The Strange Story of ‘The Birds’

Reading & Writing

birds

I greatly enjoyed Stephen King’s  ‘Salem’s Lot’ and ‘The Shining’, but found much of the rest of his prose too eager to please, too Gawk-Tousle-And-Shucks for my tastes. I wasn’t long out of school, I was heavily into Dickens and Waugh, and would have simply placed King in the cool holiday reading category if critics hadn’t elevated him to high art after Brian De Palma’s breakout movie version of ‘Carrie’.

So it wasn’t King I had the problem with. t didn’t like the lazy conflation among fans that required King to be the new Shakespeare rather than an excellent pop writer. Later, I went back to reading selected King away from the hoopla and enjoyed them much more.

I think that’s what often happens – you read a book surrounded by hype or coloured by a film version, and fail to see what the fuss is about. I’ve gone back to discover wonderful surprises and several disappointments. The most thrilling have been works by Norman Collins, Josephine They, JB Priestley, Alexander Baron, PD James. Among the worst was brat-packer Bret Easton Ellis, whose ‘American Psycho’ may have caught the zeitgeist but now reads like incontinent posturing, and far better as filmed satire.

With this in mind, I returned to Cornish writer Frank Baker. Of his fifteen novels, his masterpiece is the enchanting ‘Miss Hargreaves’, in which two friends on holiday in Ireland are required to invent the titular 83 year-old woman. Later, forced to explain how they met her, they slowly add details to her life, embellishing her backstory with the information that she always travels with a cockatoo, a harp and her own bath.

The lark gets out of hand when they receive a telegram from Miss Hargreaves herself, informing them that she is coming to stay for an indefinite period – but how can they explain who she is when they can’t even understand why she exists? A comedy about the creative imagination, loss of control and the pressures of conformity, ‘Miss Hargreaves’ came to the London stage starring Margaret Rutherford, the living embodiment of the character and a friend of the author.

To my mind, Frank Baker’s ‘The Birds’ is really the book Hitchcock had intended to purchase for a film. I think he simply made a mistake when buying Daphne Du Murier’s short story.

Thirty years before Du Murier’s version, Baker’s ‘The Birds’ appeared a s a novel, in which London’s inhabitants were turned upon by avian predators. Although Baker’s version was much more ambitious, the stories are remarkably similar, and like Du Murier, Baker was also living in Cornwall. Was it coincidence or something more? Baker’s birds seemed more supernatural in origin, but he was upset and corresponded with Du Murier, who sympathized. Hitchcock followed Baker’s version more, ignored the likeable young church organist, who was somehow persuaded not to pursue costly litigation against Universal Studios.

But Baker’s ‘The Birds’ is a truly unique and strange novel. It has many elements of the film – the hero’s odd relationship with an overbearing mother, the birds’ periods of silence before they attack, an aura of latent sexuality – and something other-worldly and unexplained. At one point the birds take to using London’s reservoirs as giant drinking fountains and foul all the water. At other times there are apocalyptic attacks, and unnerving lone incidents.

But it’s clear, now that the book has finally been rediscovered, that this is where Hitchcock’s inspiration came from. And it devastated Baker not to be recognised in his lifetime. Everyone was just so nice abut the mistake that it was never put right.

Read it for yourself and compare the two.

5 comments on “The Strange Story of ‘The Birds’”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    If I ay, a parallel story: the U.S. police detective writer (Ed McBain/Evan Hunter) among other genres, adapted Du Maurier’s short story to the screen for Hitchcock and claimed two things: 1) he worked closely with Hitchcock to develop the story and add complexity and characters and that he’d found him very interesting and most professional; and 2) that he got screwed over by the production company on salary and credit. Sounds like every writer that went and worked in Hollywood.
    I haven’t seen the picture again since it came out and I still haven’t figured what set the flocks of birds off: moldy seed? Mercury in the fish? Somebody outdoors with a tub of potato fries? A virus from out of space? Maybe a phase of the moon. Who knew and that sort of ruined it for me, but it’s now a much shown and talked about movie in film appreciation societies.
    Now, I’d like to read the book who recommend.

