The Men Who Knew Too Much: Henry James and Alfred Hitchcock

The Men Who Knew Too Much: Henry James and Alfred Hitchcock

The Men Who Knew Too Much: Henry James and Alfred Hitchcock

The Men Who Knew Too Much: Henry James and Alfred Hitchcock


Henry James and Alfred Hitchcock knew too much. Self-imposed exiles fully in the know, they approached American and European society as inside-outsiders, a position that afforded them a kind of double vision. Masters of their arts, manipulators of their audiences, prescient and pathbreaking in their techniques, these demanding and meticulous artists fiercely defended authorial and directorial control. Their fictions and films are obsessed with knowledge and its powers: who knows what? What is there to know?

The Men Who Knew Too Muchinnovatively pairs these two greats, showing them to be at once classic and contemporary. Over a dozen major scholars and critics take up works by James and Hitchcock, in paired sets, to explore the often surprising ways that reading James helps us watch Hitchcock and what watching Hitchcock tells us about reading James. A wide-range of approaches offer fresh insights about spectatorship, narrative structure, and cinematic representation, as well as the relationship between technology and art, the powers of silence, sensory-and sensational-experiences, the impact of cognition, and the uncertainty of interpretation. The essays explore the avowal and disavowal of familial bonds, as well as questions of Victorian convention, female agency, and male anxiety. And they fruitfully engage issues related to patriarchy, colonialism, national, transnational, and global identities. The capacious collection, with its brilliant insights and intellectual surprises, is equally compelling in its range and cogency for James readers and film theorists, for Hitchcock fans and James scholars.


Hossein Amini, screenwriter for the 1997 film The Wings of the Dove, argues that “film as a medium is so well suited to subtext” that Henry James is its perfect prose partner. “You’re able to tell two different stories at the same time, which I think is the essence of James’s kind of work,” Amini explains. “There are three or four ideas going on at the same time, which makes a film so tempting to try, to capture some sense of that. But I still think it’s almost impossible to capture what he does with his prose.” Alfred Hitchcock’s response would be, “Why try?” While most of Hitchcock’s films were adaptations (46 of the 56 features he directed), he told Truffaut, “What I do is to read a story only once, and if I like the basic idea, I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema.” He considered filming “literary masterpieces” a fool’s game, insisting that “I’ll have no part of that!” It is no accident that there is no Alfred Hitchcock film “based on a novel by Henry James.” But reading James with Hitchcock is another matter.

A matter of wit and a matter of serendipity, as a matter of fact. We came together, a small group of us, for a weekend symposium on James and Hitchcock, organized at Dartmouth by Donald Pease. We ate well, read papers, shared thoughts, exchanged comments, and occasionally imbibed, all with a liveliness and wit that might have delighted Lambert Strether or daunted Roger Tornhill or amused David Lodge. From these spirited, sometimes surprising, conversations emerged a panel for the 2008 James conference in Newport, Rhode Island, where enthusiastic response further titillated our imagination. What if we invited the smartest people we knew—James scholars with work on film, film scholars with acute literary sensibilities—to pair a work by James with one by Hitchcock and make of it what they would. Given the prolific output by each master, we realized immediately the folly of looking for selections based the idea of “coverage.” Nor were contributors assigned either particular fiction-film pairings or specific topics. Instead, we looked to be surprised, sometimes by the pairings, more often by the fecund range of implications found by our contributors, implications not only for the works they were discussing but also for broader issues of representation and narrative, of language and culture, of perception and interpretation suggested by the imagination that they brought to the project. To them all we are grateful, as much for the stimulating dialogues that emerged in the process of coediting, as for the relish with which they accepted the challenge of this unique intellectual adventure.

We also appreciate the support of our editor, Shannon McLachlan, and the astute and generous comments from the group of readers to whom she sent the prospectus and the manuscript. Amanda Konkle was a wonderfully deft, diligent, vii

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.