Reel Time Short Stories: The Birds
Posted July 30, 2012on:
He seized a blanket from the nearest bed and, using it as a weapon, flung it to right and left about him in the air. He felt the thud of bodies, heard the fluttering of wings, but they were not yet defeated, for again and again they returned to the assault, jabbing his hands, his head, the little stabbing beaks sharp as pointed forks. The blanket became a weapon of defense; he wound it about his head, and then in greater darkness beat at the birds with his bare hands. He dared not stumble to the door and open it, lest in doing so the birds should follow him.
If there is one element – and it’s easy to argue that there is just the one – that remains constant in Daphne Du Maurier’s 1952 novella, The Birds, and the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock film adaptation, it’s the horror visited upon the human characters by the frenzied blitzkrieg of bird after bird after bird. The respective dates of release for the story and film give a clue as to what might have governed their many differences: Du Maurier’s backdrop of post-war austerity contrasts with the technicolour permissiveness depicted by Hitchcock and screenwriter Evan Hunter, embodied by Tippi Hedren’s Melanie Daniels. For all that, and to say nothing of the vast differences in setting, plot, characters, themes and even the explanation given for the birds’ attack, both works are merciless in the way they peck at our vulnerability.
In the Reel Time Short Stories series, the issue of adaptation – detecting what exists within the short story that lends it to visualisation and expansion – is accompanied by the question of whether and how we might identify generic short fiction traits in the story told on film. Du Maurier, whose Jamaica Inn and Rebecca had previously found their way into the cinema under Hitchcock’s direction, was said to have disliked Hitchcock’s reinvention of her story. She wasn’t, in fairness, known to be a fan of very many of the screen adaptations of her fiction (Hitch’s far more faithful Rebecca among the few exceptions) but it’s also reasonable to suggest that a pretty decent movie could have been made using far more ingredients from the story of farm worker Nat Hocken and his efforts to protect his family from the waves of bird attacks that have swept across Europe and the rest of Britain, as far as Nat’s home on the Cornish peninsula. It’s a taut, naturally horrific narrative of survival. It would have made perfect sense to the readership so soon after a war which had been experienced on the Home Front in terms of battening down the hatches against bombing raids, clinging to the wireless for scraps of information and guidance, and the privations, still partially active in 1952, of rationing. Each is present and correct in Du Maurier’s story; indeed, the film, which prioritises diegetic sound over Bernard Herrmann’s more familiarly Hitchcockian musical prompts, suggests a wartime air raid when we first see the birds attack en masse at Cathy’s birthday party, the wing beats like strafes of gunfire, mixed with explosive squawks and popping balloons. Through Nat Hocken, Du Maurier goes beyond the sensation of such wartime sieges to represent the constant mustering of new resolve to resist, protect and then cajole and organise and take action to go through it all again:
He decided they must sleep in the kitchen, keep up the fire, bring down the mattresses, and lay them out on the floor. He was afraid of the bedroom chimneys. The boards he had placed at the chimney bases might give way. In the kitchen they would be safe because of the fire. He would have to make a joke of it. Pretend to the children they were playing at camp. If the worst happened, and the birds forced an entry down the bedroom chimneys, it would be hours, days perhaps, before they could break down the doors. The birds would be imprisoned in the bedrooms. They could do no harm there. Crowded together, they would stifle and die.
Nat sets about bringing mattresses downstairs and maintaining a reassuring commentary for his family. We then hear his thoughts:
“We’re safe enough now,” he thought. “We’re snug and tight, like an air-raid shelter. We can hold out. It’s just the food that worries me. Food, and coal for the fire. We’ve enough for two or three days, not more. By that time . . .”
I see strong parallels with the unnamed father in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, steering his son towards whatever temporary, relative safety they can find, and also away from the worst kinds of barbarism they encounter, aware that there’s again a brutal relativity in those choices. In The Birds, the morning after his first battle in the dark with invading birds, Nat is sickened at the sight of the “little corpses [of]…robins, finches, sparrows, blue tits, larks, and bramblings”, erstwhile companions to his work out of doors, that he has been forced to kill. Later, having gone to the farm and discovered the dead bodies of his supervisor, Jim Trigg, and of Mrs Trigg, the priority of survival over sentiment is not exactly easier, but more immediate and instinctive. The manner in which this new knowledge of his capabilities is absorbed can be seen in this tiny, powerful detail as his wife serves him food:
She poured out a plateful of the Triggs’ soup, cut him a large slice of the Triggs’ bread, and spread their dripping upon it.
