Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Silence speaks volumes: Daphne Du Maurier's "The Birds"

One meets the most interesting people coordinating contests, and when one of our contest judges mentioned she taught classes featuring the work of legendary Daphne du Maurier, I couldn't resist. I asked her to be a guest columnist for Five Scribes. Please welcome Ricki Schultz.

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


Donnell said...

Ricki, thanks for joining us today. What a thought-provoking article. I have a comment and then a question -- first off, I think you must know that Daphne du Maurier was under-appreciated most of her career. The Wall Street Journal and columnist Cynthia Crossen touted her an "Overlooked Literary Genius." So while Hitchcock may or may not have done the film all that it warranted, (the film stands out as a legend in its own right to this day), I have to smile. Because I don't know many of the literary greats in du Maurier's day who gained such recognition, do you?

And the question I have for you is, can you mention a film that in your opinion that has ever been better than the book? I enjoyed your column immensely, and I believe Dame du Maurier would be pleased with your analysis. Well done! Thank you!

Lynne Marshall said...

Fascinating stuff! I regret to report that I too remember the ridiculous over the subtle. I recall thinking how corny The Birds was. All these years later, I'ver never wanted to view it again.

I commend your unique teaching method. I think you really taught those kids something about suspense that will stick with them.

Nice blog!

Patricia Stoltey said...

I hate to show my ignorance, but I did not know The Birds was originally a Daphne du Maurier tale. Excellent post.

Donnell said...

Pat, I told you this post was educational ;) Didn't Ricki do a great job?

Ricki said...

@Patricia I think many people have only heard of the Hitchcock film as well. Even though this post was somewhat of a "SPOILER ALERT," the short story is a very interesting read!

@Lynne Get that film out of your head! :)

@Donnell Hmm...that's a tough question you ask regarding a film that has been better than the book. I'm thinking!

I have a theory that it depends on which you first have contact with. For instance, I had not read any of the Harry Potter books prior to seeing the first few movies. I *loved* the movies, but my friends who had read the books were disappointed.

Now, after having read the entire series, I can see what my book-snob friends (LOL) meant in terms of the movies not including the whole story. However, I am more forgiving than they are because I realize it would be somewhat impossible to include *everything* from Rowling's books in the movies - and that could be because I fell in love with the movie first.

However, I don't think the same thing would happen with THE BIRDS. I know Hitchcock didn't have access to the special effects we do today, but still... (I'm a snob, too!) :)

Let me open up that question to your readers as well. Anyone favor a movie over a book?
**And I recommend reading FRANKENSTEIN and then seeing the Branagh movie. It's a horrific experience, but not for the reasons Branagh thinks.

Donnell said...

Okay, Ricki: Time for me to go to confession.... it's been six.... oh, right, this is a blog. Ready for my confession? I've not read Frankenstein, and I don't recall in any of my English lit classes the profs recommending it. Based on your advice, I will do so.

Here's a question for you. Was Shelley in du Maurier's league?

Ricki said...


It's a difficult - but interesting - comparison.

The two women are writing in completely different genres - FRANKENSTEIN is considered to be the first sci-fi novel; however, it is first and foremost a gothic novel and from the romantic period of Brit lit! And while there are suspenseful moments as well as elements of horror, it would not really be considered a "horror" or a "thriller" by today's standards at all.

As my juniors pointed out when we read the Shelley book, it's not what you think it's going to be about at all. It's not an on-the-edge-of-your-seat page turner about a green monster with bolts coming out of his neck, terrorizing a bunch of people. Without spoiling it, it's actually more of a sophisticated look at the whole notion of what it means to be a monster. One could argue that the Creature is a sympathetic as well as pathetic character - and that the doctor is more monstrous than his creation.

Most of my students disliked the book because it *wasn't* the scary thriller they thought it was going to be, based on the "Hollywood" version of Frankenstein.

So, in that way, I think the conclusion I made about du Maurier's short story being Literature because of its writing - and being forgotten/overlooked by some because of it - definitely applies to Shelley's work.

Very interesting indeed!

ramlovin said...

