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Old Hollywood Book Reviews: The Testament of Judith Barton

I love the revisionist trend that’s coming in books.  Books that take a smaller character and showcases a plot around their lives or involvement in a story are some of my favorites.  Christopher Moore wrote an amazing book about King Lear told from the Fool’s perspective that I set as the bar for a good re-imagining in literature.  Wendy Powers and Robin McLeod’s book The Testament of Judith Barton is inching up there in showing a different way to approach one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most compelling stories.  Looking at the life of Judith Barton, the girl impersonating Madeline Elster in Hitchcock’s Vertigo is an ingenious plot device and allows for a whole different world to open up to Hitchcock’s thriller.  If you love Vertigo, Hitchcock, or different looks at old stories like me, then be sure to check out this novel.

The book follows Judy Barton, a small town girl raised in Salina, Kansas.  She’s mild-mannered, loves her father, and is slowly coming into her own as a person.  When she moves to San Francisco she discovers it’s hard to live on your own as a young woman in the 1950s.  Things change when she meets the wealthy Gavin Elster who asks her to impersonate his wife Madeline to draw out a stalker.  If you’ve watched Hitchcock’s Vertigo you should know how the story of Judy Barton ends, but that’s just the beginning.

I have a love-hate relationship with Hitchcock’s Vertigo that Powers and McLeod tried to alleviate for me.  The film’s story follows a private eye played by Jimmy Stewart who becomes so obsessed with a murdered woman he finds another girl and tries to make her into the image of the one he lost (I’m really giving you a light series of events).  What the book does is show Judy Barton as a person, not merely the pawn used by Gavin Elster or Scottie Ferguson in the sequence of events in the film.  The book shows us a poor girl moving to the big city and finding love in all the wrong places.  When she does meet the characters of the film, particularly Stewart’s Scottie, she’s constantly trying to find a love that will last.  Through Scottie she feels that if she does just one more thing, changes that last little bit about herself, she’ll find what she’s looking for.  By putting us in the head of Judy you understand far more about her logic in changing herself more completely, far more than you would find in the movie.

The book also gives us far more backstory about Judy’s life with a section devoted entirely to her life in Kansas.  I found this to be the weakest part of the novel, mostly because I was so excited to get to the parts connected to the movie.  It is an intriguing tale focused on Judy’s love for her father, her quiet competition with her older sister Maggie, and eventually her moving to San Francisco.  It’s not the majority of the book but I was eager to move past it.

The book more than inspired me to rewatch Vertigo.  The book borrows heavily from the movie complete with being able to use the script via The Alfred Hitchcock Trust so you truly feel as if you’re watching a continuation of the movie and if you’re not as well-versed in it as I was, you’ll be interested in rewatching.  The book doesn’t overstay its welcome, going up to the very end of the film and it creates such a vivid recreation of the movie and San Francisco as well.

The Testament of Judith Barton was surprising to me.  I didn’t expect to enjoy it due to my distaste for the movie but the backstory created on such an integral character is complex and intriguing.  The novel truly is a parallel story to the film.  Check it out!  Ordering information can be found on the book’s website.  Thanks to Wendy McLeod for providing me with a copy!

Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

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