Sunday, March 15, 2015

Flights Of Fancy: Turning du Maurier's "The Birds" Into Hitchcock's Nightmare

By Lars Trodson

Ed. Note: This is another in our occasional series examining short stories that have been adapted into feature films.

“The Birds” is Alfred Hitchcock’s most schizophrenic movie. It's certainly effective and memorable, but it features some of the worst acting in any film considered to be one of the director’s major efforts. It also has lapses in logic that would be inexcusable in other Hitchcock efforts. The special effects are terrific, but there are some scenes so obviously shot on a sound stage that they break the narrative spell. It could be that Hitchcock simply wasn’t interested in the human story; the primary challenge seemed to be in making sure the audience believed that flocks of birds could orchestrate a deliberate attack on human beings and kill us all. 

But it's also true that Hitchcock and his screenwriter, Evan Hunter (aka Ed McBain), didn’t have much to start with. Daphne du Maurier’s 1952 short story on which the film is based (also called “The Birds”) focuses almost exclusively on the Hocken family— father Nat, his unnamed wife, and their two children, Jill and Johnny. Both story and film offer no explanation as to why the birds attack, but du Maurier presents the reader with some awkward Cold War symbolism as a way to give her little story more heft than it deserves, a touch that Hitchcock wisely discarded. His birds aren't Communists, they've just gone around the bend.

The fundamentals of du Maurier's story will be sketchily familiar to those who have seen the movie: The Hockens, like the Brenner family in the film, live in a rural seaside community, only in the story Nat Hocken is a parttime worker on a farm owned by the Trigg family in the English countryside. He is disabled from a wartime injury and has a military pension. Nat Hocken has a wife and two children, a boy and a girl. The male protagonist in the film, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) is a dapper attorney in California and the seaside town in the film is the real-life Bodega Bay. He has a much younger sister, Cathy.

Other than some brief conversations with Mr. and Mrs. Trigg, the action in the short story is focused on how Nat keeps his family safe from the attacking birds. This echoes the film, which is also focused on how Mitch Brenner keeps his family safe. The film offers many more diversions than the story, a love interest in Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren in her first role), and the wonderful scene in The Tides diner, where a group of colorful characters (and character actors) show up. 

I wouldn’t call the du Maurier story elegant, but it is effective. It's tight and creepy. Du Maurier builds the tension in unadorned prose. It is easy to see why Hitchcock would be attracted to the story (and why he had to wait for cinematic special effects to become mature enough to allow him to do it right). The story arc, such as it is, is that the birds attack, singly at first, but then the birds become murderous, more brazen, and we learn that the attacks are widespread and human elements are unable to stop them. What Hitchcock and his screenwriter did was take moments in the story and open them up for the film.

In the film, we first see the birds flocking over the San Francisco skyline. There are so many of them that Melanie Daniels takes a moment to look at them before she enters the pet store. (The film also has many lighthearted moments, something decidedly lacking in the story.)

This moment in the film was no doubt inspired by the opening paragraphs of the story. It is Nat’s habit to take a break to eat the lunch his wife makes for him and, while sitting on the cliff’s edge, "watch the birds.”

Despite his interest in them, the birds remain mysterious to Nat Hocken, and are not wholly benign to begin with: “In autumn great flocks of them came to the peninsula, restless, uneasy, spending themselves in motion; now wheeling, circling the sky; now settled to feed on the rich, new-turned soil; but even when they fed, it was as though they did so without hunger, without desire.

“Restlessness drove them to the sky again. Crying, whistling, calling, they skimmed the placid sea and left the shore.” 

One thing Nat does notice is the birds seem “more restless than ever this fall of the year” and he talks to Farmer Trigg about it, but they decide that it is the abrupt change in the weather causing the unrest.

In the film, the malevolent intent of the birds is signaled by one its best moments: As Melanie takes a skiff across the bay over to Mitch Brenner's house to deliver the love birds she has bought at the pet store (where she meets Mitch), a gull swoops down and nicks her in the forehead. It's a beautifully filmed and edited scene, and Hitchcock frames it in the light of day. The ocean, unlike the ocean in the du Maurier story, is calm and blue.

