This look at The Birds is the continuation of our ongoing blog series “Have You Watched a Good Book Lately?”
The series’ intention is to track a number of books’ progression from the printed page to the silver screen and assess how well or how badly the filmmakers accomplished each of the adaptations.
Today we’re going to be discussing “The Birds,” a short story written by Daphne du Maurier, first published in the collection The Apple Tree in 1952 and adapted for the screen in 1963 by screenwriter Evan Hunter and director Alfred Hitchcock. For those of you unfamiliar with the basic premise, here is a brief synopsis, first of the story (taken from eNotes.com) and then the film (taken from imdb.com):
“People usually associate birds with things like freedom and beauty and music. However, in this story, du Maurier drew on her own experience to create a case of once-innocent creatures suddenly mutated into merciless killers bent on destroying humanity. Disabled farmer Nat Hocken attempts to protect his family from the hordes of birds that relentlessly try to invade the family’s cottage.”
“A wealthy San Francisco socialite pursues a potential boyfriend to a small Northern California town that slowly takes a turn for the bizarre when birds of all kinds suddenly begin to attack people.”
From the Source’s Mouth
Let’s start our discussion with one of the main concerns of any story adaptation – how true is the film to the source material? Daphne du Maurier wrote many types of stories in a variety of genres, but she is perhaps best known for her thrilling mysteries, including “Rebecca,” “Don’t Look Now,” “My Cousin Rachel,” and “The House on the Strand.” She had the ability to craft a story that slowly but surely grips you, holds on tightly, and pulls you to the edge of your seat with anticipation and, often, horror. And she did that brilliantly with “The Birds.”
Nat Hocken has a wife and two children, but he leads a relatively solitary existence on a peninsula by the sea and works only part-time on a neighboring farm due to a wartime disability. He’s been watching the birds during this unseasonably warm autumn, contemplating why they seemed so restless this year and why there were so many. On December 3, 2:00 a.m., a sudden east wind blows in, bitterly cold and dry. It brings a hard, black frost to the land and white-capped waves whipped into a frenzy in the water. And then it brings the birds to the house – first a few tapping at the window, then dozens of different kinds swarming into the children’s bedroom, pecking and biting. The next day he sees the gulls – tens of thousands of them – sitting out on the choppy waves just before they rise into the air and head toward the cottage for a vicious onslaught.
The government has declared a state of emergency – everyone is to batten down in their homes until further notice. As isolated and as plodding as he is, Nat remains somewhat the soldier following orders. He remains confident that someone, somewhere, will know what to do, and everything will be better; they just have to wait for help.
But waiting is perilous. The pecking and crashing and tearing at the wooden boards he’s placed over the windows and doors escalate until the family almost can’t bear either the sounds or the fright they cause. Birds swarm down the kitchen chimney and into the house when the fire goes out, and Nat has to smoke them out, as well as to reinforce all the windows and doors again. The wireless, which was supposed to announce further instructions in the morning, remains ominously silent. How bad is the situation? Will help ever arrive? He feels even more isolated than before.
The birds’ attacks seem to follow along with the ebb and flow of the tide, Nat notices in the middle of the night, and that might give him time to go for help and supplies. He tests his theory the next morning, heading over to the neighboring farm, crunching on bird corpses every step of the way. However, it is already too late – the birds have gotten there ahead of him, destroying the buildings and pecking and scratching the people there to death. Now the isolation is almost suffocating. He gathers what he can, returns home, and settles his family down what promises to be a long siege. In her description of these events, du Maurier has, stage by stage, tightened the noose around Nat’s (and our) neck but left him waiting to find out if the door will drop out beneath him or not. We, with our imaginations fired up, are also left hanging, wondering what the ultimate outcome will be.
Film is, of course, a visual medium and cannot rely on grand descriptions of locations and events or portray a character’s inner thoughts (especially one as quiet as Nat) without lots of outward chatter. Hitchcock understood this and said, “Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.” Yet, although Hitchcock was unquestionably a master of visuals and suspense, he seemed somewhat out of his element here, in what should have been a terrifying film.
