birds

Book vs. Flick: The Birds

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Oct 22, 2018, 9:35 PM EDT (Updated)

Alfred Hitchcock was well into his career when he made The Birds in 1963, which was released after most of his more famous works were already in the can. The short story upon which the film was based was originally published in a collection by British writer Daphne du Maurier called The Apple Tree but is now usually published under the title The Birds and Other Stories. Both director and writer are acclaimed, as are their team-ups: Hitchcock adapted no less than three of du Maurier's works to the screen, the other two being Jamaica Inn and Rebecca.

The short story is set in 1950s Cornwall, England, and follows a war veteran who is semi-retired due to an injury he incurred during World War II. Du Maurier herself lived in Cornwall and adored it, going so far as to state that she preferred her home there in a letter to a friend. Her intense imagining and descriptions of the environment and the atmosphere reflects her self-professed love for the locale, and she details the gray skies and ocean with the sense of obsessiveness that permeates much of her work. As with many of du Maurier’s books and stories, she does truly seem to love the location more than the characters, and the protagonist she creates, Nat, has few evident traits beyond an interest in his own survival and that of his family.

Nat is attacked through his window at home by birds one night but is embarrassed when he attempts to tell others the next day and they don’t believe him. As the days pass, he moves his family into the living room, while his neighbors are more cavalier and claim that they’ll just shoot all the birds. This seems more and more unlikely, as Nat watches thousands of birds flock to them. Finally, he boards up his house, and the birds attack in earnest. The story ends with him smoking his last cigarette and throwing the pack into the fire.

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The Hitchcock movie made some significant changes. Nat and his family are gone, and all of the characters in the film are new. It’s usually agreed upon that the source material is an allegory for the bombings of England during World War II, but the film adaptation is much more Americanized, taking place in California despite the fact that Hitchcock was himself also British. The story is more of a slow burn, with the first half barely addressing birds at all save for as a minor plot device in what at first appears to be a Rock Hudson/Doris Day era rom-com rather than a horror story.

The Birds was actress Tippi Hedren’s first film, and she had a terrible time during shooting, which she wrote about at length in her autobiography. Hedren is decried by many Hitchcock fans for speaking about her experiences with the director in her book and in interviews, but the ire appears to be misdirected. Hedren has talked about being harassed by the director, and many have backed her claims that she was at the very least treated badly, both on set and off. The character she plays is cool as a cucumber, only becoming truly upset at the very end of the film after being physically attacked by birds. There was a great deal of animosity between Hedren and Hitchcock, and their follow-up film together, Marnie, is a very bad take on sexual abuse that is considered a turning point for the worst in the director's career. In some ways, The Birds is the last film he made that could be called a classic Hitchcock-style movie, but it’s difficult to watch objectively after reading Hedren's account of filming.

Hitchcock’s tendency to use blatant stalking as a charming character trait rears its head in The Birds. When Hedren's character Melanie Daniels feels insulted by love interest Mitch in their first meeting in a bird shop where she tries to play him for a fool and he turns it around on her, she obtains his address illegally, drives an hour, then rents a boat to travel all the way across the lake to drop off a couple of lovebirds as “a joke.” 

The romance between Mitch and Melanie is a little strange, particularly after Melanie meets briefly with the straight-talking former lover of Mitch, Annie, who shrugs off their entanglement and insinuates something very weird about his relationship with his mother, but finally, albeit stiffly, encourages Melanie to pursue Mitch. Melanie agrees to stay for the whole weekend after sudden bird attacks start occurring about an hour into the movie.

The Birds gas station

The most interesting part of the film adaptation is when several townspeople gather around in a diner across the street from a gas station, discussing the birds. One woman insists that she’s a bird expert and they simply aren’t capable of attacks. Melanie and Mitch passionately argue to the contrary. One person is convinced that the birds signify the apocalypse. Another man thinks it's all foolish.

While everyone is arguing, the birds outside cause a catastrophic accident in which gas from the fire pumps spills into a puddle beneath a man’s feet. He strikes a match and drops it, and several people die. The patrons inside the diner are horrified, helpless to do anything. Out of everything in the film, this scene is the most successful in capturing the underlying warning subtly implied in the short story: that humans overall do not react well in natural disasters, and by failing to ignore signs, they put themselves and others in terrible danger.

The movie concludes with the aggression from the birds increasing until Melanie is trapped in a room and attacked by dozens of birds. She is wrapped in bandages and coddled by a now-friendly Lydia. Mitch and crew all escape the house in the dawn, while all the birds appear placated by the terror of the night before. They get into a car and drive away, as the birds watch them go.

In the end, du Maurier and Hitchcock both turned out some interesting works, and The Birds is one of them. The gothic backdrops of du Maurier’s novels and her strange lack of fondness for many of her characters just so happened to match perfectly with Hitchcock’s single-minded fixations on beautiful, ethereal women and tortured, obsessive men. The characterization might feel intrinsically off in the film, but it does in the story as well. Du Maurier was a fascinating writer and Hitchcock was an intriguing director, but empathetic character studies were far from either one’s trademark. Still, their seemingly shared low-key disdain for humanity has its own appeal. Although The Birds might not top Hitchcock’s first du Maurier adaptation, Rebecca, it does share some of the overall commentary. Besides everything else, the cinematography is truly gorgeous, and the utilization of the then-revolutionary "yellow screen" provides for some haunting imagery.

The Birds as a concept can feel somewhat absurd, but it becomes more and more upsetting as both short story and movie go along. Although the reader might laugh off the danger, along with some of the minor characters of the story, we are later proven foolish by graphic scenes in which birds dive straight down a chimney into a fire and attack and kill innocent bystanders. Fast, dropped-in moments, like the discovery of a corpse picked apart, give us momentary glimpses of The Birds' central conceit, which is that nature will always win over mankind’s attempts to tame or placate it.

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