In 1963, Alfred Hitchcock, following the cinematic marvels Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960), brought to the screen his fourth masterpiece in a row, The Birds. That latter film, I had long believed, was based on a short story from 1952 by London-born author Daphne du Maurier, also called “The Birds,” and indeed, at the very beginning of the 1963 film a title card does tell us “From the story by Daphne du Maurier.” It is only recently, however, that I have learned that an instance of bird attacks in Capitola, CA in August 1961 had given Hitch the germ of an idea for his next film, and, more to the point, that he had instructed screenwriter Evan Hunter to throw out du Maurier’s story line and only retain the concept of bird attacks for the film. And in truth, the resultant film, set in Bodega Bay, CA, would seem to have little in common with du Maurier’s Cornwall-set original that centered on a farmer and his family. But then, more recently, I learned that there is still another work of fiction called The Birds, by another London-born author, one Frank Baker. Could this earlier work have served as source material for the famous film? Baker apparently thought so, and was even on the brink of taking the case to court. However, my recent experience with Baker’s truly wonderful, apocalyptic tale of avian horror reveals a book that, most likely – and despite its uncanny similarities with Sir Alfred’s masterwork – was completely unknown to the filmmaker. A quick look at the book’s history may give a clue as to why.
Baker’s novel was originally released by the British publishing house Peter Davies as a hardcover in June 1936. Only 300 copies were sold, all 300 of which are virtually unobtainable today. The book would then go OOPs (out of prints) for 28 years, until, following the success of Hitchcock’s 1963 movie, the British publisher Panther revived it in 1964, featuring a sensationalistic front cover and the completely misleading tagline “Un-born babies were torn from their mothers’ wombs” on its back cover. The novel would then go OOPs again for almost 50 years, until the fine folks at Valancourt Books opted to resurrect it in 2013, and including a highly erudite introduction by Hitchcock authority Ken Mogg, who tells us that there is no evidence to indicate that the director was ever aware of Baker’s novel. So that would seem to be that. As for this 2013 Valancourt edition, the icing on the cake is that it includes all the many changes to the text that Baker had tried unsuccessfully to have incorporated into the Panther release; it is the definitive version of this novel.
Before detailing some of the uncanny similarities and unsurprising differences between book and film, a quick word on the author himself. Frank Baker was born in London in 1908 and worked in an insurance office and as a church organist before starting his writing career. His first novel, The Twisted Tree, was released in 1935; The Birds would be his sophomore effort. Baker eventually came out with 15 novels, three books of nonfiction, and a posthumous short-story collection, Stories of the Strange and Sinister, before passing away in 1982.
Now, as to The Birds itself, the book takes the form of a narrative by an 84-year-old man whose name we never learn. He is dictating the book to his daughter Anna in an effort to make her and his other descendants understand the events that transpired “before the birds came” and ended civilization as we know it. Thus, the bulk of the novel takes place in the London of some 60 years earlier; that is to say, the 1930s. Our narrator, we learn, had lived with his widowed mother in the suburb of Stroud Green, in northern London, and commuted daily to his miserable job as a clerk in a marine insurance company in the City. And then, one oppressively hot August, during a prolonged drought, the birds had begun to arrive; birds unlike any that the townsfolk had ever seen, and that soon completely superseded the common pigeons, sparrows and so on. At first, the massed assemblages of these birds was only deemed a nuisance, and the birds had seemed to want to do little more than defecate on the town’s landmarks, swim in its pools, and drink from its reservoirs. (Oh … and disrupt a papal procession, and poop on the noggin of a Hitler-like figure during a ranting speech!) Later efforts to remove the birds by force, however, invariably led to death for the attackers … and with not a single avian casualty! It was only when folks began to notice that each and every one of them was being shadowed by a bird of his or her own that the populace began to grow truly nervous.
As his tale progresses, we learn about our narrator’s thoughts on the London of his age, and witness the warm and loving relationship that he enjoyed with his mother. We also get to see how truly lousy his job situation had been, and rejoice with him when he is able to take a spiritually reawakening vacation in the Welsh countryside. And we sympathize with his efforts to meet the beautiful brunette whom he’d once spotted in a London café, and are made happy when the two eventually do go on a date, and when we learn that the woman, Olga, would eventually become his wife, and Anna’s mother. But as the awful drought and summer heat had continued unabated, the incidents with the birds proliferated, and the millions of bird “attendants” remained unexplained, the Londoners had understandably grown increasingly tense. And then, during a packed service at St. Paul’s Cathedral, at which our narrator had been in attendance, all heck had broken loose, resulting in the death of the old world order…
As you might have noticed, other than the fact that Baker’s book and Hitchcock’s film both deal with an avian apocalypse, the differences between them far outweigh the similarities. The book, again, is set in Britain; the film in coastal California. The book gives us a young man living with his mother; the film, a more mature man (Rod Taylor’s Mitch Brenner) living with his mother and sister (Jessica Tandy and Veronica Cartwright). In the book, our protagonist becomes involved with a Russian brunette; in the film, Mitch becomes involved with an icy-blonde playgirl (Tippi Hedren, in a star-making role). The book showcases bird attacks at famous locales (Trafalgar Sq., St. Paul’s Cathedral); the film, in everyday locations such as a school, gas station, and private home. The book’s birds are shown to be of a heretofore unknown species; the film’s birds are ordinary crows and gulls. The birds in Baker’s book are initially shown to be merely an inconvenient nuisance; in the film, they are belligerent from the get. And most importantly, the birds that Frank Baker gives us are clearly meant to be reflections of mankind’s inner demons. Mankind’s refusal to acknowledge those demons seems to be the root cause of the birds’ advent, and each person’s bird attendant seems to have been specially designated to each Londoner, even to the point of aping his or her mannerisms! In the film, the birds do not seem to be symbols, but rather concrete; the cause of their arrival is suggested to be mankind’s ill treatment of them (as typified by a diner customer’s ordering of a chicken dinner); and the birds would appear to attack one and all indiscriminately. And one more thing … there is no character in the Hitchcock film who forcibly impresses us as being the living Devil, as in the novel.