In the story, the first bird attacks at night. Nat and his family are in bed, and he can "hear the sea roaring in the bay." Then he hears a "tapping on the windowpane." Nat gets up and goes to the window. Here, in the story, it is easy to see where Hitchcock got some his imagery: "He opened it; and as he did so, something brushed his hand, jabbing at his knuckles, grazing his skin... The bird had drawn blood." No one who has seen "The Birds" can forget the images of the nasty gulls biting Mitch's hands as he tries to close the window as they invade the house.

The birds return that same night, and in more images that Hitchcock includes in the film, the birds have entered the children's room upstairs. Nat pushes Jill and Johnny out of the room. "He seized a blanket from the nearest bed and, using it as a weapon, flung it to the right and left about him." In the film, when the birds come rushing down the chimney (another source of worry in the short story), Mitch flings a blanket about to kill the birds.

One of the things that Hitchcock was wise to do was scoop out the unnecessary and rather clumsy attempt on du Maurier's part of turn the birds in her story into an allegory about the threat of Communism. The cold winds causing the sudden change in weather come from the east in the story — not too subtle there — and in one brief exchange du Maurier is rather explicit about her symbolism. Nat visits Mrs. Trigg, the wife of the man he works for:

"Hullo, Mr. Hocken," she said. "Can you tell me where this cold is coming from? Is it Russia? I've never seen such a change."

Later in that discussion, Mrs. Trigg goes so far as to label them "Foreign birds maybe, from that Arctic Circle." This is all a bit silly.

Adapting a short story into a feature film is a fascinating art, and its intriguing to see how tiny moments in the story are used in ways that are more thematically important in the film. In the story, we have a traditional nuclear family: A married couple with two children. Nat, the father, is the protagonist who is trying to save his wife and children. In the story, the boy, Johnny, is apparently very young — even a toddler. Johnny has no dialogue and there is a reference to his pram. The elder daughter Jill has much the same fears and reactions to the attacks of the birds as does her counterpart in the film, who is named Cathy and played by the wonderful Angela Cartwright.

In the film, Hitchcock has altered the family dynamic. Nat becomes Mitch, who is not a father but a son (he is a father figure to Cathy, because he is very much older). Nat's nameless wife becomes Mitch's mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy, in a beautiful performance). Lydia is a cold, hard woman, and we're not sure why. 

Her counterpart in the story is Nat's wife, and this character is set with one simple exchange, one that Hitchcock and screenwriter Hunter seem to have expanded on greatly. 

In the second bird attack on the Hocken house, both Nat and his wife are wakened. 

"See to the window, Nat; it's rattling."
"I've already seen to it," he told her. "There's some bird there, trying to get in."
"Send it away," she said. "I can't sleep with that noise."

In this briefest of sketches we get the feeling she's a harridan, but du Maurier doesn't continue that. She settles the character into being a frightened mom doing her best to keep her children safe.

There is no comparable moment in the story to one of the film's most celebrated set pieces: the crows congregating on the jungle gym outside the school. But there is a moment where Nat looks out to the sea and mistakes "the whitecaps of the waves" for gulls. "Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands." He also later mistakes a flock of gulls for a ship out at sea.

There are other little moments that Hitchcock used from the story. Nat appropriates furniture to cover the windows and doors. ("Nat looked around him, seeing what furniture he could destroy to fortify the door.") Mitch does the same thing. There is a scene where Nat picks up Jill at school and, when seeing the gulls starting to mass overhead, the two run home, Nat practically dragging Jill behind him until they reach the safety of Mr. Trigg's truck. In the film, it is the entire class that runs out of the school, only to be attacked. In the story, after Jill is safely home, Nat goes into a phone booth to call the authorities to warn them about the gulls. This hints at the scene where Melanie inexplicably leaves the safety of the diner to go out into the street during an attack only to find refuge in a phone booth. 

