Spangler’s From Sentence to Screen: The Birds

The Birds movie

The Birds is a 1963 American horror-thriller film directed and produced by Alfred Hitchcock. Actors, Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren play as the movie’s lead characters, Mitch and Melanie. The movie begins with Mitch and Melanie meeting in a pet story where Melanie is picking up a bird she ordered while Mitch looks for love birds for his sister. After this interaction, Melanie decides, as a sort of joke, to get the love birds and ends up taking them to Mitch. After taking a two hour boat ride to his house located in Bodega Bay, she is attacked by a seagull, which is one of six attacks. After this first incident, the frequency of the attacks start to increase, along with the number of birds involved. Hitchcock got his inspiration from the 1952 horror story called “The Birds,” written by the British writer Daphne du Maurier. In this blog post I will identify the differences between characters, as well as draw parallels between the movie and short story.

When comparing the movie The Birds to the short story “The Birds” you really can’t compare the characters and how they changed from one medium to the other. This is because the book and film characters are so different from one another that it is hard to find similarities between them. The closest character, that could be said to be in both, is the rather generic role of the young girl. Comparing the two, Cathy is very close to the short story character of Jill when it comes to their personalities and place in the stories. In the movie Cathy goes to school in town, far from her house, and appears to have many friends. In the movie we see her having a birthday party with many of her schoolmates there. From what the reader understands of Jill, she is almost the same age as Cathy and also has many friends that she spends time with outside of school. She also goes to school in town and then lives quite a bit away on a farm with her family, her father Nat works for the farm’s owner. Both Cathy and Jill have to rely on the grown-ups around them to survive the bird attacks.

The big difference between the movie and book is in fact the main characters. In the movie, the lead roles are that of Mitch and Melanie, but for the most part the story follows Melanie.  Her interactions with others often has the effect of moving the plot forward, which is why I would argue that Melanie is the main character. She is a woman and appears to be quite well off, only becoming a part of the situation in Bodega Bay because she is playing a sort of prank on the man she likes, Mitch. She is an outsider in the town and even gets blamed for the bird attack, because it happened when she arrived and she was the first person to get attacked. Being the first one to be attacked is about all she and Nat, the main character of the short story, have in common. Nat is an ex-soldier of WWII and is quite poor, working for a farmer so he and his family have a place to live. He is a very intelligent man and figures out when the birds will attack so he can protect his family as well as get food when they go on supply runs. Figuring out when the birds attack is crucial to their survival; it is important information that Melanie never has. The two main characters are very different people and survive the attacks in very different ways. The fact, “The Birds” as a short story may have given Hitchcock the feeling of flexibility when it came to adapting it into a film. Meaning he could change as much about the characters as he wanted only keeping the main conflict and name of the story.

The Birds Book

The short story “The Birds” is actually quite different from the movie, in regard to place, time and characters all being different. Hitchcock took the idea of birds attacking and translated it to a U.S. setting; he then gave the story his own signature characters, something most of his films had, the strong man and his love interest the feisty blonde. One scene that he actually kept from the short story and used in his movie is in the child’s bedroom. One night Nat, the main character, wakes up from a bird tapping at his window, and when he opens the window the bird attacks him. As he is telling his wife, the couple hear screaming from their two children’s bedroom. They run to the bedroom and inside they find birds attacking the children. Nat is able to beat the birds away from his wife as she gets the children out, but like Melanie in the film, he accidentally gets closed-off in the room.

In The Birds, the last big scene with the birds attacking happens in Mitch’s little sister’s room. From downstairs Melanie hears a soft patting noise coming from upstairs. She goes up, by herself, to check what she heard. When she steps inside she realizes the roof of the house has a hole in it and tons of birds begin to swarm her. The room is dark with the only light coming from her flashlight and through the hole in the roof so, all the viewer can see at first is a mass of black covering the bed. Which the audience soon sees are the birds when they attack Melanie. Trying to get away from the birds she backs up and closes the door accidentally shutting herself inside the room. While the birds are attacking her the camera cuts several times. Sometimes to her face or another part of her body, arms and legs most often, or just at the bird(s) close-up that are attacking her. The close-up shots are used so the audience never gets a full image of what is going on in the scene, making them feel the confusion and distress Melanie is feeling being swarmed by the birds. In the movie, Hitchcock does keep many ideas and images from the original story, but this is the only one that he keeps completely. Even including it in a child’s room and having a parent (figure) get trapped in said child’s room. In the rest of the film, Hitchcock goes for more of the idea and thrill of the original story instead of taking the whole thing and just adapting it into a movie.

When it comes to adaptations, most often the new story has presented as being faithful to the source material and supposed to be exactly like the novel or short story it is based on. When it came to The Birds though Alfred Hitchcock never tried to make this claim and only used the ideas of the story as inspiration, which in many ways I think is what writers do all the time. Often when someone is trying to write something new, whether that be a story, poem, or film there is always something reminiscent of a previous story, even if it was not intentional. Like with many of Hitchcock’s films he didn’t try to make a whole new idea, what he did was take that idea and make it relevant to his viewers. Several of his films were based off of story by other authors, something he always made clear. What he was so good at though was translating the stories into the medium of film and either keeping the suspense and horror from the original, like with The Birds, or adding to it in order to make sure the film had the greatest impact. For current viewers they might not find the movie to have the same horror/thriller experience modern movies do, but for the time it was definitely the type of movie that would have the audience leaving the theatre a little more afraid of birds than they were before. At least for me, I believe that Hitchcock’s The Birds holds up overtime, something that the United States Library of Congress also agreed with when it added the film to its National Film Registry in 2016, deeming it to by either, “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” For my next blog post I will be looking at the 2015 film Room directed by Lenny Abrahamson, based on the short story of the same name.

— Jo Spangler, Film blogger.

Jo’s bio:

Jo Spangler
Jo Spangler

Jo Spangler is a junior at Lewis University, majoring in English Literature and Language with a minor in Creative Writing. She is a writing tutor in the Lewis Writing Center and a Youth Enrichment Aide for the YMCA. In her free time, Jo enjoys reading, writing, listening to music, and watching movies. She has been to 10 countries outside the United States, including England, Italy, Turkey, and Austria. One of Jo’s favorite book series is The All Souls Trilogy, by Deborah Harkness, because of how she mixes the supernatural with history and the focus on character development. In the future, she hopes to go into the publishing industry to help find new and exciting books for people to read.




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