Daphne du Maurier’s short story The Birds was published in 1952 in her collection The Apple Tree. Telling the story of a Cornish village besieged by marauding birds, it would be adapted several times for TV, film and radio, most famously in Alfred Hitchcock’s film of the same name.
Hitchcock’s The Birds marked the British director’s third and final adaptation of a du Maurier work following Jamaica Inn (1939) and Rebecca (1940). Hitchcock’s avian horror bears little narrative resemblance to the author’s original short story; du Maurier was invariably displeased with Hitchcock’s loose adaptation. Nevertheless, despite Hitchcock’s departure from du Maurier’s quintessentially English tale of terror, the short story’s spirit of post-war anxiety finds its echoes in the British director’s version of The Birds.
Du Maurier’s story is set in her native Cornwall and centred on the ordeal of one family as common crows, starlings, sparrows and gulls inexplicably begin attacking humans. We learn through the radio that the entire UK is under attack. Explanations for these attacks range from storms at sea driving aggressive black-backed gulls inland, or that the bitter winter has driven the land birds mad with hunger. Both are unconvincing and do little to balance the authorities’ lack of preparedness.
Hitchcock’s version only aligns narratively with the short story for its premise and the circumstances of its climax. The film also dispenses with the British setting and the story’s Nat Hocken and his family as the protagonists, swapping them for the decidedly more cinematic would-be couple of Mitch and Melanie, played by Mitch Brenner and iconic Hitchcock blonde, Tippi Hedren.
Still, there are traces of story concepts to be found in the film. The story’s sea-storm explanation is briefly referenced by the film’s pet shop owner noticing the over-abundance of gulls; the disbelief of the residents of Bodega Bay (a stand-in for the Cornish coast) mirrors the complacency of Nat Hocken’s doomed neighbours. His discovery of their savaged bodies is a clear inspiration for one of the film’s most effective and harrowing sequences when Lydia discovers her father killed by seagulls.
Hitchcock’s most radical departure from du Maurier’s text, however, is the film’s self-conscious manipulation of the genre. Effectively beginning as a romantic comedy, we’re introduced to Hedren and Brenner’s protagonists in a classic meet-cute, where the mischievous socialite Melanie poses as a pet shop assistant as a prank on Mitch. Omnipotent aerial shots of the shop and a conspicuous lack of music are our only hints that something is awry, while Melanie’s purchasing of two lovebirds for Mitch’s daughter foregrounds the film’s later horrors. But it’s only when she’s attacked by a lone herring gull, well into the film’s second act, that the film shows its hand as something other than a comedy.
It’s a favoured trick of the director, buttering us up with a false sense of security before sneaking up behind his audience for the cold shock of terror. This is in direct contrast to du Maurier’s story, which gives us our first avian attack in the opening pages. The manipulation of the genre in which the film engages is significant because while it toys with the thematic concerns of the short story, it retains the fundamental anxiety that drives those themes.
While the historical politics of Hitchcock’s film are centred around Western mid-century anxieties about modernity and sexual liberation, the short story’s conceptual framework is more explicitly rooted in English post-war trauma and identity. Indeed, the bird attacks are a surreal echo of the blitz. Maurier explicitly draws our attention to a country torn asunder from the ravages of war: the story’s protagonist, Nat, suffers from a war-wound and his embittered remark that whatever the authorities “decided to do in London and the big cities would not help them here, nearly three hundred miles away” hints at a sense of historic betrayal and abandonment in the post-war settlement.
Meeting this Second World War trauma is Cold War anxiety – more than once do characters suggest that the Russians might be responsible for the birds’ behaviour. Moreover, the authorities’ ill-preparedness to fight such a spectral foe reflects the paranoia both of Russian spies and of nuclear annihilation; even the cold wind ‘from the East’ has echoes of the terror or radioactive fallout. The threat that the birds represent goes beyond the normal horrors of war – it is an existential horror, where even nature has it in for us.
Time, by extension, also betrays Nat. The past, comforting in its patriarchal hegemony, is responsible for the “old cottage, with small windows, stout walls”, that shelters the family from the birds. Du Maurier contrasts the old reliability of the cottage with the flimsy modernity of the new council-built homes: “Heaven help them up the lane in the new council houses”. Yet the future, framed by the shadow of the mushroom cloud, marches on as inexorably as the gulls flying inland, themselves resembling a terrible cloud in their vast flocks.
This expression of post-war trauma is less explicit in Hitchcock’s version, yet both short story and film represent a fundamentally (post)modern anxiety. Hitchcock uses this to fuel the psycho-sexual themes of his film, brought on by Melanie’s arrival in Bodega Bay, symbolically carrying two love birds and a portent of the horror to come. Relocating the action from San Francisco to Bodega Bay also coincides in the shift in tone, from romantic comedy to terror. Mitch’s family resembles the traditional patriarchal family of the short story, except with his younger sister as a surrogate daughter, and his mother as his metaphorical wife.
The dysfunction of this superficially conventional family unit is exposed and disrupted by Melanie’s arrival. Shortly after, we learn that she isn’t the first woman Mitch has brought back to the Bay – the school teacher Annie reveals to Melanie that she too courted Mitch before his mother got in between them. Annie herself brings a new dimension to the film’s sexual dynamic – not just as a romantic threat to Melanie, but as a sexual opportunity. Certainly, it doesn’t take a great leap to read into the subtext of a single woman, coded as a noirish femme fatale, living on her own in search of a female lodger. Furthermore, during her and Melanie’s first conversation, she even hints that Mitch could be gay, wondering “maybe there’s never been anything between Mitch and any girl”.
The disruption to the norm that Annie represents is ostensibly resolved, in the time-honoured tradition of horror, by having her brutally killed. Soon after, Mitch’s mother – an oedipal obstacle blocking Mitch and Melanie’s symbolic union – is injured so badly in the climactic scene that she becomes unresponsive, apparently clearing the path for the re-establishment of the heteronormative family unit. Du Maurier’s anxiety about the post-war period as a site of national identity crisis is reformed by the film into psychosexual terror. Here, the bird attacks paradoxically represent a threat to patriarchal hegemony while also presenting an opportunity to reaffirm it by removing disruptive female elements such as Annie and Mitch’s mother.
Du Maurier’s story ends with the father and his children preparing to endure the second night of feathered frenzy, though Nat’s compulsive smoking hints at their ultimate fate. And despite the film’s brief reprieve in its closing moments, the four survivors make their escape amidst a landscape dominated by their winged tormentors. Both story and film ultimately wind up at different narratives junctures but similar discursive conclusions. While the psychology of national identity at the heart of du Maurier’s text is replaced by the frothy, heteronormative comedy of the film in its first act, both are disrupted by the political and sexual anxieties represented by the bird attacks. For both du Maurier and Hitchcock, postmodern anxiety is here a sort of feathery Pandora’s box, disruptive and irrationally terrifying.
Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds is available to stream online via Now TV. nowtv.com
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell