The Birds by Daphne du Maurier (1952)
The Birds directed Alfred Hitchcock (1963)
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The Birds is one of Hitchcock’s most iconic movies. Despite its fame, it was never one of my favorites. It had been a long time since I had watched it though, so I was curious to see if my opinion would change this time around. The short story the movie is based on is by Du Maurier, who also wrote Rebecca, which Hitchcock also adapted! He was clearly a fan of her work because I believe he adapted three of her books.
This movie was the breakout performance of Tippi Hedren, who was 33 at the time. This was considered “old” for a new starlette, so for years she was told to lie about her age, saying she was five years younger than she really was.
I would normally start with a book review and then a movie review, but I am actually going to dive right into the plot. From here on out there will be spoilers!
The book takes place is a countryside town in England and we follow Nat and his family. Nat has birds fly in through his chimney and notices birds in general acting strange, but no one else seems to pay him any attention. As he worries about how to protect the family, his wife is pretty useless and aloof. Considering this is written by a woman, I was kind of disappointed with how the wife was portrayed.
Anyway, he notices the seagulls out on the ocean and boards up his house and gets his daughter from the school bus and rushes her home. Other townspeople are going to have a “shooting party” to kill a bunch of birds but Nat declines the invitation to join them. That night the seagulls come in when the tide is in and crash into their house but none get in. They also hear planes overhead, which were sent in to kill birds, but the plane crashes. When the tide goes out, the gulls go with it, then they come and attack again when the tide comes in.
When they go out the next day to stock up on supplies, he finds some of their neighbors dead, killed by the birds. They get what they need and run back home. There had also been a radio program from the city, and they said there would be a new bulletin at 7 the next day, but the next day there is nothing on the radio and Nat knows that the city was attacked and there will be no news bulletin. He speculates that the bigger birds went to attack he city, and the smaller, less dangerous birds, are attacking the country towns.
The book ends with them preparing for this to go on indefinity basically.
Melanie and Mitch
In the movie we instead follow a woman named Melanie who lives in San Francisco. She is a socialite who as of late, has been trying to find some kind of purpose for her life. She drives two hours north to the small town of Bodega Bay and while there the bird attacks happen.
It seems she is always around when an attack takes place, because as with Nat, early on she is telling people what has happened but they think she is exaggerating. Part way through the movie, a woman in town accuses Melanie of being the reason the birds are attacking in the first place because it only started when she arrived.
The reason she went to Bodega Bay was to drop off love birds for a man she met in the city, Mitch. He had said he wanted some for his sister, and had been rude and embarrassed Melanie, so she was making a point by buying the love birds and dropping them off.
She gets to know Mitch’s young sister and his mother, Lydia. Lydia tells Mitch she isn’t crazy about him hanging out with Melanie because she is often in gossip columns and seems to have a wild streak. One story in particular was that she jumped naked into a fountain in Rome. When Mitch says something to her about it she tells him she was pushed in and she was fully clothed, and it was a rival paper that wanted to slander her father’s name who printed the fake story. It was annoying in this scene how Mitch was condescending to her and not believing her side of the story.
But as the bird attacks continue, she and Mitch grow close to each other. Part way through the movie Lydia’s mom says something to Melanie along the lines of, I don’t know if I even like you. But by the end Lydia is holding and comforting Melanie and clearly, she cares about her.
I will say, the mother/son relationship was giving mild Norman Bates vibes because Lydia is protective of her son and according to a past woman Mitch dated, Lydia is jealous of women Mitch is with.
I did like all of the character development in the movie, and really the whole first hour is focused on the people and there aren’t any major bird attacks.
Notable bird attacks
Two of the most famous scenes are first when Melanie is outside the school and suddenly there are a ton of crows on the playground. She tells the teacher, and they all go outside and try and run away as the crows come after them. By the way, if you haven’t watched High Anxiety, you have to! It is a must for any Hitchcock fan. There is a scene when Mel Brooks is sitting outside by a playground, when a bunch of birds show up. Only rather than physically attacking him, they start pooping on him so he is running away to get away from being pooped on. The Psycho shower scene is also hilarious.
Anyway, another one is near the end. They are at Mitch’s house and Melanie hears sounds upstairs. Everyone else is asleep and she goes to look. She opens the attic door, and sees the birds got in through the roof and they start attacking her. I thought this scene was really well done and very effective. However, while filming Hedren turned to Hitchcock and was like, why would my character do this? Meaning open the door. To which he replied, because I said so. I side with Hedren, Melanie opening the attic door when she hears birds on the other side, like what?? Why would she do that?? Makes no sense!
The movie does have scenes that come from the book, such as the smaller birds swarming in through the chimney, they show one birds hit the door and die-though in the book there were way more birds that would hit the house so hard they would die, as well as them going to a neighbor’s house and finding him dead. In the movie, it is Lydia that sees the man who the birds killed and his eyes have been gauged out.
Another favorite scene of mine is after the schoolhouse attack, Melanie goes to a diner and she and the others are talking about the birds-this is before the attacks have become widespread. I thought this was a great scene, seeing the people debate and discuss their ideas on the matter. Kind of reminded me of The Mist with a group of people fathered together when something is happening, and the way they either are in denial, take sides, or get aggressive.
After Melanie is attacked in the attic, they realize they need to get her to a hospital. They are able to slowly drive away as the birds are resting and the movie ends there. I read that there was going to be an added shot of the Golden Gate Bridge covered with birds, showing how widespread the attack was, but it wasn’t in the final cut. I wish they would have included that though, having it end while they were driving away just felt too abrupt.
Book vs Movie
I think in some ways the book was more effective at capturing how scary it would be to have birds attacking. The movie is one I have always had a hard time taking seriously, partly because there are times when the graphics aren’t the best (I know they were doing the best they could, but still). I also don’t think the suspense and terror is as strong here as it is in other Hitchcock movies and I just think that sense of dread was stronger in the book. Despite some great scenes, overall, it just isn’t a favorite.
Having said all of that, I am tempted to say the movie wins over the book though because there is more of a story here. One thing from the book I forgot to mention is that when the birds hit the door and kill themselves, Nat and his kids cheer which was how Nat helps to ease their fear. The book also explains more why the birds of prey aren’t attacking (though near the end I think they mention seeing them).
It really is a toss-up here and I am having a hard time deciding for sure which I prefer. I think I will go with the movie, it is so iconic and I liked the acting as well.