Du Maurier’s portrait of a man engaged in a struggle against nature, almost more than the horrifying images of the crazed flocks, is what makes The Birds utterly engrossing. Hitchcock and Hunter tend to allow brief glimpses of what Du Maurier contemplates at length in her text, though the sense of a man measuring his own masculinity by his ability to take control at a time of heightened danger, and to resist invaders, comes through when Rod Taylor’s Mitch barricades his mother’s house. Hitherto, his rugged exterior has belied a suspicion that he lacks the qualities to step into his recently deceased father’s shoes as the man of the house. In this, he shares a horror movie lineage with, among others, Duane Jones’ Ben Huss in The Night Of The Living Dead – whose masculinity is not in question but, as a black man, his right to address as an equal and even command other men in inherently challenged – and Simon Pegg’s Shaun in Shaun Of The Dead. John Hillcoat’s 2009 adaptation of The Road may also be said to link Viggo Mortensen’s father to these characters in a way the book didn’t, by presenting more images of the family life, hinting at the clean-shaven Mortensen’s intellectualism and ‘soft’ white collar credentials, before entering the narrative’s post-apocalyptic scenario. Nat Hocken doesn’t need to prove himself in those ways; nonetheless, there is a sense of pride in the way he regards the emergency measures he’s taking:
He went and examined all the windows. His work had been thorough. Every gap was closed.
In Jon McGregor‘s 2012 story, If It Keeps On Raining, we can detect a similar satisfaction in the handiwork of another man building a defence against nature, in this case a tree house to evade the floods he expects to surge across the fenland of Eastern England:
It might not be the finest treehouse ever built but it does what it needs to. It’s difficult to get the details right when you’re fifty foot up in the air. It’s hard enough getting all the wood up there in the first place. It would be easier with two people. But it’s just him, now, so it takes careful planning. Some forethought. And hard work.
Daphne Du Maurier’s focus is on one man, and his family, engaged in a struggle for survival, and she chooses to leave the Hockens in that state. Short fiction, even in the somewhat longer form employed here, does tend to leave suggestive gaps which several film adaptations tend to want to fill. What’s interesting about the wholesale changes made to Du Maurier’s story by Hitchcock – for which he engaged Hunter, whom we’ve come to know better as the crime writer Ed McBain, preferring an imaginative re-working by an established storyteller to the technical workmanship of a hack screenwriter – is the amount of short story tropes inserted as the story re-locates to California. Whereas Du Maurier’s birds were terrorising a whole country and possibly a continent, Hitchcock’s terror is localised, allowing a familiar small town narrative to play out. After the San Francisco opening in which Hedren’s Melanie and Taylor’s Mitch play off one another like Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant in a romantic comedy, the film offers a luxurious prototype of the Simpsons Plot Detour as Melanie brings her couture and her sense of entitlement to Bodega Bay in an initially straightforward pursuit of Mitch. Then a bird swoops to peck her forehead and she is sealed up inside this world in which she is seen as more of a malevolent outsider than the vindictive birds.
Du Maurier pits man against nature, though not, I suspect, in an especially gendered way: it’s just difficult to envisage, in her story’s social context, the main character being other than a man like Nat. Although the exact reason for the bird attacks in the story is a cause for speculation rather than firm knowledge – consistent with the first hours of any disaster – there is at least a gesture towards logic in the wintry climate and bitter winds which seem to be demolishing territorial distinctions between different types of birds and whipping them all up to a desperate feeding frenzy. The calm which returns whenever they’ve eaten their fill is echoed at the end of the film but the Bodega Bay birds seem motivated by a range of moral considerations. Melanie’s arrival in the Bay, carrying two caged love birds, might explain the first injury she receives, solidarity among the avian classes, but this repugnance doesn’t explain the demonic energy that continues to be unleashed. The suggestion – and this will not be news to anyone who has read Camille Paglia’s 1998 BFI Classics critical analysis of the film – is that Melanie’s most damaging import is her female glamour and sexuality. The birds are therefore akin to a feathered militia of Daily Mail columnists – and this can, of course, only make sense on a symbolic level. Paglia’s rich depiction of Hedren’s screen presence and remarkable performance (in her feature film debut) present such a compelling case that it’s hard to imagine her reading of the film not to have been the common perception throughout its lifetime. And there are moments when it seems impossible to believe that any other reading is possible. When Melanie, lodging with Mitch’s old flame Annie – whose black hair and smoky voice suggest she’s more the one who’s been flamed, cauterised for having dared in the past to do what Melanie is attempting now – notes that there’s a full moon, the two women exchange a look of knowing trepidation. They might not understand the reasoning of birds but they need no reminder of the mythical power of the female menstrual cycle. When a delirious woman blames Melanie’s presence in their town for the bird attacks, screaming “Evil!” in her face, it’s an experience with which other types of outsider would relate but the particulars of Melanie’s evil, once again, are possession of a loaded sexuality, with intent to use.
Hitchcock’s The Birds is a horror and it does sample riffs from Du Maurier’s war allegory but its short story credentials are that it’s a small town chamber piece concerning the presence within a tight community of a vibrant outsider. In particular, the narrative resolves itself around Melanie’s effect on the other women: the tragic Annie, a walking ghost of spent sexuality, who allows Melanie to step around while she clings to a nurturing role in Mitch’s life; Jessica Tandy’s Lydia, Mitch’s mum and an elective crone; and young Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), for whom Melanie is an immediately aspirational figure. As with Nat’s heroic struggles against his fate, we don’t know by the end if Melanie has succumbed to the forces against her. As with much short fiction, we don’t seek to take away certainties, just a measure more of understanding. And, perhaps, a catapult, just in case it gets crowded on the jungle gym outside the school.