one of the most legendary directors in cinema history, Alfred Hitchcock will forever be known as the “Master of Suspense.” A title he has earned from his incredible catalog of over 50-films, featuring classic favorites like Psycho, Vertigo, To Catch a Thief, and so much more. Thriller’s favorite filmmaker has continued to inspire a generation of directors and writers long after his death. His legacy is an imprint on every psychological thriller we watch today. It’s only right that we celebrate Hitchcock’s birthday with a look at some of the fiction novels that inspired the most well-known films in suspense history.
Alfred Hitchcock: The Master of Suspense
Sir Alfred Hitchcock was born on August 13th, 1899, in London, England. Mysteriously, it was rumored that the house he once grew up in was haunted by none other than Jack the Ripper. Of course, what would a legendary horror filmmaker be without an eerie start? Hitchcock’s remarkable career has since become a staple in the thriller genre. Whether silent or “talkie,” his films are known for their unique humor and a bleak commentary on the human condition. A genius storyteller, Alfred Hitchcock set a new standard for the psychological thriller by mastering the ability to create and maintain suspense. However, horror wasn’t the only genre on his mind. Romantically, he married his film editor and script supervisor, Alma Reville, in 1926. We can’t imagine a world without Hitchcock’s television and films. Thankfully, we don’t have to.
Suspense Over Surprise
Besides the horrors of daily life, what fiction novels inspired the great director? Those with great suspense, of course. Take it from the legend himself, “Mystery is when the spectator knows less than the characters in the movie. Suspense is when the spectator knows more than the characters in the movie.” Readers are the best spectators. What better way to create a visual in your head than with a suspenseful read?
The Fiction Behind The Films
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)
A classic spy thriller. With Britain on the eve of war with Germany in 1914 (WWI), Richard Hannay finds himself in a world of mystery… and boredom. One day, after a brush with fate, he meets a mysterious stranger who leads him on a suspenseful adventure with Britain’s security and secrets at stake. After decoding this stranger’s journal, he must outrun authorities, time, and a ruthless enemy. On his way to his native Scotland, Hannay gets caught up in a web of secret codes, spies, and murder, all too life-threatening. He must answer the greatest enigma, what are the thirty-nine steps?
The 39 Steps (1935)
Hitchcock’s film The 39 Steps established his career as the leading suspense director of his time. By reading the synopsis of The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan, one will understand how Hitchcock felt inspired by this spy thriller. While his basic plot remains the same, Hitchcock’s film version is very different. Hitchcock prioritizes suspense by expanding the cat and mouse game between Hannay and the spies that come after him. While Buchan’s Hannay is alone for his journey, Hitchcock decides to introduce a companion, Pamela. To add fuel to the fire, the characters are handcuffed together. Hitchcock adds many new elements, characteristics, and even a new character, Mister Memory, who changes a great plot point in the original story. It’s compelling to see how Alfred Hitchcock reimagined this spy adventure into an even more groundbreaking thriller.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938)
Maxim de Winter brings his shy new wife to his beautiful home on the Cornwall coast, where everything feels too good to be true. The large estate, the Manderley, looks like heaven on earth until an afterlife reveals itself to be a little too close to home. Soon, his wife finds that the silent estate is being haunted by Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca, who died a year before. The memory of Rebecca is greatly respected by the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers and remembered by the impeccable house and gardens she curated. The mystery behind Rebecca’s death grows, only increasing the new wife’s fears and jealousy. In a series of revelations, Rebecca’s memory is put to rest …
As a fan of Rebecca and The Birds, Daphne du Maurier’s novels provided Hitchcock with great inspiration for combining moral complexity and drama. Hitchcock seemed to cling to the gothic melodrama in this narrative. In addition, this was one of the first films that he kept almost fully intact from book to screen, likely due to the easy set-up for suspense. However, as a director that depends on the spectator’s experience, Hitchcock re-wrote the premise of how Rebecca died. Without spoiling the film, the book’s description might have alienated audiences and made it difficult for them to cheer for one of the characters. However, Hitchcock leaves a lot of mystery for the audience. He sets the story on fire in the best way possible.
