Is Adaptation a Feminine Act? On the Women Writers Who Worked on Alfred Hitchcock Presents
Annie Berke on the Writers Who “Hijacked” the Gender Politics of Their Source Materials
As women writers adapted to a changing post-WWII job market, so too did they adapt in their work, translating their skills into writing suspense for television and turning short stories into screenplays. In her essay on adaptation and “gendered discourses,” Shelley Cobb writes that “feminist translation theory . . . has led the way by critiquing the gendered nature of the language of fidelity,” in which the source text, usually a work of prose, is held up as the authentic or “original” work.
Under this model, the task of a screen adaptation becomes to “translate . . . feeling, [which] is a feminine approach to adaptation studies and, consequently, has all the attendant characteristics.” Thus is the source deemed a sacred male original, the adaptation its submissive feminized attendant, “the film [functioning] as faithful wife to the novel as paternal husband.”
Cobb offers an alternative model: adaptation as a kind of “conversation,” in which the novel and the film are engaged in a respectful exchange. A gendered language of adaptation theory is particularly apropos in the case of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, where men and women are so often pitted against one another in life-or-death struggles.
In their adaptations of male-written works, Marian Cockrell and Charlotte Armstrong hijack the gender politics of their source materials, privileging female subjectivity and experience over the violence of the male gaze. These scripts are unfaithful wives, sometimes “conversing” with their source materials, other times functioning as complaints or counterarguments.
Sometimes these adaptations rely on a small recalibration, other times an extensive overhaul that highlights the shortcomings of the original story. Cockrell overwrites the gender politics of John Collier’s story in “Wet Saturday” (September 30, 1956) through subtle means, emphasizing the sexist underpinnings of the American aristocracy. Collier’s story, first published in the New Yorker in 1938, centers on rich patriarch Mr. Princey, as he works to cover up his daughter’s crime of passion, the murder of her indifferent tutor. The third-person narration is allied with Princey, whose habit, as Collier writes, was “to walk through the village, touching his hat, not smiling. . . But now all this was threatened . . . because Millicent, his cloddish daughter Millicent, had done this shocking and incredibly stupid thing.”
Cockrell’s television adaptation is not filtered through Princey’s point of view, allowing for a more flexible affiliation with the characters on-screen. Meanwhile, Cockrell adds a single line of dialogue that does not exist in the story where Princey scolds his daughter: “Our family has held a position of respect in this community for generations, a position I do not intend to have destroyed by the stupidity of one foolish female.”
This explicit disapproval of Millicent (actor), not simply for being foolish but for being female, pulls on a thread of Princey’s misogyny that lingers beneath the surface in the Collier story. In a single line of Cockrell’s adaptation, the masculinist resonances of power and money come to the foreground rather than receding politely into the scenery.Sometimes these adaptations rely on a small recalibration, other times an extensive overhaul that highlights the shortcomings of the original story.
Charlotte Armstrong’s adaptation of John Cheever’s 1954 New Yorker story “The Five-Forty-Eight” (October 25, 1960) involves a more extensive rewriting of its inspiration, revamping the perspective of the source material and, in the process, establishing a visual language of male brutality and female retribution. In both versions, executive Blake is held at gunpoint by his former secretary, Miss Dent, on the 5:48 p.m. commuter train. Dent, a troubled young secretary with a psychiatric history, is pushed to her limit after Blake makes love to her, only to spurn and fire her afterward. She rouses herself from her bedridden depression to assault Blake, who has been dodging her ever since the sexual encounter.
As Dent struggles to maintain composure and mental clarity in this confrontation, readers come to recognize Blake’s truly monstrous nature. In the end, Dent does not shoot Blake but forces him out of the train and demands he lie with his face in the mud. She decides to spare Blake, because, unlike him, she finds she is capable of mercy and kindness: “Oh, I’m better than you, I’m better than you, and I shouldn’t waste my time or spoil my life like this,” Dent says, as Blake lies, Cheever writes, “in the filth . . . on the ground, weeping.”
Cheever’s prose does not reveal if Blake has been changed by this encounter: does he understand the depth of his cruelty, to the women in his life, whom he treats with open disdain? Is he desirous or capable of change? The ending is left open, though the final line—“He got to his feet and picked up his hat from the ground where it had fallen and walked home”—suggests that Blake will return to his regular routine and that ordinary American life is so rife with danger, violence, and madness that even this incident is business as usual. Blake is a World War II veteran, and the atrocities of war hang over the story like a ghost, coexisting alongside the more commonplace inhumanities women and men inflict on one another in civilian life.
Armstrong’s version differs from Cheever’s in two important respects, the first being in its development of Miss Dent as a character. Cheever’s Dent is deranged, forcing Blake to read her rambling letter that opens with the words “Dear Husband.” Her musings only grow stranger from there: she asks if “human love leads us to divine love,” details a dream she had “of a volcano erupting with blood,” and claims to be psychic.
This letter is comparatively de-emphasized in the television version—the viewer can only spy snippets of the page—and Miss Dent, while agitated, is not delusional. In both the story and the show, her name, “Dent,” connotes abuse, like an object that has been carelessly tossed about and damaged in the process. In Cheever’s version, Blake was unlucky enough to wrong a woman already detached from reality, while Armstrong’s telling suggests that Blake preyed on a vulnerable woman and, as a result, drove her to madness.
