Adaptation Analysis: Rear Window and “It Had to Be Murder”

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, an adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s “It Had to Be Murder,” is an intermediate adaptation that transfers Woolrich’s short story into a film that is classically Hitchcock while maintaining its basic story and development. The auteur theory, or film theory that claims the director’s place as the “author” of the film, would categorize Alfred Hitchcock as an auteur because he developed a signature style throughout his career. Whether it be themes, characters, cinematic elements, there is a certain feeling that Hitchcock films evoke, which later was encapsulated by the term: “Hitchcockian.” As a Hitchcock film, Rear Window explores voyeurism, obsession, illusion vs. reality, and an uncertain romance. The film includes the male gaze or the depiction of women through a masculine perceptive that sexualizes and objectifies them. Like the short story, there is a POV through the eyes of L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jefferies, played by James Stewart. Although Hitchcock does not entirely make the film in Jeff’s perspective since the POV is third person compared to Woolrich’s first-person, there are certain instances that we gaze through Jeff’s eyes out the window. Hitchcock’s mise-en-scene seems to be playing with the other worlds with the windows that are portals to other lives which Jeff, and his companions, stare into. When looking through different windows and what is inside, the composition in some of our frames has us stare as though we are peering into a viewfinder into another. Hitchcock’s use of sound also seems to provide subtext to the subject matter; the constant flourish of sound invading Jeff’s apartment is as intrusive as his obsession with Thorwald and the murder. The adaptation strategy that best fits how Hitchcock develops the story into Rear Window is the interweaving strategy. 

Hitchcock and his screenwriter Hayes create elements, and tether them. They seem to not concentrate elements to specific areas such as the beginning, middle, or end. Rather, Hitchcock weaves the added elements and expansions into the story with already existing elements. The addition of the neighbor’s dog, and its death, is an element that was added and is the catalyst to how Jeff and Lisa Freemont (Grace Kelly) catch Thorwald. In the short story, Jeff is alone, and he has no romantic interest, and for Rear Window, Hitchcock added his traditional blonde beauty to the film in the form of Grace Kelly. The only people Jeff interacts with in the short story are Detective Boyle, who is different in that he’s Jeff’s war-buddy in the film, and Sal, who is replaced with Stella in the film, and is Jeff’s caregiver, who is African American. Jeff also speaks to Thorwald over the phone, but in the short story, in a similar blackmail scene, he commands Thorwald to go to LakeSide Park. In the film, the meeting is at a nearby hotel. In the short story, Thorwald also brings a gun, which is something that Jeff notices. Hitchcock takes the caregiver, Sal, and splits him in two: some actions, such as when Jeff makes him get information on Thorwald, is given to Stella, Jeff’s female caregiver in the film. Instead of Sal going into Thorwald’s apartment Lisa goes in, each for different reasons. With these changed elements in mind and the fact that Hitchcock is an auteur, one can assume that Hitchcock was meticulous in the changes he made. 

The way Hitchcock weaves in his added elements, choosing not to keep everything in their traditional order, creates an interweaving strategy. For example, the film’s opening scene relays a lot of information visually through objects in L.B. Jefferies’ room: he was in the military, he is a well-known photographer, and his leg is broken. In the short story, Woolrich opens: “I didn’t know their names. I’d never heard their voices. I didn’t even know them by sight, strictly speaking, for their faces were too small to fill with identifiable features at a distance…. they were rear-window dwellers around me.” (67). To maintain a theme of anonymity, Woolrich keeps Jeffery’s occupation, and anything else about him, to himself. We stare out the window to his neighbors for a few occasions while Hitchcock has the character more connected to his outside world, as well as casting him as Jimmy Stewart, making him more human than the short story version— especially with his romance with Lisa Freemont. In the film, Jeffries is not very fond of Lisa because she is too perfect; he wants someone willing to put their life on the line. At the same time, Jeff, in the short story, has only brief displays of his personality, such as the line: “If I’m right about him, and I am, why does he stick around.” (79). Woolrich makes the character more confident in his discovery and more interested in his anonymity, especially in police matters. At the end of the short story, Woolrich has Doc Preston, a character who only appears at the end, say, “Guess we can take that cast off your leg now. You must be tired of sitting there all day doing nothing.” (94). Of Course, the irony is that Jeff caught a murderer and wasn’t doing “nothing all day.” In the film, we know that Jeff is in a cast from the very beginning. Since we know that he is in a cast and has a week before they remove it, Hitchcock creates a different type of irony than the text. Thorwald comes to Jeff’s apartment and throws him out the window. The final scene cuts to both legs in casts with Lisa Freemont right next to him— he has more time to stare at the windows now.