What a great analysis. I totally agree with you that the movie version was hokie. Movie suspense is different and in most cases easier to create than literary suspense. I would offer one example where the movie was more suspenseful than the book: "Jaws." It is ironic to note that Hitchcock's birds was ineffective largely because of technological limitations (fake looking birds) and Spielberg's "Jaws" was more suspenseful because of technological limitations (ie the mechanical shark had to be replaced by scary music.)
Thanks for your insightful about an under appreciated author. R.

Leslie Ann said...

Hi Guys,

D -- Loved this interview.

Riki -- Great post, filled with insight on effective story telling.

As an aside, but not too far aside...

I've been contracted more than once to adapt a book into a screenplay. It's a HUGE challenge.

The choices are immense, and I've learned you're never going to please everyone, including the author :)

A reader's favorite dialogue is cut, or scenes that readers/authors felt were sacred are changed/condensed/rearranged to make it work for the media itself...seconds of pix on the screen, and the limitations of 2 hours worth of film time.

And sadly the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is too often true.

It's a tough job. I like to read the book, then watch the movie. The book is the source, after all.

And books allow YOU to paint the pictures, not have them painted for you, which I think is another reason there is often complaints about adaptations.

There, just a little aside from moi.

BTW, I read the story a LONG time ago, after I saw the movie. The images stuck in my head from the movie, but I have to say I don't remember the fine writing of Du Maurier. Now it's time to read it again


Donnell said...

LA, I was hoping you would chime in. As the Scribes' resident screenplay expert, I appreciate very much what you're saying. Would a screenplay writer ever be able to make an author happy -- even with an Academy Award?

I also have to defend Hitchcock, because who didn't love North by Northwest or Rear Window and he was obviously a huge fan of Daphne du Maurier producing/directing such films as Rebecca and The Birds and basically scaring everybody once a week with Alfred Hitchcock presents.

But Ricki's point was well taken too. Hitchcock made his money by sensationalism and suspense, which obviously made the more memorable impression on her students. DDM made hers by subtlety and exquisite writing.

I'm a fan of them both.

Loved this post! Ricki, thanks so much for sharing your literary expertise! I hope you'll guest post some other time as well.

Leslie Ann said...

Hi D,

Hitchcock was a master at keeping an audience on the edge of their seat. He let the audience know there was a ticking bomb - metaphorically and not - under the protagonist's chair and the audience would chew their nails waiting for the protag to find out before it all blew sky high. And he used silence but in a different way to create tension. We've all been there, an uncomfortable silence.....

Mind you, I'm not arguing with Ricki, just bringing a slight twist to the discussion.

I know many authors just aren't happy with the outcome of the adaptation, though an OSCAR would help ease the pain. And sell more books :)

But it'll never be the same as what they wrote, even adapting my own stuff isn't. the nuances aren't expressed the way they were originally written... or whatever the issue is.

And the time constraints inherent in the medium is a huge problem.

And (my final AND :) ) remember, a film is the ultimate collaborative project, so it's not just the screenwriter.

BUT having said that, I think, YES, there are authors who are pleased and proud of what's been done to their baby.


Leslie Ann said...

I should have finished my thought..."it's not just the screenwriter who has an impact on what is done to the original work."

Donnell said...

Good points all, LA, thanks for sharing!

Ricki Schultz said...

I agree with you both -- and, for the record, I admire *much* of Hitchcock's work -- just not THE BIRDS. But PSYCHO? REAR WINDOW? *of course!*

I am *so* interested in adaptations -- how to decide that to keep, what to change, to boil down a novel to what you feel is its "essence" and try to get it across without the luxury of narration to help, etc. It's absolutely fascinating!

And no, you can't please everyone.

Screenwriting and (especially) adaptations are on my list of areas of writing to explore one of these decades -- so, hats off to you, LA, for having done such a task several times!

Thanks for the great conversation, ladies -- and, Donnell, I'd be happy to guest post again!


Mary Marvella said...

Interesting! I often wished I could teach Hitchcock to my students. Back then the students would have enjoyed watching the stories unfold. I remember reading books like Exodus that were too large for a two hour movie.

Good job, Ricki.