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Page-to-Screen Adaptation

Alfred Hitchcock was known for his deep involvement in the screenplay-writing process, a fact that accounts in part for the distinctly recognizable quality of all his films. Viewers are treated to a visual reminder of Hitchcock’s presence in each film when they spot the director in one of his famous cameo appearances. Turning the novel D’Entre les Morts by French mystery writers Thomas Narcejac and Pierre Boileau into a screenplay for Vertigo proved a long, arduous, and, at times, frustrating enterprise for Hitchcock. Translated into English as From Among the Dead, Paramount purchased the rights to the novel in 1955, and Hitchcock set to work adapting it. His first move was to hire the popular playwright Maxwell Anderson to create a first-draft screenplay. Completely dissatisfied with what Anderson produced, Hitchcock hired his former colleague Angus MacPhail to try his hand at an adaptation. However, MacPhail’s alcoholism and resulting poor health led him to quit before he had produced anything of consequence.

Hitchcock finally hired Alec Coppel, an obscure author of three novels and a play. They worked collaboratively on the script for several months, but when Coppel presented Hitchcock with a completed first draft, the director was not pleased with the work. He attempted to persuade the previously ousted Anderson to revise Coppel’s script, but the writer never produced a new draft. Hitchcock then hired writer Samuel Taylor, whose agent recommended him on the basis of his deep knowledge of San Francisco, where Vertigo is set. Without reading either the novel or Coppel’s screenplay, Taylor wrote a new draft based on Hitchcock’s vision for the film. Taylor added characters, improved the dialogue, and made the controversial decision to reveal Judy’s secret—the plot twist—two-thirds of the way through the film. In the end, the novel’s disdain for its characters and its view of life as debasing and meaningless was transformed by Hitchcock and his writers into sympathy for and identification with the characters and the admittedly imperfect world they inhabit. When all was said and done, only the basic plot line of the novel remained.

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