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (1950)
A murder exchange gone…wrong? Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno are passengers on the same train. Both are looking for hitmen. Haines is an architect amid a divorce, and Bruno is a mysterious stranger with a sadistic plan. Bruno proposes he’ll murder Haines’s wife if Haines murders his father. Guy accepts, and Bruno eagerly carries out his murder plan. However, Guy isn’t so lucky as he finds himself trapped in a dangerous world where ordinary people are capable of extraordinary heinous crimes. What could go wrong?
Strangers on a Train (1951)
Inspired by Highsmith’s gothic and noir-themed novel, Hitchcock revels in the idea of duality more than anything. While Highsmith’s novel is a gritty and moody exploration of paranoia, Hitchcock utilizes her two characters as mirrors to induce the complexity of her imagery. Hitchcock reimagines Guy as a pro tennis player and Bruno as a confident psychopath, both skilled in a match. However, Bruno tests Guy, who is innocent, with a murder charge. Guy attempts to fend off Bruno as he tries to frame him for murder.
Although much of the plot changes in Hitchcock’s film, he challenges the theme of nature vs. nurture, prevalent in Highsmith’s original narrative. Hitchcock brings an edge to the story with subliminal messages through doppelgangers. Double drinks? Double sets in tennis? Double murder. Soon the colossal message will emerge: Guy is Bruno’s double. Hitchcock masters curating the intersection of “chance” when audiences are forced to see the dualities of life.
Psycho by Robert Bloch (1959)
The real-life story of Ed Gain, a murderer who lived a double life, inspired the original book. Maybe one of the most-popular plots known today: Norman Bates loves his Mother. He has lived with his Mother since leaving the hospital in the old house up on the hill above the Bates motel. Bates is a caretaker at the isolated hotel, who finds it difficult to work under his domineering Mother. One night he spies on a beautiful woman that checks into the hotel as she undresses. Norman can’t help but spy on this woman, but his Mother is there … to protect him from himself. She is there to protect Norman with her butcher knife.
The Hitchcock film that taught us how unsafe showers really are. Psycho is another film where he wasted no time getting the adaptation rights. A serial killer driven mad by his mother? Right up his alley. Robert Bloch’s writing displays the inner thoughts of Norman’s deranged mind to set the tone and mood of a thriller. Hitchcock, known for keeping the audience on the edge of their seats, uses a more subtle approach. He doesn’t plainly reveal the disturbing nature of Norman’s thoughts but instead dives deeper into the strange relationship with his mother. As we know, Hitchcock loves the idea of doubles and portrays Norman’s two personalities, despite the novel having three. The filmmaker manipulates the idea of time and the viewer. Undoubtedly, the inspiration from a complex thriller novel allowed Hitchcock to provide his viewers with one of the greatest movies in film history.
D’entre les Morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (1954)
D’entre les Morts ( English title, The Living and the Dead) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, known by many as Vertigo, is a sinister and mind-bending nightmare. Flavieres finds himself desperate for some company and a new purpose in life after losing his job. He left the police force because of his vertigo and acrophobia. While World War II rages outside his door, Flavieres suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder inside with depression and psychosis. Previously, he witnessed a man’s death when he was a detective. An old college friend appears to him with concern about his current state and asks him to watch over his wife Madeleine. She fixates on suicide in relation to her dead great-grandmother, who killed herself at Madeleine’s current age. Flavieres does as his friend says but begins falling in love with Madeleine. Soon his love becomes an obsession. Consequently, Flavieres loses himself in the obsession and becomes destroyed by a terrible secret.
A long-time fan of Boileau and Narcejac’s work, Hitchcock had eagerly requested that Paramount buy the rights to D’entre les Morts before it was even translated to English. Surprisingly, this was one film that did horrible at the initial box office. However, it did a 180 when re-released in 1984. Like many Hitchcock adaptations or novel-inspired films, the story’s basic plot remains, but of course, with a twisted ending that leaves viewers in shock and confusion. To avoid spoilers, just know that the thriller is composite with a bait-and-switch theme that gradually builds throughout the film. Flavieres’s psychological struggles would drive anyone mad. Hitchcock embraces Boileau and Narcejac’s novel with a tasteful thrill and his favorite ghostly disguise.
If you’re a fan of the thriller genre, check out some of the newest thriller novels on Bookstr. You may even find some inspiration for your next film! Don’t forget to celebrate Alfred Hitchcock’s birthday with a suspenseful screening marathon.