Paper to Screen: Strangers On A Train

spoilers ahead...

All of us know of the many books that have been made into films. Some have been successful (like the LOTR franchise, Harry Potter series, the Twilight series and The Godfather to name a few) and some have been forgettable (David Lynch's Dune, The Scarlet Letter (1995), The Perfect Catch for e.g.). While the successful ventures have had enough theses and the failures have had enough criticism, here, we talk about some of the rarer gems that have missed the attention and hence remained underrated. In the inaugural episode of this new segment, we look at Strangers On A Train, originally a novel written by Patricia Highsmith which was later adapted and made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock in the same name.

The Book:

Strangers on a Train is a psychological thriller written by Patricia Highsmith in her debut. The book came out in the year 1950 and instantly became a hit. The author was praised for her brilliant portrayal of a world so dark, twisted and perverted that it won't be wrong to call it a folie à deux. The book chronicles the lives of two men whose life gets entangled after one of them proposes to trade murders. What happens next? Do the murders happen? How do these two men lead their life after this meeting? The novel tries to answer and explore these questions.

The book focusses largely on the transfer of guilt and the resultant slow, but sure descent into madness of both the central characters - Guy Haines and Charles Bruno. It is interesting how the guilt is transferred from one to the another, yet not without taking a part of the transferor. The description heavy novel dissects the human psyche in ways that would make one stare at himself in the mirror and face the dark sides that he has hitherto hidden from the world.

The plot follows the lives of Guy Haines, a respectable architect and Charles Bruno, a fainéant but a very clever individual nevertheless. He seems to have the knowledge of almost everything, yet refuses to do anything for a living. He quickly recognizes Guy Haines and strikes a conversation. Bruno knows about Guy’s agonizing marriage with Miriam and offers to kill her off. In exchange, Guy has to kill his insufferable father. He further says that the police would go absolutely nuts as they would never be able to solve this double murder. What happens next forms the rest of the story.

The Film:

The Master of Thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock bought the rights for making the novel into a film. After scouring for the writers and with a tussle from the famous Raymond Chandler, Hitchcock finished the writing process with Czenzi Ormonde and Whitefield Cook. With Robert Burks helming the cinematography, the film started to take shape. The film had a lot of changes from the actual story to meet the screen adaptation's requirements. For instance, the murder happens only once and not twice. Guy Haines, is a tennis player in the film as opposed to the architect in the book.

Guy Haines, an up and coming tennis player bumps upon Bruno Antony who seems to know an awful lot about the former. When Bruno proposes that he kill his wife Miriam if Guy agrees to kill Bruno's father, Guy wriggles out of the awkward and ghastly proposition. Later on, when the latter comes to him after killing his wife, Guy goes into an emotional roller coaster of a life trying to avoid Bruno and keeping his sanity. How he deals with all of this along with keeping his tennis career and his love affair with the daughter of the mayor Anne Morton intact forms the remainder of the film.

The film is a visual marvel. There are a lot of moments in the film that scream Hitchcock in the frame, blocking, lighting, staging and dialogues. The duality - Guy and Bruno being two sides of the same coin - is beautifully brought out with the motifs of tracks, Guy's lighter, dialogue, "That's the only double I know", and so on. However, the protagonist, Guy's slow descent into madness and the parallel unhinging of Antony are not as well depicted as in the novel. Because of this, even the ending, though "happy" doesn't impact the same way, the novel does.

Book vs Screen:

I'm a fan of the book. Though the idea of watching a psychological thriller has always been an interesting exercise and experience. This film, though lauded by many for its technical brilliance and the screenplay was a letdown for me. The way Ms Highsmith deftly handled the psychological unscrewing of the central characters was lost in its translation to the screen. While the film offers a lot visually in terms of grandeur and spectacle, the essence of the book - psychological and emotional breakdown - isn't brought out well in the film.

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