The second major difference between the source and the teleplay is where the drama’s loyalties lie. Cheever’s version is closely aligned with the perspective and emotional life of Blake, even as the author shows him in a deeply unflattering light. Armstrong’s adaptation is initially more even-handed but ultimately sides with the character of Miss Dent. Cheever’s story uses a third-person narrator inflected by Blake’s point of view, a more extreme version of Collier’s narrator in “Wet Saturday.” Cheever writes of how Blake avoided Dent on the street, because “she had no legitimate business with him. They had nothing to say.” He thinks to himself, as he dodges into a men’s bar to escape her, “Oh, it was so simple!” The narration does not just reveal Blake’s thoughts and feelings but is allied with him, wanting what he wants and thinking what he thinks.
Armstrong’s television retelling is not narrated by either character, but it accounts for Miss Dent’s experience and emotional life in a way that Cheever’s narrator does not. The cinematography supports the action in the script, Dent’s feelings of betrayal and fury conveyed through multiple close-ups on the face of actress Phyllis Thaxter. Viewers are given direct access to her pain, rather than only seeing her through Blake’s eyes. In Cheever’s telling of Dent’s seduction, we see her shabby apartment and her mousy self-presentation through Blake’s eyes. He surveys her apartment and seizes on what the narrator calls her “lack of self-esteem.”
After the two have slept together, the reader can barely access Dent’s pain through Blake’s callous and dismissive perspective: “When he put on his clothes again, an hour or so later, she was weeping. He felt too contented and warm and sleepy to worry much about her tears.” The story’s narrator cares little for her tears, because Blake does not, and the reader is, by extension, distanced from her suffering. This is not the case in the television episode. A sex scene would not be passable by sponsors in an era where on-screen married couples slept in separate beds, so Blake and Dent’s interplay (or conversational foreplay) is stressed, as is Dent’s misguided tenderness and excitement, as she entertains her guest, almost crying with happiness.
Blake’s decision to have Dent fired warrants a brief mention in Cheever. Firing the secretary he has slept with is the “only sensible thing,” so he puts in the order to terminate her contract and takes the rest of the day off. In the television version, a flashback is rendered through Dent’s point of view, the camera lingering on her devastation as Human Resources delivers the news; the figure of Blake occupies the distant background, protected by a wall of glass, before disappearing entirely. If, in the story, Dent’s suffering is merely referenced, it becomes the focal point in the television adaptation, and the viewer experiences Dent’s abandonment along with her. This betrayal sheds light altogether on the episode’s ambiguous opening, in which Blake ducks into a bar to escape Dent, who is following him. The neon sign above the door reads “Ladies Not Admitted,” foreshadowing the story of professional misconduct that follows.
When the episode begins, it is unclear whether Dent is the villain or the victim. But reading her firing scene against the episode’s opening constitutes an aesthetic and thematic motif of Dent’s being blocked from moving freely. This theme is illustrated through her repeated longing gazes through a transparent pane—a “glass ceiling” that is, in fact, a window. Blake’s rejection and the subsequent loss of her livelihood breaks down her sanity and spirit, illustrated by the distortion of Dent’s face by the window’s flower carving, a notably feminine decorative touch for a men’s bar.
Before Dent’s backstory is revealed, this moment reads as one of narrative tension, temporarily establishing her as a monstrous villain. But, when the full story is revealed, the image more accurately speaks to the fractured and fracturing experience of being a woman—a woman at work, a woman in love, a woman destroyed by her desire to achieve both personal and professional success. (Incidentally, Billy Wilder’s film The Apartment , released in the same year, also uses broken or fragmented mirror imagery to convey the psychic breakdown of the working woman. Shirley MacLaine’s brokenhearted elevator girl claims she likes her makeup mirror to be broken: “It makes me look the way I feel.”)
The recurring imagery of windows and glass is part of Cheever’s original telling but is also a visual trope throughout different episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Jan Olsson observes of the series that “reflected surface[s] stand . . . in for the easy access to a character’s inner world that the narrator in a novel can offer [and] . . . mirrors represent an indispensable prop.” Olsson further emphasizes the show’s “ludic repetition, the recycling of names and story elements . . . [and] a recognizable stable of characters . . . [that] shaped the construction of a show universe,” which “operated in tandem with an obsessive use of meaningful props, especially mirrors.”
Mirrors not only highlight what Olsson calls the “doubling” or “surrogation” that the serialized format of television demands, but mirrors are also “doubles” of the television screen. Just as the character looks in a mirror to see herself, so too may the viewer look into the screen and witness her own reflection—and, unlike Leona of “Sorry, Wrong Number,” she will recognize the story is about her.
Finally, these reflection shots serve as battlegrounds or contested screen-spaces over which Blake and Dent fight for dominance. As Blake attempts to insert distance, Dent squeezes herself into the reflective field with him. In a storefront window, Blake can escape her, but when she has him at gunpoint on the train, Dent finally has the leverage to invade his space and make him listen. In this way, the television screen surrogate—in the form of these reflective surfaces—becomes a site of female expressiveness and agency.
The mirror, the window, the television screen: these are territories that can be wrested from masculine control, presenting the viewer with a metaphor for female authorship in a male-dominated industrial context. If the female leads in “Wet Saturday” and “The Five-Forty-Eight” are particularly unhinged, this only speaks to the show’s overarching argument that insanity is an understandable reaction and a reasonable recourse to life under patriarchy.
Excerpted from Their Own Best Creations: Women Writers in Postwar Television by Annie Berke. Copyright © 2022. Available from University of California Press.