We've all heard it from time to time--and perhaps we've even said it: The book was better.
In a time when half the population watches television shows and movies spawned by their literary counterparts--and when actor/"director" Kenneth Branagh can mangle such a staple of British literature as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (and have the audacity to name the loose interpretation just that)--it's important that modern-day students understand not only the fundamentals of a good story but also the differences between literature and what some money-hungry producer throws up on the big screen. Pun intended.
The two years I taught eight grade literature at a prep school in Atlanta, Georgia, we covered the dramatic structure (the bare bones of every well-written story, which includes: exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution). Within the unit, we charted the arcs and highlighted the literary elements authors used to keep the reader moving in several short stories. One commonly used convention was suspense (which we identified as a quality which makes the reader feel uncertain or tense about the outcome of events and that which impels him to keep reading).
We used Daphne du Maurier's "The Birds" as our most shining example of suspense. Through careful analysis, we identified the following ways she creates tension and foreboding.
- Setting. By placing the short story in rural England--in December--the forecast is dreary, both literally and figuratively. Being on a farm also suggests that protagonist Nat Hocken and his family are "alone" when the birds revolt--removed from the rest of the world, save for a few neighbors (i.e., no one will be able to help them, should they need it=hopelessness).
- POV. By writing the story in third person limited (where the reader is removed from the characters and limited to one lens) du Maurier creates an air of mystery because the reader isn't clear on what is happening in the rest of the world, beyond Nat's lens.
- Escalation & Foreshadowing. By increasing the severity of the birds' aggression--from their bizarre flight patterns to drawing blood in an attack to (presumably) killing Nat's neighbors--du Maurier raises the stakes and creates tension by foreshadowing the Hockens' fate.
- Silence. Du Maurier uses silence to intensify the mystery as well. A radio is Hockens' only link to the outside world, when they board themselves inside their farmhouse...but when they switch on their wireless, it's just static. This radio silence also symbolizes a "calm before the storm."
- An open ending. Also, by leaving "the storm" off the page, du Maurier leaves a trail of clues, which suggest inevitable death by birds for the Hockens, but she lets the reader connect the dots. This is an effective tool in creating a suspenseful mood because it leaves the ending up to one's imagination and adds a personal touch to the terror.
- Uncertainty. Overall, through du Maurier's skillful implementation of the unknown, the reader feels the Hockens' torture of hopeless waiting--they hear the tap, tap, tap at the windows and doors...they hear the creatures gain entry into the attic and down through the chimney...and even though Nat lights a fire, it does not seem as though he will have enough wood or supplies to fend off the feathered fiends forever. It is the unknown that makes the story so suspenseful.
Once we dissected the short story, I showed the classes Alfred Hitchcock's famed film The Birds, which has little to do with du Maurier's tale--save for the high-concept: birds terrorizing a town and the protagonist's certain doom. After the viewing, we discussed how Hitchcock created suspense, but the students didn't come up with many concrete examples beyond the director's use of music and camera angles.
Sadly, however, although all classes laughed their way through the movie and overwhelmingly chose du Maurier's story as the better example of suspense in their end-of-unit essays, when I polled my former students for purposes of this piece, most said they had forgotten what happened in the short story and only remembered how "hilarious" the movie was.
Does this mean Hitchcock wins in terms of more effective storytelling?
If I, a former English teacher, have trouble erasing Kenneth Branagh and Robert DeNiro wrestling in goo or Helena Bonham Carter's head being set ablaze in Branagh's abomination of a Frankenstein "adaptation," how can I expect students one-and-two-years removed from our class to forget evil paper mache birds blowing up a guy and pecking people's eyes out? The quick spectacle will always be more memorable than something you have to analyze to find the meaning in--but it won't be remembered for the right reasons. Hence, I remember Branagh's movie, but I don't applaud it.
Likewise, not one of my students ever chose the Hitchcock film as the better example of suspense in an end-of unit-essay. And, in this regard, I think du Maurier must be hailed the quiet winner. She didn't write a gory, gimmicky, slasher; she wrote a fine piece of literature that, although recognized by my classes as the better version of the tale because of its subtlety, was also most likely forgotten because of it.
Somehow, however, I don't think du Maurier would mind at all. Forgotten or not, du Maurier and her masterful use of suspense enabled the students to recognize a well-crafted story in the moment--and I'm confident that, if any of those students were to revisit her short story and Hitchcock film, the outcome would be the same.
A freelance writer and editor, Ricki Schultz is a contributor to Writer's Digest Books, with articles forthcoming in Novel & Short Story Writer's Market, Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market and Guide to Literary Agents blog.
She has published poetry in The John Carrol Review, has written for St. Ignatius Magazine and Northern Virginia Magazine, and has won awards for both of her YA manuscripts. In addition to being the coordinator of Shenandoah Writers Online, she belongs to Southeastern Writers Association, South Carolina Writers Workshop, Romance Writers of America, and Young Adult Romance Writers of America.
Originally from Ohio, Schultz taught high school English and journalism for five years, and she holds a BA in English and a M.Ed. in secondary education, both from John Carroll University in Cleveland. She currently lives with her husband and beagle in McGaheysville, Virginia. You may read more about Ricki at www.rickischultz.com or www.rickischultz.wordpress.com