Hitchcock’s mise en scene is designed around an array of apartment building windows from the perspective of Jeff’s apartment. The action takes place inside Jeff’s apartment and the outside windows of tenants in nearby apartments. Hitchcock expands the subplots of other characters compared to the short story. At the same time, there is only a brief mention in the beginning by Woolrich about the “jitter couple” who are eager to leave their apartment and the young widow with a child. Hitchcock adds in the characters: the pianist, Ms. Torso, Ms.Lonelyhearts, the newly married couple (jitter couple in the text) who instead stay in their apartment, and other neighbors. The strategy of creating these subplots that invade the main plot (Jeff seeks to uncover that Mr. Thorwald murdered Mrs. Thorwald) again solidifies this as an interweaving adaptation. A scene that demonstrates Hitchcock’s mise en scene is when Lisa goes into Thorwald’s apartment looking for evidence after not finding anything digging up the flowerbed. The scene cuts back and forth between Lisa’s action in the apartment and close-ups of Jeff reacting to what is happening. In Thorwald’s apartment, a lamp in the second window illuminates most of the apartment. It is darker in Jeff’s apartment, but the background is out of focus (playing with depth of field) and brings our attention to Jeff’s facial expressions. Again, we go into Jeff’s POV when he grabs his camera and uses the telephoto lens to observe Lisa in her brightly floral dress rifling through the apartment. The dark circle surrounding Lisa as she searches through a handbag not only denotes Jeff’s camera lens but also labels her as the target or dominant in the scene; our eyes, like Jeffries, are stuck to her in suspense. Hitchcock weaves Miss Lonelyhearts’ subplot into the fold as Stella notices that she is about to take her own life. Blinds obscure most of Lonelyheats’ window, and they are essentially horizontal slits. Hitchcock frames both Lisa and Lonelyhearts in the same position near a window while non-diegetic music plays from the pianist’s apartment. The music distracts Lisa, causing her not to hear Thorwall’s footsteps while simultaneously stopping Miss Lonelyheart from taking her own life. Lisa hears Thorwall and runs through the apartment, trying to hide; she runs through doorways obscured from Jeff’s vision. The way that Hitchcock comments on filmmaking with his mise-en-scene is interesting. He shows that we do not see outside of the film frame because Hitchcock uses all these windows as film frames. As we do not see Lisa on a few occasions in the apartment, Hitchcock could show the constant interplay between what is on-screen and what is off-screen. 

For a brief moment, Hitchcock has Thorwall reflected on the mirror as Lisa is hiding, which allows us to get a disembodied close-up without the camera zooming into him. Ultimately, the scene ends with Thorwall finding Lisa, the two getting violent as the light turns-off, and finally, the police come to take Lisa to jail. There is an extreme close-up of Mrs. Thorwall’s wedding-ring on Lisa’s finger, and then the camera moves to show Thorwall staring at it. Thorwall realizes someone is watching him and his head suddenly turns to look straight into the camera. Hitchcock uses this eye-level shot to express that Thorwall has spotted them. Jeff and Stella react accordingly— they turn off the light. In the short story, Woolrich writes the scene differently: “I saw him give a glance with purpose. It was certainly anything but vacant or random, it had a bright spark of fixity in it. It wasn’t one of those precautionary sweeps I’d seen him give, either… It had hit dead-center at my bay window, for just a split second while it lasted, and it was gone again. And the lights were gone, and he was gone.” (88). The film has Jeff loudly whisper that Thorwall spotted them, but Jeff in the text states: “Sometimes your senses take things in without your mind translating them into their proper meaning.” What is so intriguing about the difference between these two scenes is that they both lead into the ending scene with Thorwall coming to Jeff’s apartment quite well. Jeff’s rumination and isolation in the text are more explicit than in Hitchcock’s take, but the use of cinematic techniques such as low-key light in Jeff’s apartment and having the focus behind Jeff blurred all connote Jefferies’ obsession. The text also has Sal going to Thorwall’s apartment on a mission to make it look like someone was searching through his stuff. Sal returns to Jeff unharmed. Instead, Hitchcock uses the risk that Lisa takes to propel the romance by turning her character into what Jeff wants as a companion— someone willing to take risks. 

Throughout Rear Window, Hitchcock weaves with his invented elements between elements from the source text. The differences between text and film come mainly through how Hitchcock wanted to make this story his own, as any auteur would. Topics such as romance (Lisa Freemont and Jeffries), distrust of law enforcement (Boyle not doing his job), and the emptiness of wealth (Lisa Freemont) are all traditional Hitchcock. He uses these trademarks in the story to give it the proverbial Hitchcock signature or stamp. The film’s mise en scene also elaborates on the original story in ways that Woolrich had not done. The use of diegetic sounds, such as the music, is something that Woolrich could not utilize that Hitchcock capitalizes on. Woolrich’s use of sound is limited to a cricket chirp, which is meant to signal death. The film adaptation omits the cricket but works with various intrusive sounds to remind us of the growing obsession of solving a potential murder. Hitchcock’s expansion of Woolrich’s story comments on film as a medium through the use of windows as external frames and the interplay between what is on-screen and what is off. For Rear Window, Hitchcock chose to use the interweaving adaptation strategy to produce the traditional Hitchcock film we know and love. 

References: 

Rear Window by Cornell Woolrich.” Adaptations: From Short Story to Big Screen: 35 Great Stories That Have Inspired Great Films, by Stephanie Harrison, Three Rivers Press, 2005, pp. 67–94. 

“The Short Story.” Adaptation: Studying Film and Literature, by John M. Desmond and Peter Hawkes, McGraw-Hill Education Create, 2006, pp. 127–157. 

— Christian Mietus, Blog Editor.


Christian’s Bio:

chris

Christian is a Senior at Lewis University who is an English major and a minor in Film Studies and Russian Language and Culture. In 2019, he received the “Dr. Stephany Schlachter Excellence in Undergraduate Scholarship Award” for his collaborative piece “Assimilation through Sound.”  Additionally, his poem “The Japanese Photography is Covered in Dust” is forthcoming from City Brink Magazine. In his free time, he appreciates and dissects cinema as well as consistently rating and reviewing it. Some of his favorite directors are Andrei Tarkovsky, John Cassavettes, Ingmar Bergman, and Kenji Mizoguchi. He also appreciates different art forms, such as music and literature. Christian hopes to continue expanding his skills as a writer and to encourage others to do so as well. He writes about film for the JFR blog, so check out Christian’s Cinematic Syntax.


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