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The Birds and Other Stories, Page 1

Daphne Du Maurier


  Daphne du Maurier

  Foreword by David Thomson

  Begin Reading

  Table of Contents


  Copyright Page

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  Du Maurier, Hitchcock and Holding an Audience

  There's no doubt about the fondness that existed between Daphne du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock--or between the writer and the movies as a whole. They were good to each other, and du Maurier's books inspired several more films than those made by Hitchcock. There was Frenchman's Creek (1944), with Joan Fontaine as Dona St. Columb and Arturo De Cordova as her Frenchman; My Cousin Rachel (1952), with Olivia de Havilland and the young Richard Burton; and the story that inspired Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now. Throw in the Hitchcock trio--Jamaica Inn, Rebecca and The Birds--and you have a group where all but one picture did well at the box office, and du Maurier's sales bloomed all over the world.

  Still, a serious writer needs to be wary of the movies--don't look for too many thanks, and keep away from the shooting if you're sensible, because writers' feelings are seldom spared. Jamaica Inn, the first du Maurier novel filmed, was significantly altered to make a star part for Charles Laughton. Far better that the author of Frenchman's Creek not hear the exasperation of Mitchell Leisen, who was obliged to direct the film. When asked whether his attention to color, clothes and decor had lost sight of "story values," he exploded: "You tell me what the story values were in Frenchman's Creek and I'll answer that. She falls in love with a pirate, leaves her husband and comes back in time not to get caught. That's all. It's as dull as dishwater and it was a lousy picture. It was one of those things, either I did it or I got suspended and my agent didn't want me to take a suspension. I should have but I didn't."

  Well, you may say, that's what happens when a picture turns out badly. But then consider what Alfred Hitchcock had to say when Francois Truffaut asked him how many times he had read "The Birds" as he pondered how to make that picture: "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. An author takes three or four years to write a fine novel; it's his whole life. Then other people take it over completely."

  Lovers of reading, and of Ms. du Maurier, need not be alarmed. What we face here is the natural hostility, or trepidation, between novelists and those filmmakers who elect to translate them to the screen. Once upon a time, many movie directors began as would-be novelists (I exclude Alfred Hitchcock from that company) and they failed. It wasn't that they couldn't write quite well for a few days at a time. It wasn't that they couldn't summon up good story material. Their problem was the stamina and the solitude, the way in which a writer of fiction for the page may nurse a world, an intrigue and a group of characters for a year, or much more, persevering in the loneliness. Filmmaking, by contrast, is communal and collaborative. You never know when an actor will improve a line or when the cameraman will suggest a movement you never thought of. But above all (and here Hitchcock was the leader of the pack), filmmakers believe in "visual storytelling"--in short, they reckon that one packed moment on screen may deliver ten pages of a book.

  And that's necessary, for novels are often three hundred pages or more, and the general working estimate is that, whereas a page of script equals a minute of screen time, a rich page from a novel sometimes requires twenty minutes in the movie. Indeed, when Hitchcock came to prepare Rebecca for the screen, he even worked it out that he was going to have to get into the "backstory" (the events that have occurred before the book begins). He thought he was going to have to put Rebecca de Winter into the film! There's another valuable lesson that affects both narrative media: that until the last moment, the novelist or the film director is wrestling with problems. I daresay there was a time when Daphne du Maurier herself took it for granted that, if the book was called Rebecca, why, she had to be a living presence.

  Then came the blessed moment when insight struck--of course not, she says, if Rebecca stays a ghost she can haunt the book; and if Rebecca is simply an atmosphere, that explains why the second Mrs. de Winter, the "I" character, is so intimidated, so threatened. Indeed, as Hitchcock might have reasoned: the "I" character is just the eye that sees the whole thing!

  You might then conclude, well, why should filmmakers bother with books if they intend to tell every story visually? The answer is commerce. In the short history of the movies, producers have taken the prior success of a novel, a play or even a story very seriously. It helps them feel confident; it encourages them to believe that there is an audience primed for the film. In turn, that fosters the large fallacy: that there is a natural and true way of translating novels to the screen.

  The point to hang onto is there in Hitchcock's rather brusque treatment of du Maurier's original version of "The Birds"--"if I like the basic idea." Movie people have a simple test when it comes to possible projects. They may ask for a written synopsis, a treatment, or even a script. Yet, in truth, many movie people do not read easily, and film scripts--if you've tried it--are somewhere between prose and a blueprint. So film people say to a writer, "Just tell me the story--in words, as if we were sitting at the same fireplace on a cold night. And if I'm hooked, if I want to know what happens next, if the hair starts to go up on the back of my neck, then we may be onto something."

  Alfred Hitchcock was very well disposed to Daphne du Maurier. For she was the daughter of Sir Gerald du Maurier, perhaps the leading actor-manager in the London of the early twentieth century, a handsome man, and a very accomplished actor in romance and melodrama. The two men had worked together on a picture called Lord Camber's Ladies (1932), produced by Hitchcock, and actually directed by Benn W. Levy, which starred du Maurier and Gertrude Lawrence. It proved to be more than a regular professional relationship, for Hitchcock and du Maurier discovered that they had a shared hobby: elaborate practical jokes. It has been said that if only, instead of Lord Camber's Ladies, we had the movie of these escapades--of bodies found in dressing-room cupboards; of immense emergency calls that required fools' errands; and the everyday booby-trapping of the prop in the picture.

