The Birds’: Short Story to Movie

 

Daphne du Maurier: ‘The Birds New Edition’, 1999, Longman, 48 pages, ISBN-13:978-0582417984 

 

 ‘The Birds’ a 1963 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and restored by the Bologna Cineteca

 

 

 

Daphne du Maurier’s ‘The Birds’ is a classic short story. The field of its action is narrow, the characters few, only one, the narrator, in any way probed, and our attention is not distracted from his overriding predicament. How can Nat Hocken protect his family and home when birds have declared war on humanity? The setting is limited to a single house with an interval at a nearby farm. The first of Nat’s concerns is to fortify his home and stock enough food and fuel for the fire and lamps in order to survive day to day. We learn of his handiwork and contrivances. Fiction loves to describe practical tasks step by step. Nat must also manage the feelings of his wife and children to avoid panic as tension and danger mount. At story's end, we don't know what will happen to these four people. Those at the farm have perished. Nat could not convince them to take the hostility of the birds seriously.  He and his family are left stalled in inaction,  waiting to learn how fate will deal with them. Although du Maurier strains the short story form by avoiding a startling dramatic coup or a resolution, her story is an example of the genre at its best. She quite rightly resented being taken for a writer of romance fiction. Happy endings were not her concern. Du Maurier's last word is less hopeful than Hitchcock's whose characters drive their car out of the danger zone. Hers are trapped in it with no way out.

 

Set by the sea in England, the short story exudes immediate post-WWII Britain, memories of German aerial bombardment--terror from the sky--reliance on directives from the B.B.C. and worry about getting enough to eat.  However, none of this is essential to the action. Nothing was lost when Alfred Hitchcock and his writer Evan Hunter set their adaptation a decade later in northern California. Hitchcock deserves credit for choosing a splendid landscape without ever letting it overshadow the action.

 

It was obvious to him that more was needed to fill the screen for two hours than what du Maurier offered. Hitchcock-Hunter introduced an erotic element absent from du Maurier's chaste tale.They began by depicting a flirtation between a cold blond beauty (Tippi Hedren) and a sensitive but manly admirer (Rod Taylor). They also brought in an oedipal angle. The word Oedipus, is actually spoken, which shouldn't surprise us, considering the popularity of Freudian jargon in America at the time. The question for critics is whether the love story and the musing about a mother's (Jessica Tandy’s) bond with her son adds or detracts from du Maurier's simple storyline. We can say, I think, that the additions meld pretty well with the rest.

 

What's more interesting, however, is how in its larger ideas the Hitchcock version differs from du Maurier's. The short story attributes the aggression of the birds to something that has gone wrong in nature as a whole—nature as in Mother Nature. A rogue east wind has brought evil. The natural order has gone awry though, significantly, only in part. Nature's general laws still pertain. For instance, the times of the birds' attacks and of their periods of simply watching are controlled by the tides, ultimately by the moon. Du Maurier fussily names dozens of bird species. She sees the bird population as divided in a kind of class system. Some species are deciders and manipulate the naive into hari-kari suicides. We can't help but think of how the Japanese were seen in WWII America or the Chinese--those Red Ants--afterward. Hitchcock took on none of this. For him, a bird is a bird, and their collective belligerence has an explanation other than a rebellion within nature. He attributes it to something completely absent in du Maurier. The birds are seeking revenge for having been forever exploited by man. The movie is full of touches underlining the point.

 

The strength of both du Maurier's and Hitchcock's interpretations is that they deal with a backdrop to our lives that we never pay much attention to. Birds, like the grass, are just there. Drama comes when they take on a lethal presence. Both versions serve up horror without invoking monster technology. Even familiar mechanical help is slighted. In du Maurier, fighter planes and naval guns fail to stop nature gone wrong. In Hitchcock, the Bodega Bay fire department is no match for the bird-spawned chaos. 1953 was not that far from the first use of the atom bomb. In 1962 the Cuban missile crisis had just occurred. Technology evoked genuine horror, not entertaining thrills.

 

Peter Byrne

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