Saturday, March 15, 2014

Appreciations: Du Maurier's ‘The Birds’: A Tale of Climate-Change Terror

The sky was hard and leaden and the brown hills that had gleamed in the sun the day before looked dark and bare. The wind, like a razor, stripped the trees, and the leaves, crackling and dry, shivered and scattered with the wind’s blast. Nat stubbed the earth with his boot. It was frozen hard. He had never known a change so swift and sudden. Black winter had descended in a single night.”—Daphne du Maurier, “The Birds,” in Don't Look Now: Selected Stories of Daphne du Maurier (2008)

We’ve still got a few days left of winter, and the way things are going, more trouble in the atmosphere is easily possible. But already, so many inexplicable weather events have happened, in so many places around the world, that those of us who’ve survived all this are tempted to ask: “What the hell’s going on?”

That question underlies what was probably the next-to-last near-great entry in the filmography of Alfred Hitchcock, The Birds (1963).  The Master of Suspense never really answered the question: In fact, as the title creatures gathered in dark formation at the conclusion, watching the hero and heroine slip away, the one phrase that comes to mind is the one used by William Hazlitt to describe Shakespeare’s villainous Iago: “motiveless malignity.”

Readers of the 1952 short story on which the film was loosely based, however, would have found more atmospheric, symbolic material to ponder. Daphne du Maurier, transitioning from her prior Gothic romances, had written something whose outlines were totally erased for film: a dystopian allegory of climate change in an age of superpower dominance. As such, its strange power has only gained with the years.

Most of this essay will deal with the short story rather than the film, so, in a sense, I am cheating with the movie image that accompanies this post. But Hitchcock would have less right to feel anger at me than du Maurier did with him.

Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers was not the only British writer to be seriously disturbed by what she regarded as a terrible adaptation of her work, nor to hold responsible, in her later years, the nation that perpetrated this cinematic atrocity. Hitchcock had previously adapted two du Maurier works, Jamaica Inn (1939) and the Oscar-winning Best Picture Rebecca (1940), and though the usual Hollywood additions and truncations were made, the author had every reason to think that the director would do as he had done before and stick to her basic plot and setting.

Maybe, if Hitchcock had stuck to his original plan of adapting the short story to his TV anthology series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he might not have veered so far from this raw material. In the show’s half-hour format, he might not have worried too much about how to fill time with a work that focused on two characters and included little dialogue.

But in all probability, his decision to make this property his big-screen follow-up to Psycho, necessitating a film of roughly two hours, fundamentally altered his thinking. Two decades after relocating from England to the United States, he had also grown accustomed to American audiences, locations and collaborators. Therefore, after urging screenwriter Evan Hunter to read the story, he advised him to forget all the material, as the adaptation would only retain one element of the story: the avian attacks.

At Hitchcock’s direction, Hunter’s screenplay transferred the setting from du Maumier's beloved Cornwall to Northern California. It concocted tensions among an unmarried young man, his ex-girlfriend and a new woman coming into his life, raising the suggestion in the minds of some that the bird attacks represent a Freudian symbol of the backlash of the women in his life.  It was an intelligent story, in its way, but it diluted the sheer, elemental terror of a farmer in an isolated cottage, facing the increasing probability that the birds will succeed in their home invasion, just as they appear to have rendered powerless all the accouterments of a science-based modern nation.

Many of du Maurier’s countrymen, with the experience of the “special relationship” between the U.S. and Britain and two world wars fresh in mind, would have echoed the questions of Nat’s wife toward the end of the story: “Won’t America do something? They’ve always been our ally, haven’t they? Surely America will do something?”

But the United States isn’t doing anything this time. In fact, not only is it absent from the scene in windswept Cornwall, but a clue is even planted that the past aid hailed by Nat’s wife has only worsened the situation: “Behind the stabbing beaks, the piercing eyes, now giving them this instinct to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines.”     

Du Maurier’s decidedly dour view of America became more explicit in one of her last novels, Rule Britannia (1972), in which the utter isolation faced by the people of Cornwall in “The Birds” is magnified (no mail, no phone, no radio) as they deal with U.S. occupying forces—the end result of Britain’s political, military and economic alliance with America.

The fact that Nat’s wife even thinks of the U.S., however, demonstrates the futility of all domestic British institutions in dealing with the birds’ machine-like assault. As the plight of Nat’s family had grown—moving from masses of birds mysteriously getting into their farmhouse, to actual physical attacks—he has comforted himself with the notion that a council of “scientist, naturalists, technicians and all those chaps they called the back-room boys” would know what to do. But this group, the cutting edge of the modern military-industrial complex, is powerless to combat this situation.

Just like Dracula, “The Birds” is a horror tale about Danger From the East. But, while a small group of men from the democratic West (Britain, the U.S., and the Netherlands) band together to combat the mysterious visitor from Central Europe in Bram Stoker’s novel, the Hockens and their neighbors are isolated from each other before falling, one by one, before flocks blown in by the east wind. 

Nature, it seems, is taking revenge as it mimics a human invasion. It’s not just that birds, normally symbols of peace, have become unexpectedly violent, but that even gentler birds—like subdued nations—are collaborating with creatures that would normally be their enemies.

“The Birds” must have been doubly terrifying for British readers at the time of publication because, though a battle with birds might have been unheard of, the elements that animate the tale—anticipatory fear of terror from the skies—had been an ever-present reality as Hitler’s Luftwaffe rained death and destruction on them during the Battle of Britain. Now, they were facing a possible similar situation from Stalin’s U.S.S.R.

While Hitchcock and Hunter had firmly refused to explain the birds’ sudden savage attacks, du Maurier drops a hint: “Never had he known such cold,” Nat thinks. The extremes of cold have altered the birds’ traditional migratory patterns. Somehow, humans are responsible.

It is surely a mistake to refer to the phenomenon we have witnessed over the last several years as global warming. Every time, in every season, where there’s a momentary temperature drop, someone is bound to ask what happened. Climate change, however, is more like it, able to account simultaneously for extremes of heat and cold—and especially for once-in-a-lifetime events that are now happening within a few years of one another (e.g., hurricanes that battered the New York area twice in three years).Calling it climate change also does not preclude the possibility that the worst kind of winter cold and summer heat will occur within the same year.

This past winter, the worst storms in 20 years to batter England—again, especially, du Maurier’s Cornwall—would have convinced the novelist that something terrible was going on in the world. It also, I think, would have propelled her to the conviction that mankind must rise above its petty quarrels and concentrate on the even greater environmental threat bearing down on us with each passing day.

Several months ago, I saw a long line of birds on a phone wire. The fact that I wondered what they were awaiting testifies to the impact of the imaginations of Hitchcock and du Maurier.

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