Final Cut

11.09.13

Why the Original ‘Birds’ is Superior to Hitchcock’s Version

Know what Hitchcock’s The Birds is based on? Thought not, but you should because Daphne Du Maurier’s original story is superior and creepier in every way.

“The novel on the cutting room floor”

They are literature’s cold cases, the Missing and Presumed Dead. They are the unlucky novels and stories that inspired movies so successful that they eclipsed the originals almost completely.  Some books weather a subsequent movie’s success. Gone With the Wind survives as a classic film and a classic novel. But how many people know that before it was a movie, Die Hard was a very good novel called Nothing Lasts Forever, or that Forrest Gump is based on the novel Forrest Gump?

Good fiction deserves a better fate. By way of a modest corrective, this series seeks out and showcases those obscured, forgotten novels and stories that gave their lives that movies might live, stories that were always at least as good as the well-known films they inspired and in more than a few instances, a lot better.

First up, The Birds.

In Truffaut/Hitchcock, the book of interviews that French director Francois Truffaut conducted with Alfred Hitchcock toward the end of the English director’s life, Hitchcock quickly distances himself from Rebecca as soon as that film comes into the conversation, baldly admitting that “it’s not a Hitchcock picture; it’s a novelette, really.”

Truffaut asks if the film faithfully follows the Daphne Du Maurier novel on which it’s based. “Yes, it follows the novel very faithfully,” Hitchcock says, “because [producer David O.] Selznick had just made Gone With the Wind. He had a theory that people who had read the novel would have been very upset if it had been changed on the screen, and he felt this dictum should also apply to Rebecca.” (There had been, apparently, an earlier draft of the screenplay in which Hitchcock had cut great chunks of the novel’s plot. Selznick nixed that version and ordered a rewrite more faithful to the novel, saying, “We bought Rebecca and we intend to make Rebecca.”) Lest any doubt remain as to what Hitchcock thought of Selznick’s theory of appeasing an audience’s expectations, the director immediately offers a joke: “You probably know the story of the two goats who are eating up cans containing the reels of a film taken from a best seller. And one goat says to the other, ‘Personally, I prefer the book.’”

Elsewhere Hitchcock said that the lesson he learned from making Rebecca was never to film a bestseller, and he was as good as his word. Watching the film, you begin to understand his disaffection—it’s not at all a bad movie, but it’s never really his movie, except in bits and pieces, merely a highly competent but rigorously literal transfer of Du Maurier’s story to the screen.

Almost 25 years would pass before Hitchcock filmed another Du Maurier story, and the results suggest that in that quarter century he stoked an enormous grudge—not against his studio masters nor the public his Rebecca had sought to placate but rather against the woman whose novel had so nicely greased his entry to Hollywood. When he made The Birds, which is based on a Du Maurier novella, Hitchcock kept her title and premise (birds randomly attacking humans in ever greater numbers for no discernable reason). Everything else he threw in the trash. According to Evan Hunter, the novelist who wrote the screenplay, Du Maurier’s original was history well prior to his hiring.

Author and filmmaker sharing a bent for the macabre that allows them to envision a natural world as malign as it is Arcadian.

Before The Birds, Hitchcock had enjoyed enormous success with Psycho, a “little” picture he made in part to prove that television’s cheap, fast techniques could be used to create a successful feature film. Psycho was minimalism to maximum effect, but it was also a one off. With The Birds, he returned to the glamorous, big budget pictures that had made him a household name in the 50s (although much of the money spent on that film would be lavished on its special—or, half a century later, not so special—effects). How different things might have been had he chosen The Birds over Psycho for his less-is-more experiment and stuck with DuMaurier’s harrowing plot. That original, for one thing, might have survived to receive the credit it’s due, not as merely inspiration for a famous Hitchcock movie but as possibly the greatest—and certainly the most prescient—fiction she ever wrote. But the film version of The Birds, whatever its shortcomings, was a box office hit, and Du Maurier had to be content with whatever she got paid for the rights (not much, in all likelihood, since Hitchcock prided himself on never overpaying for original material when he could avoid it). Ask anyone today who wrote The Birds, and the odds are good that you’ll get a blank stare for a response.