  2. John says:

    Baker’s dystopian future in THE BIRDS is more disturbing and terrifying to me than Hitchcock’s shocker of a movie. I thought it smarter and more nightmarish. The bird dropping issue alone is both fantastically disgusting and yet simultaneously so absurdly funny. The attacks in the book are more nightmarish because they seem motivated by “group think” of the alien birds — as if they can read the minds of their terrified victims. The bird attacks are almost like executions. That the birds are unrecognizable creatures (rather than mass inter-flocking of known species), that they seem to come from nowhere, that their purpose is unknown adds a supernatural element that I personally found immensely appealing. I like real mystery in a dark fantasy of this type. I dislike too much explanation based on “what would happen in real life.”

    Glad to see someone writing about Frank Baker. He deserves to be remembered for more than just MISS HARGREAVES which only shows one type of fantasy he could write. THE BIRDS is so completely different in tone, at times thoroughly pessimistic and bleak, other times witty and sardonic, and in key moments pointedly allegorical. There’s a lot going on in the book. It’s rather brilliant.

  3. Terenzio says:

    Most of Du Murier’s short story takes places on a farm just like in the film by Hitchcock. In Baker’s book the story takes place in an urban setting i.e. London. A totally different setting from Du Murier’s short story. Granted Hitchcock’s film did have a strange and mysterious woman and a jealous mother which is in Baker’s book. However, it is conceivable Hitchcock or the writers could have come up with this all on their own without prior knowledge of Baker’s book. Hitchcock claimed he never heard of Baker’s book. Something I can believe. Du Murier claimed not to have heard of Baker’s book. Once again something I can believe. Surely in 2,000 years of history more than one person came up with the idea of animals going mad and attacking human beings. It is impossible for two different people to come up with the same or similar idea without ever hearing of one another. Sure, people steal other people’s ideas, however, in most cases this doesn’t happen. Someone creates something (a version of a general idea or concept you might say) i.e. a book or a film that people love. For example Dan Brown. The basic premise of the Da Vinci Code was floating around for 20 years before Brown took it and created something that people loved. In the process making himself a lot of money. In Baker’s case, a lawyer or solicitor told him his book and Hitchcock’s film were different enough that to pursue a lawsuit would be a waste of time and money. Hitchcock was a genius when it came to knowing what to keep and what to get rid of when adapting a book or short story to film. Case in point is the Lady Vanishes by Ethel White. A tedious novel to say the least. A Year or two the BBC decided to to do a version that was faithful to the book. Bad idea. It was so boring. It felt like 600 hours instead of 2 hours or whatever it was. Whereas, Hitchcock’s version is great, even 70 years later. There are parts that are totally ludicrous and implausible, like Dame May Whitty (who must have been in her 70s) running for the hills while being shot at, yet the film was so wonderfully entertaining that it really didn’t matter. Hitchcock knew what would work on film and what would not work on film.

    I shall retire to the boudior with a campari and soda and glance through today’s newspaper. Perhaps later I will put a Margaret Rutherford Miss. Marple in the old DVD player. Or perhaps The Runaway Bus. She is truly magnificent in that film. À bientôt…the one is the gorgeous purple dressing gown and lovely velvet slippers.

  4. chazza says:

    Not surprised that people had not heard of this book. It sold very poorly when originally published in 1936 and was subsequently pulped. But the ideas are not new. Consider Arthur Machen’s “The Terror” or J.S. Bradford’s “Even a Worm”, to name but two. Without doubt, Baker’s book is certainly more thought-provoking than Du Maurier’s short but it is a novel with more time to expound upon the ideas therein. Incidentally, I hear that the recent re-issue of “Th Birds” contains revisions/corrections made by Baker to the original text and the Panther paperback edition so that sounds rather exciting and merits a re-read. …. .

  5. Fiona says:

    Hmm, a book for my book group I reckon!

Comments are closed.