Baker also uses his story to issue some fairly cutting indictments on the age in which he (and his narrator) lived. Thus, we get digs at the Bible (“a book of poetic folk-tales from which we extracted a great deal of false moralizing”), advertising (“people were induced to buy things which they did not really require”), the subway … excuse me … I mean “the tube” (“It is too hot to try to remember something a thousand times hotter and more airless”), the insurance company at which he once worked (“all the arduous work I thus executed was of little or no advantage”), team sports (“this predilection for athletics possessed the English temperament to a remarkable degree and was probably the only part of their lives which many people considered with any real seriousness”), the religious (“There was something so appallingly self-conscious and complacent about this crowd of people in their approach to their God; something so essentially weak and faithless masquerading as strong and faithful”), happiness (“if a natural smile broke upon the mouth of any one of us, we were in danger of being labelled eccentric”), nationalism (“great armies of fighting men were reared at the expense of poor and ill-nourished people who, in taxes, were forced to support these entirely unnecessary bodies of soldiers”), sex education (“if we dared to show the smallest amount of open interest in our genitals we were, even at a very young age, most severely rebuked”), radio (“There was something essentially impure about the music thus sent out”), and the cinema (“with all its spurious emotion, its travesty of life, its meretricious sentiment”). Conversely, in a lovely four-page segment, the author lists all the many things that the narrator loved – and misses – about the London of pre-apocalypse days. In all, Baker’s novel gives us an excellent overview of pre-War London; one of the finest that I’ve ever come across.
His novel also evinces a great degree of prescience, and not just in his prediction of another world war in the offing (forestalled, in his book, by the avian apocalypse). Baker also predicts the coming of television in all homes, as well as porn (“the ‘act of sex,’ as we called it, was not shown in detail on the screen, though there were signs that it probably would soon be considered quite proper to do so”). And his novel functions very well in the Romance Dept., as well, as our narrator and his future wife initially meet and fall in love. Baker treats his readers to any number of beautifully written and wonderfully executed scenes. Among them: the initial, disastrous attempt to eliminate the birds infesting Hyde Park, and its Japanese parallel, as a group of kamikaze pilots (more prescience?) tries to slay the birds in the Far East (one of the indications here that the problem of the birds is worldwide in scope); our narrator’s two-week vacation in Wales, during which he realizes some almost metaphysical truths about life; our narrator and Olga’s warmly depicted first date; our narrator facing down his bird attendant by looking his own inner demons squarely in the face; and, of course, that mind-boggling finale at St. Paul’s, as spectacular, violent and apocalyptic a sequence as any disaster fan could ever hope to experience.
The book was clearly close to the author’s heart, and several autobiographical elements are to be found therein. Like the narrator, Baker also lived for a time in Stroud Green and worked in an insurance office. Baker’s experience as a choir singer and church organist are reflected in the St. Paul’s sequence, and the fact that his grandfather was an organist at the Alexandra Palace is transformed into our narrator’s frequent visits to that remarkably imposing structure. And as to our narrator himself, he surely is a wholly likeable chap: considerate of his Mum, nonmuscular, a poetic sort, not at all into sports, moral, and entirely decent. After all the horrors that he witnesses, we are glad that he has attained to a nice long life, and that he is able to compare himself to a Biblical patriarch in the book’s opening. Our narrator tells his story simply but beautifully to a grown daughter who cannot understand most of his references (thus, Trafalgar Sq. needs to be described as “a great open square, across which sprawled the massive column of an old memorial to a sea-lord, an illustrious hero of this island”). At the same time, he is quite capable of making up some words of his own (or is “embrous” actually a word?).
All told, Baker’s novel incorporates elements of horror, predictive sci-fi, apocalyptic fiction, and the supernatural (not just those unusual, death-defying birds, but their satanic overseer, as well). Truly, something for just about everyone in this stunningly well-crafted book. For those readers, however, who are looking for definitive answers, Baker’s The Birds – similar in this regard to Hitchcock’s The Birds – may prove a disappointment. As Anna tells us in the book’s afterword, “What was the meaning of the Birds? I have tormented myself with this question.” But as her father had mentioned earlier, “when you are dealing with supernatural happenings, what explanation will ever suffice?” The bottom line remains, however, that all fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s film – surely one of the great motion pictures of the 1960s – should find Frank Baker’s book a fascinating read … whether it was inspirational for the filmmakers or not. Personally, I look forward now to exploring some of Baker’s other work, such as The Twisted Tree and that posthumous collection of creepy stories, both of which are also part of Valancourt Books’ very impressive catalog. And if you’re wondering how I ever discovered the Valancourt website to begin with, well, let’s just say that a little birdie told me…