Since the original story was only about 40 pages long, Hitchcock clearly had to pad it to draw it out to a feature-length film, but in doing so, the story changed drastically from du Maurier’s compelling concept. For one thing, the film is set in San Francisco and the coastline north of it instead of a peninsula off the sea in rural England. That changes its inherent nature from a place of isolation – and so of fear – to one where there were plenty of people around to rely on when things got rough, even in the small town of Bodega Bay. For another, the seasons are different. Instead of the cold, hard, black frost that stills the landscape and freezes everyone and everything in place, we see a late spring or early autumn, with sunny skies and people in comfortable clothing that produces a sense of at least moderate comfort.
And then there’s the love story – heiress Melanie Daniels is swept off her feet (though she doesn’t know it initially) by suave lawyer Mitch Brennan. He plays a practical joke on her, coming into a pet store where she’s making a purchase, pretending to think she’s the help, asking her to pick him out two lovebirds as a present for his sister, and laughing at her when she’s completely clueless. This was actually payback for a practical joke she played on someone else long ago, and for which he thought the judge let her off the hook too easily. He wanted her to feel what the consequences of such a joke would be like. In retaliation, she buys the lovebirds the next day and drives up to Bodega Bay to give them to his sister. But while she hoped to sneak in and out with them, she gets attacked by a gull, and he has to come to her rescue. Somehow, it’s suggested, her presence with these two lovebirds is the start of the massive flocks attacking the town. Seriously?
Yes, there is a scene where dozens of birds fly down and out of a fireplace, attacking Melanie, Mitch, and his family in the process, but it isn’t particularly frightening, as they all make it out quickly and safely. Yes, there’s a flock of crows that attacks the school children, but because of the era’s lackluster special effects, it’s clear that the children were running on a set, and the birds were being projected on a rear screen, with the occasional prop bird landing on someone’s back or head. I’ve tried to make allowances for the time lag in film technology, but for a 1963 film, it sure looked like something out of the 1940s, and that makes it even harder to swallow. Probably the most frightening scene is when Melanie closets herself in a glass phone booth during one vicious attack, and we watch the birds swarm it, claw at her through the glass, and make kamikaze runs into it to try to get at her, their wings beating with an awful sound, until Mitch comes to rescue her rescue – the prince saving the damsel in distress, as it were. No strong heroine here.
One of the most interesting changes that Hitchcock made in his adaptation was that he didn’t use a musical score, just as there wouldn’t be one in a book. Composer Bernard Hermann, who scored most of Hitchcock’s films and did the brilliant strings-only music for “Psycho,” is listed as “Sound Consultant” here. The opening credits roll over the tremendous beating of a flock of birds’ wings and the sounds of birds impacting immovable objects, setting up what could have been a frightening film if only the filmmakers had carried through. The remainder of the film also used the birds’ cawing and screeching to set up suspense. It isn’t enough to overcome the problems, but score one for ingenuity.
But while the story builds up the tension until we felt the noose tighten around our necks at the end, the film leaves too many unanswered questions that are only tangentially related to the underlying theme. As the family drives away from Botega Bay (with the lovebirds in the back seat), we wonder: Will the couple stay together, or is it just the tension that made them close? What will happen to Mitch’s widowed mother now that she’s been uprooted from her home? Since it’s so incredibly implausible that the lovebirds caused the attacks, why were they there in the first place (other than as a plot device), and what really caused the mayhem? And while we know that the phone lines are down to San Francisco at the end, does that mean the birds have gotten there, as well, or is it just Botega Bay that’s affected? No one seemed bothered enough by any of these important questions to even leave a few clues for the viewer to pick up on once the film was through.
The Final Cut
So, how did “The Birds” as a movie fare as a story adaptation overall? Hitchcock once famously said, “Once the screenplay is finished, I’d just as soon not make the film at all … I have a strongly visual mind. I visualise a picture right down to the final cuts. I write all this out in the greatest detail in the script, and then I don’t look at the script while I’m shooting. I know it off by heart, just as an orchestra conductor needs not look at the score … When you finish the script, the film is perfect. But in shooting it you lose perhaps 40 percent of your original conception” It’s clear that, in this movie, he must have lost much of whatever vision he had in the filming process. I’d give it a C- at best.
What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? Please add your comments in the section below.
– Miriam Ruff, Content Creator, PoetsIN
DISCLAIMER: The opinions discussed in this blog post are solely those of the blogger and do not necessarily represent any thoughts, values, or opinions of PoetsIN and any of its affiliate groups.