By Sal Antonucci
We are usually quick to favor the book over the movie, but in some instances, the movie is just better. While Patricia Highsmith’s novel Strangers On a Train and Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation are radically different in terms of plot and character development, one is still tempted to compare the two as they go about exploring similar themes in radically different ways.
What makes Strangers such an interesting story is its psychological inquiry of guilt and the ways it makes readers think about agency. In the novel, Highsmith has the luxury of narration to work with to directly portray a dynamic range of the characters’ emotional responses to fated events. By telling the story in novel form, Highsmith can explicitly characterize the psychological workings of her characters through free indirect discourse. This narration style allows readers to directly observe the effects of guilt like the helplessness felt when under its command.
Indeed, these thriller themes are enjoyable to explore, but one flaw of Highsmith’s work is that the reader is exposed to these themes in such a normal, straightforward, non-thrilling way. Rather than show us the uncanny and make us feel the sense of guilt experienced by our protagonists, we are explicitly told at every moment of the narrative. In other words, Highsmith breaks the crucial “show, don’t tell” rule—this rule seems crucial in this genre as breaking it seems to prevent readers from becoming immersed in the experiences of the protagonists.
Hitchcock’s adaptation of Strangers is a lifesaver to Highsmith’s novel. With the implementation of Hitchcock’s signature obsessive direction, the story is able to do more showing rather than telling, bringing to life that sense of the uncanny that Highsmith attempted to capture in her novel. Iconic shots like Miriam’s murder in the reflection of her glasses or the crisscrossing opening scene of Guy’s and Bruno’s legs coming together to meet on the train are just two instances where Hitchcock is able to communicate Highsmith’s ideas visually rather than verbally.
Ultimately, Hitchcock’s work shows that in some instances, visual representation is better than what may be offered in a novel. By leaving psychological phenomenon up to the viewer to decode from the scene, Hitchcock was able to bring that feeling of psychological discomfort to viewers that Highsmith was hoping to induce.