Evolution of a Screenplay: Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’

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Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds’ (1963) is based on a short story/novella by British author Daphne DuMaurier. She also wrote the novels ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Jamaica Inn, both of which Alfred Hitchcock adapted into feature films. But Hitchcock preferred using short stories and novellas as source material for screenplays. He felt that novels were too dense, that too much was lost in order to meet the confines of motion picture storytelling. Short stories and novellas, on the other hand, could be expanded into films.

The short story was set in Cornwall, England, and describes a small coastal community that finds itself under attack from birds. As the survivors escape from the community they discover that all of England has been attacked by birds. The author described her inspiration as watching a farmer plowing his field in her native Cornwall, as seagulls swooped and hovered over him. She imagined them growing increasingly hostile. It is thought by many that the story was a metaphor for the Blitz, experienced by Great Britain during the Second World War.

Hitchcock was fastidious when it came to his screenplays. He wanted to contemporize the story. As it happened, he had a ranch in Scott’s Valley, near Monterey Bay. There was an incident reported in Santa Cruz in which birds aggressively flew into buildings, and streets were covered with their dead carcasses. Marine biologists determined that the incident was caused by amnesic shellfish poisoning. Hitch wasn’t concerned with the reason it happened as much as that it happened.

Evan Hunter was brought in to write the screenplay. Hunter had written for Hitchcock’s television program ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’, as well as writing (as Ed McBain) the 89th Precinct novels. As always, Hitchcock drove the process.

The script was never completely shot. Almost the entire last scene of the movie never made it to film. You can read the script here:

http://www.dailyscript.com/scripts/The_Birds.html

“When I saw the ending, I was shocked,” says Hunter of the advanced screening of ‘The Birds’ he attended.

According to someone involved in the production, the first part of the original final scene was shot. The town of Bodega Bay was dressed with dead chickens and ketchup. Someone went around with a rag soaked in ketchup and threw it at buildings.

It shifted the focus of the bird attacks away from Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and made it more universal. Throughout the film it seems that the bird attacks are happening wherever Melanie is and nowhere else. But as the car drives away towards San Francisco, it is clear that is not the case.

This is also a closer parallel to the original story by DuMaurier. The bird attacks are occurring across Great Britain which, in reference to the Blitz, might have indicated the way the entire country was affected by the bombing of London.

The loss of that final scene also deprived us of what would have been one of the most intense scenes in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, the final bird attack on the convertible as they try and outrun them on the road out of town. In the draft available at www.dailyscript.com, you can read for yourself the scene that would have rivaled the shower scene in ‘Psycho’ (1960), if Hitch had actually gone through with it.

“I know that sequence would have taken them a month to shoot,” said Hunter, without rancor.

You can watch the interview with Hunter here: