I recently found out that Rear Window was being adapted for the stage. Like most of the American theater-going public (I'm just guessing), my first thought was that this play would be an adaptation of the famous Alfred Hitchcock film. Turns out I was wrong: the play is based on the 1942 Cornell Woolrich story "It Had to Be Murder," which Hitchcock used as well for his film, but greatly altered Woolrich's story.
The basic storyline of Rear Window (in both the book and film) follows L.B. Jeffries (a.k.a. Jeff), an injured man in a leg cast and wheelchair confined to his apartment, with nothing to do but stare out of his window and observe his neighbors. When he sees suspicious activity through the window of one of his neighbors, the Thorwalds, he is led to believe that the husband has murdered the wife. Unable to leave this apartment and investigate, Jeff can't retrieve concrete evidence that Thorwald did murder his invalid wife. As he digs deeper into the mystery from across the way, he puts himself in a dangerous situation.
"It Had to Be Murder" and Rear Window both deal with the idea of voyeurism in different ways: Woolrich's story shows voyeurism as a perverse activity, while Hitchcock turns it into something common through 'All American' James Stewart to show the audience that everyone participates in everyday intrusion, rather than focusing on their own lives.
The central point of the story is that Jeff watches his neighbors through an open window. In the original story, Woolrich mentions the surrounding neighbors in the beginning, barely mentioning them again and only focusing the story on Jeff and Mr. Thorwald. We don’t get to know the neighbors as characters but in Hitchcock’s film, they become developed characters that the audience sympathizes with and gets to know throughout the course of the film.
The audience refers to the neighbors with the unofficial 'names' that Jeff uses to distinguish everyone: Miss Torso, Miss Lonelyheart, the newlyweds, the songwriter, the sculptor, and “the couple with the dog” are how we refer to Jeff’s neighbors. The only actual names we know for Jeff’s neighbors are the Thorwalds. Even though we don’t know all the neighbors’ names, Hitchcock still elicits an emotional response, rather than just suspense, from the audience by having us sympathize with Miss Lonelyheart when we see how her loneliness and depression leads her to almost commit suicide; the songwriter when he’s at his own party and he looks like the loneliest man in the room; and “the couple with the dog” when their dog is killed and the wife is screaming about how neighbors are supposed to actually act like neighbors. By having these extra characters, the film becomes more than just Jeff trying to prove that Thorwald murdered his wife, and allows the audience to look at the other surrounding characters, making the film more than only suspense and adding more human interest to the story.
Besides the addition of the neighbors, the other change that Hitchcock makes is turning Woolrich’s character, Sam, into Lisa Fremont. As opposed to Sam, Lisa is a developed character that the viewer has gotten to know very well and the audience is especially concerned about her being harmed because we do know her. In the story, because Jeff can’t walk into Thorwald’s apartment himself to investigate, he sends Sam to snoop for him and report back his findings. Like Woolrich, Hitchcock sends someone across to the apartment, but instead of Sam, we have Lisa going into the apartment. Having Lisa go across to the apartment creates more suspense for the film because we have gotten to know her as a character, and now she is put into a terrifying situation where we are fearing for her life and hoping that Thorwald won’t catch her in his apartment. When Thorwald does come to his front door, we see him before Lisa does and neither Jeff nor the audience can cry out and warn her that she is about to be caught snooping. Not only does the audience fear for Lisa, but also at the same time they fear for Grace Kelly. Grace Kelly was adored by audiences so if any of her characters were put in danger in any of her pictures, it seemed to the audience that she herself was in danger when of course she was just acting. Hitchcock’s method of putting a beloved character and actress in a frightening situation not only builds the suspense, but also has the audience fearful for the character.
I know a lot about the differences between the original story and Hithcock's film because I worked on an independent study in high school where I examined how Alfred Hitchcock would adapt obscure pieces, and turn them into famous films, and the general practice of transforming fictional works into films.
I have not seen the stage adaptation, but based on reading some of the reviews, it seems like a sexier version that at the same time more closely follows the original Woolrich tale. It is named after the film, but there's no Grace Kelly character, and the nicknamed neighbors are not around, but there is a Sam. The stage version of Sam appears to be a richer character than in the story. The play also seems to have a socially conscious pulse that Woolrich did not include, but it was written in the 1940's so obvious adjustments had to be made for the 21st-century theater, while still keeping the action of the play in the 1940's.
I really hope this show ends up somewhere on Broadway or off-Broadway so I can see it and claim the new "It Had to Be Murder"/Rear Window trifecta.