Hitchcock also reworks a moment in the story into another of the film's most famous images. In the film, Lydia drives over to a neighbor's farm to discuss why their chickens aren't eating. The farm has been attacked. The teacups are smashed and there are feathers everywhere. Lydia slowly turns the corner into the farmer's bedroom — we see the wounded legs first — and then there is of course that moment when the edits skip silently ever-closer to the farmer's pecked out eyes (the film was edited by longtime Hitchcock collaborator George Tomasini). Lydia runs choking, silent, back to her truck.

In the du Maurier story, Nat and his wife decide, during daylight when the birds don't attack, to try to get to the Trigg's farmhouse to borrow food and supplies. Nat decides to go up the house by himself:

He saw the car standing by the gate. Not put away in the garage.

All the windows in the farmhouse were smashed. There were many dead gulls lying in the yard and around the house. They were quite still. They watched him. Jim's body lay in the yard. What was left of it. His gun was beside him.

The door to the house was shut and bolted, but it was easy to push up a smashed window and climb through.

Trigg's body was close to the telephone. He must have been trying to get through to the exchange when the birds got him. The receiver was off the hook, and the instrument was torn from the wall... [Nat] forced himself to climb the stairs, but halfway up he descended again. He could see Mrs. Trigg's legs protruding from the open bedroom door. Beside her were the bodies of black-backed gulls..." This may be the only imagery that makes it intact from story to screen, even if the gender of the victim is changed.

The character of Annie the school teacher (and former girlfriend to Mitch) is entirely a creation of the film. It is very hard to imagine "The Birds" without Suzanne Pleshette, who provides the film the only bit of human warmth it has. (This is the other great performance in the film.) She's vulnerable and kind, if a bit aloof to Melanie (of course), and cinematographer Robert Burks gives Annie what is the single best shot in the film — Annie in profile, lounging in a chair while listening to Melanie, and smoking a cigarette. This is a woman alone and lonely, and Pleshette makes you feel all that, even without dialogue. There's no other shot like this in the entire film, and while it may be that Hitchcock was obsessed with Tippi Hedren in real life, he does not once give Hedren a moment as generous and as warm-hearted as this.

Hitchcock also decided against keeping du Maurier's blustery, wintry backdrop. The film takes place at an undetermined time of year, it seems a normally brisk San Franciscan climate (if a bit too sunny), but in DuMaurier's story all of nature seems to be angry, especially the sea.

"It was bitter cold, and the ground had all the hard, black look of the frost that the east wind brings. The sea, fiercer now with the turning tide, white capped and steep, broke harshly in the bay... Black winter had descended in a single night... The wind was blowing harder than ever, coming in steady gusts, icy, from the sea..."

The film also jettisons the more overt attempts by du Maurier to turn the conflict into actual war. The birds, in the story, divebomb people in suicide attacks, unafraid to die in their efforts to kill the human enemy. The military is brought in — Nat can hear the warships out on the water trying to bomb the birds — but the army and air force prove to be no match for the birds and their guns soon fall silent.

Also in the short story, things get so bad for humanity that all broadcasting ceases. The news reports on the radio were at best intermittent, but soon there is only static over the airwaves. At the end of the story, the family sits in silence, listening to the birds chip away at their little fortress. The birds were intent on destroying "mankind with all the deft precision of machines," du Maurier writes. At the end of du Maurier's story, Nat smokes his one last cigarette and the final image is one of fire.

Hitchcock ends on a note somewhat more ambiguous. There are broadcasts still coming over the radio (in fact it is only at the end of the film that we learn the attacks are widespread). Mitch fixes up the convertible and he loads in Lydia, Cathy and the now-deranged Melanie (she was attacked by birds in the upstairs bedroom in what is both a frightening and wholly ludicrous scene) and they drive through a landscape covered in birds. 

The sun is shining, it is breaking through the clouds in glorious rays. 

But don't be too hopeful. There is one thing we know about Hitchcock: Bad things don't only happen at night.

"It's A Wonderful Life" (based on the story "The Greatest Gift")

"The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty"