Daphne Du Maurier’s The Birds is a chilling short story. Her writing is very atmospheric. She uses the environment to her advantage to heighten the mood and suspense in her stories. In The Birds, the air, the wind, the soil, the sea, the hues in the sky, and the tides all work together incite the senses. Most haunting of all, man is forced to concentrate all his efforts on just survival after masses of birds mysteriously start to attack.
We follow the family of Nat Hocken as they witness the first hint of bird misbehavior and then as they collect supplies and batten down the hatches to ward off the attacks. What makes stories like this one so fascinating is the concept of man being reduced to the bare essentials of survival, when suddenly all other pursuits in life are irrelevant and man must merely survive. I thought it was interesting that in the midst of this Mrs. Hocken reminds her son to mind his manners while they’re eating a meal. Elements like this always really pop out at me in survival tales. I mean they’ve boarded up their windows, destroyed their furniture to reinforce the doors, collected corpses of birds that died trying to peck their way inside, hoarded supplies of food and lumber, and huddled together in anticipation of the inevitable tapping at their windows; yet, it’s still important to mind your manners at the supper table. In situations of primal existence, the most basic signs of humanity are illuminated. Nat Hocken, in one moment, is reassured by the ordinary sight of neatly stacked cups and saucers and the whistle of the tea kettle. These are such simple, basic things that at any other time are probably taken for granted, if noticed at all. Yet, the plight of survival makes them jump to the foreground and they are suddenly appreciated and provide comforting reminders of one’s humanity.
I’ve read a number of du Maurier’s novels but this is the first short story that I’ve read by her. It’s one story in a little volume of short stories called Don’t Look Now that I picked up a few months ago at a used bookstore in DC. The Birds was an eerie, compelling story and I look forward to reading more stories in this collection.
Sometimes I feel like a broken record when I start to talk about Hitchcock’s film adaptations of specific books. Time and again, his films are completely different from the books they’re based on. I recently came across a snippet from the book Hitchcock/Truffaut: a definitive study of Alfred Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut that explains why.
“What I do is to read a story only once, and if I like the basic idea, I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema. Today I would be unable to tell you the story of Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds. I read it only once and very quickly at that.”
The “basic idea” is pretty much the only similarity between Hitchcock’s film and du Maurier’s story. The concept of birds mysteriously attacking humans and the plight of humans to survive is the only thing they have in common.
Melanie Daniels, a young and attractive blonde (of course!), is captivated by a man who enters a pet shop while she is there buying birds. The man is looking for love birds for his young sister for her birthday but the shop does not have them. Melanie gets it in her head that she’s going to order the birds and deliver them herself to where the man lives. She takes down the man’s license number and begins tracking his path, eventually landing herself in Bodega Bay, a small fishing community in California. (It’s all a bit creepy if you ask me, and if I were the guy I would have been a bit flipped out, but whatever.) The first bird attack occurs when she is on a boat after secretly entering the man’s house and leaving the love birds on a table with a note. A gull swoops down and scratches her forehead, so when she greets the man for the first time she has blood streaming down her face.
There’s an interesting contrast from the beginning of the film to the end. In the beginning, of course, it’s the birds that are in cages, but by the end it’s the humans who become caged in, as they are forced to stay confined in their houses. In the opening pet shop scene, a bird escapes from the cage and particular attention is paid to the hands of the humans as they reach and grab at the bird. Finally, when the bird settles on a counter, the man puts his hat on top of it and returns it to its cage. This conveys a sense of complete domination of man over bird. Contrast that with a scene towards the end of the film when Melanie runs into a telephone booth to escape a bird attack and in her panicked state, she’s flailing around, banging against the walls of the booth. We view this scene from above, which powerfully expresses her confinement and that she’s being forced to exist in a space that’s much too small for her to carry on normally, and to move as she should be able to move.
I think this film is the scariest of Hitchcock’s movies, it’s certainly the goriest. There are several brutal and bloody attacks. Whenever I see it, it takes me a few days to get over being freaked out by normal bird sounds or the sight of large clusters of birds. After this viewing, my usual eeriness was heightened when I turned on CNN the next morning to discover that birds have been inexplicably falling out of the sky in Arkansas!