How Hitchcock Got Daphne du Maurier’s THE BIRDS Wrong and Why It Matters
The fiction of twenty-first-century author Daphne du Maurier reflects an author unsatisfied by surface and superficial interpretations of the world. Instead, her work interrogates shadow selves and the hidden undercurrents of deviant personalities. Contrary to popular belief, Du Maurier did not have an idyllic childhood but grew up in a home with a controlling and narcissistic father who oscillated between adoration and disgust for his daughters. Du Maurier struggled with gender identity from a young age wishing she was a boy and could live a life free of the constraints of her sexuality.
Throughout her life, she fell in love with both men and women but was obsessive and loyal to her writing above all else (including her children). Critics condemned her work for being too intense, too dark, and not romantic enough, but she continued to write and tell the stories that most compelled her. “The Birds,” a story she wrote in her forties, was adapted for film by Alfred Hitchcock, who released the movie of the same name in 1963 ten years after its publication. It was the third story he acquired rights for, and while it gained du Maurier some reach, the story was dramatically changed and lacked the depth and scope that the writer had created.
The short story opens with a sudden shift in weather with the protagonist, Nat Hocken, observing many species of birds acting strangely on the farm by the sea where he works. The landscape and descriptions of birds are striking. "Oystercatchers, redshank, sanderling, and curlew watched by the water's edge; as the slow sea sucked at the shore and withdrew." There is an ominous uncanniness to the bird's behavior, and the reader is unmoored, anxiously anticipating what happens next. The feeling intensifies that evening when Nat, at home with his wife and two children, is attacked by a bird at the window who pecks his arm, drawing blood. Du Maurier slowly reveals that the town is under attack, and in a matter of days, the whole country fears the violence of its avian aggressors. Nat's immediate survivalist fervor kicks into high gear, and he sets to work frantically boarding windows as his family collects food and candles — hunkering down in the hopes of protecting themselves.
“The Birds” is an apocalyptic horror story that asks the reader to consider questions of isolation and the home, man versus nature, and nature's conceivable revenge on humankind, as well as approaching invasion. It is just as resonant and thought-provoking in today's political climate as it was when it was written. Birds are personified as different types of soldiers, and war references pervade the text until the story culminates in a final scene where Nat pauses, watching the birds hammering their beaks against his family's front door and having a realization. "Nat listened to the tearing sound of splintering wood and wondered how many million years of memory were stored in those little brains, behind the stabbing beaks, the piercing eyes, now giving them this instinct to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines."
Hitchcock's film adaptation is nearly unrecognizable from the original story. The richness and cinematic depth of du Maurier's landscapes which saturate the story are all but written out of Hitchock's film. The protagonist, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), who later accused Hitchock of sexual assault, first appears — in her debut performance — in heels stepping into a pet store in California. She is blonde, small-framed, single, and happens to meet her love interest, Mitch Brenner, (Rod Taylor) for whom she promptly purchases lovebirds. The focus of Hitchock's story appears to be the appeal and desirability of Mitch, who every other character is singularly focused on: his mother (Jessica Tandy), who despises any of Mitch's love interests, his sister, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) who dotingly adores him, and two female love interests who are jealous of each other. Women do not feature in the story in any substantial way except to orbit Mitch piningly. The portrayal of gender in Hitchcock's films is unimpressive. Mitch is a stereotypical misogynistic male who makes a joke about a woman murdered by her husband for changing the TV channel. Mitch's little sister needs reassurance from Tippi that the two lovebirds are a "man and woman."
The birds in Hitchock's film are not representative or metaphorical but are understood as crows that have begun to attack. To add insult, the caged lovebirds make a final appearance in a dramatic scene where Tippi, Mitch, his mother, and his sister escape the birds' wrath and drive off into the sunset. Du Maurier does not rescue Nat Hocken and his family in her story but leaves the reader with the image of a shredded door, the birds furiously destroying the walls and roof of the house that the family has attempted to reinforce in vain.
Du Maurier was not shy about her opinion of Hitchcock's film when it was released. She didn't like it, and she also didn't like that Hitchcock never credited her for her work. As Tatiana de Rosnay writes in du Maurier's biography Manderly Forever (2015), Daphne "is irritated that her name is so rarely mentioned in interviews with the director. Hitchcock has adapted three of her stories in twenty-four years but has never paid tribute to her and has tended to minimize or even denigrate her work."
By the time she saw the film, du Maurier had lived a lifetime of not being taken seriously. In her youth, her father repeatedly told her he wished she were a boy and when Daphne and her sisters hit puberty, he lamented how horrible it was that they would be women. She fought for the legitimacy of her work throughout her career. She was loyal and obsessively committed to her work but was accused of plagiarism twice for books she had never read. She was accused of inciting anger and hatred through her fiction which was not perceived as pleasant enough.
Du Maurier spent much of her life fighting for the opportunity to have her work taken seriously. Despite critics' opinions, she found her autonomy through her writing. She constantly confided in journals despite her lonely childhood. Her writing offered her relief and companionship where she was free to portray the world as she saw it, however tense and destructive it was. She did not turn away from complicated and problematic power dynamics between men and women. And she used her journals to help understand her feelings for the woman she first fell in love with. They were a place where she did not have to hold back, and eventually, so was her fiction. Du Maurier found both her voice and financial independence through her writing. She vowed never to rely solely on her family or a man but on her writing.
Hitchcock's destruction of her story, a portrayal of an uncomplicated love affair, would have likely incited all the feelings she had worked so hard against in her life and writing. Du Maurier used subject matter in her work that she was familiar with, that reflected the world in which she saw and felt the powerful emotions of fear and biased power dynamics — all feelings that horror incites in us. She used it as a powerful medium for exploring her experiences of the world.
That is what Hitchcock got wrong. By understanding women as a means for his self-gain, both in his acquisition of du Maurier’s stories and how he treated the women that worked for him, he perpetuated and made real the world that she was attempting to reveal in her work. It could be called ironic but I think that would give Hitchcock too much credit. Du Maurier’s brilliance speaks for itself and her work should have always been understood on its own terms, not through the cinematic lens of those willing to reduce her.
Rebecca Payne is a literary and historical horror enthusiast passionate about the ways that writers have used the genre to explore gender and identity. She is a Northwestern MFA candidate based in Chicago.