  So it was quite natural that Hitchcock should follow the emerging career of Gerald's daughter, Daphne (born in 1907), who was coming into her own by the mid-1930s. That's how he came to make the movie of Jamaica Inn, a project dominated by Charles Laughton's desire to play the villain, Sir Humphrey Pengallan, thus canceling out the clergyman rogue from the book. Once more, Hitch was not flattering about the material: it was "an absurd thing to undertake," he said, with a story that made no sense. But the film was a hit, and it is worth asking why. Jamaica Inn may have problems of logic or tidiness, but it has immense atmosphere, a wild setting (the Cornish coast) and a very strong clash between young and innocent characters and some who are older, darker and far more wicked. The story has a hook. We want to know what happens next.

  Du Maurier wrote romances, and she liked to have innocent young heroines. But the romance often veers towards something more like horror--I note that in introducing Jamaica Inn in this series, Sarah Dunant said that the bond between the young woman an
d her towering uncle (the real relationship in du Maurier's book) is like that between Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling.

  At some time during the work on Jamaica Inn, Hitchcock got an advance look at Daphne's next book--Rebecca. Did he read it himself, or did he get his very shrewd wife, Alma, to analyze it? Who knows? But the Hitchcocks were mad for the book, and Hitchcock tried to purchase the screen rights directly. Du Maurier was uncertain, for there was word that Hollywood--with much more money--was also fascinated by the book. David O. Selznick was bidding, the man famous for having paid $50,000 for the screen rights to Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. Hitchcock could not compete at that level. But Selznick was interested in picking up Hitchcock, too. The negotiations were very complicated, but they ended with the decision whereby Alfred Hitchcock would go to Hollywood, where his first production would be Rebecca.

  That is not the end of the story. Having arrived in Hollywood, Hitchcock was alarmed by the overbearing manner of Selznick, and was determined to stay independent. So he took the du Maurier novel and turned it into a Hitchcock scenario with a vengeance. In short, he delivered a script that made Selznick howl in complaint. "But, Hitch, you've ruined the book!"

  I do not mean to say that the Hitchcock scenario would not have worked. But Selznick had learned one thing on Gone with the Wind: if in doubt stay faithful to the book, for millions of readers are prepared to be upset if you make a foolish change. So, bit by bit, and with fierce comic battles, the producer dragged his director back to the du Maurier story. Hitch was hurt, and he took a little more umbrage when in the casting for "I," Anne Baxter, Loretta Young, Margaret Sullavan and Vivien Leigh were all set aside in favor of a relative unknown, Joan Fontaine, who happened to have caught Selznick's fancy at that time.

  To the end of his days, Hitchcock protested that Selznick had interfered too much on Rebecca. But viewers of the film--for over sixty years now--have had a hard time picking a fight. They think Fontaine is perfect, and Olivier is Max. They feel they know Manderley, the house, and they see Judith Anderson as the incarnation of that great character, Mrs. Danvers (one of du Maurier's finest dark creations). Rebecca is nowhere, yet everywhere. You want to know what happens next. And it won the Oscar for Best Picture--which, after Gone with the Wind, made two in a row for Selznick.

  Hitchcock was set on a great Hollywood career. In the next twenty years, he would make Spellbound, Notorious, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, North by Northwest and Psycho (his greatest hit of all). At that point, he was at a peak where he could do whatever he liked. And he remembered "The Birds." What had hooked him about it? Well, this story may answer that. Once determined to do The Birds, he looked around for a new screenwriter, and his eye fell on James Kennaway, who had just had a great success adapting his own novel, Tunes of Glory. So Hitch sent word to Kennaway: read the book, think it over and then we'll meet and you are to tell me the story of our picture--how we'll do it.

  So Kennaway struggled with the short story about a Cornish family and their response to a sudden, concerted and unexplained onslaught by all the birds in creation. I think I have the answer, said Kennaway. Yes? said Hitchcock. We film the story, Kennaway began, entirely through the eyes of the family. We never see a single bird. We hear them, but we only see and feel them as our characters feel them!

  Ah! sighed Hitchcock. Well, thank you very much, Mr. Kennaway, for your efforts. There will be a check in the mail. That partnership was over. Hitchcock had other ideas: he would switch the action from rural Cornwall to Marin County in California; the characters would be educated, smart, self-aware. But who cared why the birds attacked or what it meant or symbolized? Hitch just wanted to do every trick with real birds that the cinema was then capable of. He liked the idea because of the huge technical challenge it represented. He had--if you like--become a very artistic film director, not overly interested in why things happened. Whereas readers always treasure the story and its first grip, they judge a film by its ability to deliver that old thrill. I think they're right, and the best movies show how Daphne du Maurier could take ordinary nervousness and build it into... dread.

