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Forty years ago today, the credits finally rolled Alfred Hitchcock's life. And while he is celebrated today as one of history's greatest filmmakers, he undoubtedly owes at least a pinch of his success to the handful of books from which he drew inspiration.

Not that Hitchcock always respected those books. He was famous for his near disdain of the literary works he adapted, taking only what interested him and discarding the rest. 'The paperback is very interesting but I find it will never replace the hardcover book,' he once said, 'it makes a very poor doorstop.'

Still, a great story makes a great movie. And even Hitchcock himself could not deny the influence of a select coterie of novelists whose stories even he couldn't ignore. So, in celebration of those writers and their work – from Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca to Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train – here are some of the books behind Alfred Hitchcock's best-known films. 

Film: Strangers on a Train (1951)

Book: Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (1950)

As soon as Highsmith published her first novel, aged 29, about a 'murder swap' gone wrong, Hitchcock wanted the rights. But throughout negotiations, he kept his name a secret so as to get a better deal (Highsmith was said to be deeply unimpressed by the paltry $7,500 she was paid upon learning who the director would be).

And while his version about a celebrity tennis player who fends off a debonaire psychopath trying to frame him is a stone-cold 20th century classic, Highsmith's story is far darker: a tightly coiled, moody exploration of paranoia, anxiety and guilt, in which an alcoholic psychopath meets a clean-cut, unhappily married architect on a train and convinces him that each should murder on behalf of the other.

The novelist Grahame Greene called Highsmith 'the poet of apprehension' for the way she could wind her plots so tightly that, as her biographer, the playwrite Joan Schenkar, put it, '[they] suck another reader into their bottomless vortex of moral relativities, transferable guilts, and unstable identities.'

Film: The Birds (1963)

Book: The Birds by Daphne du Maurier (1952)

When an interviewer asked Hitchcock how many times he'd actually read Du Maurier's novella on which he based The Birds, he confessed: just the once. 'If I like the basic idea,' he said, 'I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema.'

And that ground Du Maurier's gears. She apparently hated Hitchcock's distortion of her feather-frenzy horror about an unexplained outbreak of killer birds on the Cornish coast. Du Maurier's grouse, mainly, was that while she placed her story among the wind-ravaged wilds of her beloved Cornwall (her evocations of which are truly to die for), Hitchcock dragged his all the way to California, with its light breezes and sun. He created new characters, too, and, typically, a string of his own plot devices for good measure.

His treatment, however, took nothing from the original's horrifyingly claustrophobic portrayal of complete environmental collapse - murders of crows, scourges of starlings, dive-bombings of gulls - in an ever-tightening noose of a book that feels less written than pecked into your mind.

Film: Psycho (1960)

Book: Psycho by Robert Bloch (1959)

'The room was plainly but adequately furnished; she noted the shower stall in the bathroom beyond,' Bloch writes when Mary arrives at the Bates Motel. 'Actually, she would have preferred a tub, but this would do.'

This was the opening of a scene that would forever change how the world saw showers. Combined with Hitchcock's film a year later, Psycho turned it from simply a convenient place to get clean to a convenient place to get brutally murdered. Or, as the writer Ray Bradbury put it: 'suddenly, we were confronted with the fact that our showers were not safe.'

The speed at which the film followed the novel is testament to the impact it had on Hitchcock. 'Psycho all came from Robert Bloch’s book,’ he later said of Psycho. And Bloch's story, about the brooding serial killer driven mad by the constant orders of his dead mum, is every bit as disturbing as Hitchcock's, and delves far deeper into Bates' shudderingly weird relationship with his mother as well as his own haunting pathology.

As Bloch once said: 'Real horror is not in the shadows, but in that twisted little world inside our own skulls.'

Film: The 39 Steps (1935)

Book: The 39 Steps by John Buchan (1915)

Mention The 39 Steps to most adventure mavens and you'll evoke memories of Hitchcock's 1935 thriller about a man who gets dragged into preventing a clandestine spy agency from stealing British military secrets. John Buchan's novel of the same name, however, tells a far trippier tale.

Just as the pin is being pulled on World War One, a stiff-upper-lipped Londoner meets an American spy with a secret too many. He invites the agent to use his flat to hide from the shadowy German spy ring that's after him. But when he returns home one night to find the man dead, he realises he must run... not only for his life, but also for the sake of world peace. What follows is an adventure story for the ages that set the standard for the man-on-the-run thriller with which we're so familiar today.

Hitchcock's version is very different, adding a number of personal touches, including a romance and that notoriously racy scene in which Madeleine Carroll decides to unpeel her wet stockings while handcuffed to Robert Donat. But for what Buchan's book – which has never been out of print – lacks in eroticism, it makes up for tenfold in page-turning tension, excitement and flick-knife prose, even if some of his escapades border on the fantastical. It is a rollicking read.

Film: Vertigo (1958)

Book: D'entre les Morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (1954)

Initially a box office failure, no Hitchcock movie encountered such a complete critical turnaround as Vertigo. It was largely forgotten for 20 years until its 1984 re-release, when it grew into one of the most discussed and dissected movies Hitchcock ever made. And like the film, the book is nuanced up to the gills, demanding multiple readings to appreciate it's many subtleties.

A gripping excavation of deception and obsession with a nerve-twanging twist at the end, D'entre les Morts (English title, The Living and the Dead), follows an ex-cop, thrown out of the Force on account of his vertigo, who falls in love with the suicidal wife of his friend.

Hitchcock was said to love Boileau and Narcejac's work so much that, upon hearing they were writing D'entre les Morts in 1954, he demanded that Paramount buy the rights before it had even been translated into English. It remains today as compulsively readable as Hitchcock's adaptation remains compulsively watchable.

Film: Rebecca (1940)

Book: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938)

Starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, this was the second of the three Du Maurier stories Hitchcock adapted - see also Jamaica Inn (1939), and The Birds (1963) - and by far the most successful (it earned him his only Best Picture Oscar).

But then, this was the book that set new standards for the psychological thriller, with one of the most famous heroines in English fiction. And yet, unlike Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Bennet, Rebecca's heroine has no name (Rebecca is in fact the dead wife of the narrator's new husband).

A young orphan gets swept off her feet by a much older English gent, marries him but finds neither she, nor his grand country pile, can shake the haunting spectre of his dead wife, Rebecca. It is a potent cocktail of love, jealousy, obsession and possession.

Sketching the story out in 1937, du Maurier said she wanted Rebecca to be a study in jealousy. 'Very roughly, the book will be about the influence of a first wife on a second until wife 2 is haunted day and night … a tragedy is looming very close and crash! Bang! Something happens.' And it is indeed a twist of Hitchcockian trickery.

And, unlike Jamaica Inn and The Birds, Du Maurier was said to be delighted with Hitchcock's version of Rebecca thanks, mostly, to the fact he stuck to her tale.

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