Time has not been kind to Hitchcock’s version. From their meet-cute in the pet store to the final ominous fade-out, Tippi Hedrin and Rod Taylor give us one of the great wooden-Indian romances in cinema. There is also the threadbare jealous-mother subplot, barely salvaged by Jessica Tandy, and the equally threadbare jealous-old-girlfriend subplot, so successfully salvaged by Suzanne Pleshette that you spend a lot of the movie wondering what kind of fool would spurn her and take up with Hedrin.

The good things about the movie have little to do with any of that. We remember the scene in the diner and the subsequent first massive bird assault that culminates in a gas tank explosion and leaves Hedrin besieged in a phone booth dive-bombed by gulls. Equally memorable: the creepy moment when the crows slowly alight on the jungle gym in the schoolyard, Tandy’s discovery of the farmer murdered and mutilated by birds, and the climactic moment where Hedrin fights off the birds in the upstairs bedroom. None of these scenes derive their power from the characters or the Hitchcock-Hunter plot. Instead, they depend on two things: Hitchcock’s ability to tell a story through images and editing (although, admittedly, the diner scene is wonderfully written), and DuMaurier’s initial premise, which remains, no matter what Hitchcock does, the scariest thing in his film.

Ironically, the Du Maurier story holds up much better today than Hitchcock’s version does. It works better as a horror story and even better as a cautionary eco-tale: her story of nature turning on man seems downright visionary in a world increasingly crippled by environmental disaster—although the biggest chill in each version of The Birds arises from the fact that neither story nor film offers any explanation for the bird attacks; author and filmmaker sharing a bent for the macabre that allows them to envision a natural world as malign as it is Arcadian.

Set in remote Cornwall in the 50s, Du Maurier’s tale chronicles farm laborer Nat Hocken’s efforts over two icy, windblown days to protect himself and his family from ever greater flocks of ever more predatory birds. Told in language steeped in the cadence and phrases of fairy tales and legends (“On December the third the wind changed overnight and it was winter”), it’s a spare but always hypnotic portrait of a solitary man who keeps the world at arm’s length, a habit he shares with the story he’s in: the few other characters—the wife and kids and the farmer next door—are deftly drawn but never very real or important—they’re just there to help the plot along. It’s Hocken’s story first and last. Thoughtful, intuitive, resourceful—he’s the counterweight to all the bleak malignancy that surrounds him.

Clearly shrewder than his wife or his foolish, loudmouthed neighbors (the story’s wise man/foolish man exchanges might as well be biblical parables), Hocken is also the only person to understand in time that the birds have become aggressors and the only one to gauge the scope of the threat (“What he had thought at first to be the white caps of the waves were gulls. Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands… They rose and fell in the trough of the seas, heads to the wind, like a mighty fleet at anchor, waiting on the tide.”). Wisdom in this story belongs to a minority of one, and in the end that’s not enough to make any difference.

Besides its title and the general idea, Hitchcock did lift a handful of episodes from the original story (the discovery of the murdered neighbor, the children being hunted by birds, and the dark, open-ended climax). What’s disappointing is that what he added is never as good as what he cut out. As a result, his version is a technical tour de force but a movie that never gets under your skin. It’s just a great example of what money can buy when it’s spent by a genius. Du Maurier’s story, by comparison, looks like a miser’s dream: a 50-page novella that compels us to keep reading using only the barest prose, never two words where one will do. But compel you it will. It’s a doom-driven tale from the very beginning—we know going in that no good will come of any of this—and yet we continue, as though hypnotized, right to the dreadful end. This is one instance where the film-munching goat that preferred the book definitely had the right idea.