  David Thomson


  The Birds

  On December the third the wind changed overnight and it was winter. Until then the autumn had been mellow, soft. The leaves had lingered on the trees, golden red, and the hedgerows were still green. The earth was rich where the plow had turned it.

  Nat Hocken, because of a wartime disability, had a pension and did not work full-time at the farm. He worked three days a week, and they gave him the lighter jobs: hedging, thatching, repairs to the farm buildings.

  Although he was married, with children, his was a solitary disposition; he liked best to work alone. It pleased him when he was given a bank to build up, or a gate to mend at the far end of the peninsula, where the sea surrounded the farmland on either side. Then, at midday, he would pause and eat the pasty that his wife had baked for him, and sitting on the cliff's edge would watch the birds. Autumn was best for this, better than spring. In spring the birds flew inland, purposeful, intent; they knew where they were bound, the rhythm and ritual of their life brooked no delay. In autumn those that had not migrated overseas but remained to pass the winter were caught up in the same driving urge, but because migration was denied them followed a pattern of their own. Great flocks of them came to the peninsula, restless, uneasy, spending themselves in motion; now wheeling, circling in the sky, now settling 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 skies again.

  Black and white, jackdaw and gull, mingled in strange partnership, seeking some sort of liberation, never satisfied, never still. Flocks of starlings, rustling like silk, flew to fresh pasture, driven by the same necessity of movement, and the smaller birds, the finches and the larks, scattered from tree to hedge as if compelled.

  Nat watched them, and he watched the seabirds too. Down in the bay they waited for the tide. They had more patience. Oyster-catchers, redshank, sanderling, and curlew watched by the water's edge; as the slow sea sucked at the shore and then withdrew, leaving the strip of seaweed bare and the shingle churned, the seabirds raced and ran upon the beaches. Then that same impulse to flight seized upon them too. Crying, whistling, calling, they skimmed the placid sea and left the shore. Make haste, make speed, hurry and be gone: yet where, and to what purpose? The restless urge of autumn, unsatisfying, sad, had put a spell upon them and they must flock, and wheel, and cry; they must spill themselves of motion before winter came.

  Perhaps, thought Nat, munching his pasty by the cliff's edge, a message comes to the birds in autumn, like a warning. Winter is coming. Many of them perish. And like people who, apprehensive of death before their time, drive themselves to work or folly, the birds do likewise.

  The birds had been more restless than ever this fall of the year, the agitation more marked because the days were still. As the tractor traced its path up and down the western hills, the figure of the farmer silhouetted on the driving seat, the whole machine and the man upon it would be lost momentarily in the great cloud of wheeling, crying birds. There were many more than usual, Nat was sure of this. Always, in autumn, they followed the plow, but not in great flocks like these, nor with such clamor.

  Nat remarked upon it, when hedging was finished for the day. "Yes," said the farmer, "there are more birds about than usual; I've noticed it too. And daring, some of them, taking no notice of the tractor. One or two gulls came so close to my head this afternoon I thought they'd knock my cap off! As it was, I could scarcely see what I was doing, when they were overhead and I had the sun in my eyes. I have a notion the weather will change. It will be a hard winter. That's why the birds are restless."

  Nat, tramping home across the fields and down the lane to his cottage, saw the birds still flocking over the western hills, in the last glow of the sun. No wind, and the gray sea calm and full. Campion in bl
oom yet in the hedges, and the air mild. The farmer was right, though, and it was that night the weather turned. Nat's bedroom faced east. He woke just after two and heard the wind in the chimney. Not the storm and bluster of a sou'westerly gale, bringing the rain, but east wind, cold and dry. It sounded hollow in the chimney, and a loose slate rattled on the roof. Nat listened, and he could hear the sea roaring in the bay. Even the air in the small bedroom had turned chill: a draft came under the skirting of the door, blowing upon the bed. Nat drew the blanket round him, leaned closer to the back of his sleeping wife, and stayed wakeful, watchful, aware of misgiving without cause.

  Then he heard the tapping on the window. There was no creeper on the cottage walls to break loose and scratch upon the pane. He listened, and the tapping continued until, irritated by the sound, Nat got out of bed and went to the window. He opened it, and as he did so something brushed his hand, jabbing at his knuckles, grazing the skin. Then he saw the flutter of the wings and it was gone, over the roof, behind the cottage.

  It was a bird, what kind of bird he could not tell. The wind must have driven it to shelter on the sill.

  He shut the window and went back to bed, but feeling his knuckles wet put his mouth to the scratch. The bird had drawn blood. Frightened, he supposed, and bewildered, the bird, seeking shelter, had stabbed at him in the darkness. Once more he settled himself to sleep.

  Presently the tapping came again, this time more forceful, more insistent, and now his wife woke at the sound, and turning in the bed said to him, "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. Can't you hear the wind? It's blowing from the east, driving the birds to shelter."

  "Send them away," she said, "I can't sleep with that noise."

  He went to the window for the second time, and now when he opened it there was not one bird upon the sill but half a dozen; they flew straight into his face, attacking him.