Originally published in 1948
Adapted from the motion picture Rope directed by Alfred Hitchcock which was itself an adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s stage play.
This novelization has been widely attributed to Don Ward.
This is the story of a murder – committed without apparent motive, accomplished by a piece of rope, in cold blood and without passion. The only motive of its two bright young authors is the desire for the supreme thrill of proving superior to humdrum everyday human beings.
Brandon is brilliant and arrogant, a young egomaniac proudly convinced of his place in a select group of individuals whose acts are above any moral law. Philip is a gifted pianist, but a weakling, influenced by Brandon to try murder.
But the act of murder is not enough. Because Brandon believes that thrills come only from the experience of great danger, the young men arrange for their “guest of honor” to be present at a dinner they are giving for several guests.Excerpt from the inside cover “What this Story is about” page – cut short to prevent spoiling the details of the plot.
A few years ago I came across my first Dell Mapback which kicked off what has become something of an obsession for me. Like many fans of vintage mysteries, I adore a good map and so this series of paperbacks, accompanied by a lovely color visualization of a crime scene or location, quickly became a focus for my book collecting efforts.
When I learned that one of the series was a novelization of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, I naturally wanted to get my hands on a copy. This was not because I expected much from the book on a literary level but purely out of fondness for the source material. I was curious to see what choices the novelist, apparently an uncredited Don Ward, would make in adapting a film which is itself an adaptation of a famous stage play by Patrick Hamilton.
I haven’t really written about Rope here before but certainly do intend to do so in the future, so I hope you’ll forgive me leaving my reasons for loving that film for another day. Those who read me regularly can probably guess many of them anyway. Instead, let me begin by giving you a little background to the story.
Rope takes place on a single evening in “real time” during a dinner party. The story begins moments after a pair of young men, Brandon and Philip, have murdered one of their old school friends, shoving his body into a trunk. Their victim, David, was not killed out of malice (though some of what Brandon says may contradict this) or in a heat of passion but rather because the two young men are keen to experience the sensation of murder which they have come to believe is ‘a privilege for the few’.
To heighten their excitement, Brandon has arranged for a small dinner party to take place in their apartment. The guests include the victim’s father, aunt, girlfriend and her ex, as well as their former schoolmaster Rupert Cadell who was responsible for introducing them to the philosophies that fascinate them while in prep school. All of whom will spend their evening just feet away from the body, the dinner being served off the top of the trunk that contains the body.
Tensions build throughout the dinner as Brandon and Philip find themselves reacting quite differently to their actions, one becoming ever more outrageous and daring while the other becomes jumpy and fearful. As the dinner progresses we wait to see how those tensions will develop and if anyone will open that trunk…
Ward sticks pretty closely to the content of the Hitchcock film, albeit with some minor alterations, the most obvious being that Brandon Shaw is instead called Wyndham Brandon, as in the stage play. This is a pretty cosmetic change but I think calling the character by a last name instead of their given name reminds us of those prep school ties that are so important to this story.
The most significant different though is perhaps a consequence in the change of medium. One of the challenges Hitchcock had with bringing Rope from stage to screen was that the play quite overtly depicts the two young men and their mentor as being gay. Hitchcock’s film could not be as direct and so uses more coded language and visual suggestions, particularly in the aftermath of the murder, to allow the viewer to infer it.
A novel like this, written in an authorative third person voice, allows us some direct insight into the thoughts and mentalities of its characters. This means that inevitably the author has to address and define that relationship, opting to eliminate the sexual angle with the relationship characterized as Brandon having ‘an older-brother interest’ in Philip. The dynamic shifts to become that of one very strong voice dominating their weaker, more malleable but entirely platonic friend. While it would certainly be possible to interpret the relationship in the film that way, it does seem to fly in the face of its most obvious reading.
Ward’s text is quite lean, driven largely by the dialogue. Descriptions are usually quite brief and functional, typically used to convey movement in the space or a character’s body language. He clearly understood that the tension here would come from the conversations and the games that the characters are playing with each other and prioritizes keeping their rhythm to allow that tension to build as effectively on the page as it does on the screen.
What keeps me as dismissing this as an entirely functional exercise in converting a screenplay to prose is that there are a few points in the story where Ward does provide us with more, particularly towards the end of the story. These are the moments at which the dialogue slows down and he steps in to fill those moments, capturing the rising tensions quite well. At these points he injects some of his own reading of the story into the book, making it clear what characters know, believe and suspect at key points. Some of those moments may differ at points from the way I had interpreted the scenes but it does show an intention to engage with and interpret that action rather than simply transcribe it, making the work a little more interesting.
It is not enough however for me to suggest that this is a distinct and worthwhile experience in its own right. There are no ways in which this novel is superior to its source material and, at best, it merely reproduces its successes. While the characters are surprisingly vibrant on the page, they still cannot compare with the performances from John Dall or Farley Granger and it does, and I note above, lose some character context and diminishes the complexities of those characters as a consequence.
While I would not recommend reading this ahead of watching the film or experiencing Hamilton’s play (there was an excellent radio version done with Alan Rickman in the Rupert part that is worth a listen if you can track it down), I did find it quite readable and enjoyed it as a supplement to those experiences. Not unlike the experience of reading a Target adaptation of a Doctor Who serial. Hardly essential, but entertaining enough.