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The Independent (18/Apr/2004) - Let me tell you a story...

(c) The Independent (18/Apr/2004)

Let me tell you a story...

There's no doubt about the fondness that existed between Daphne du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock - or between the novelist and short-story writer and the movies as a whole. They were good to each other, and du Maurier's books inspired several more films than those made by Hitchcock. There was Frenchman's Creek (1944), with Joan Fontaine as Dona St Columb and Arturo de Cordova as her Frenchman; My Cousin Rachel (1952), with Olivia de Havilland and the young Richard Burton; and the story that inspired Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now. Throw in the Hitchcock trio - Jamaica Inn, Rebecca and The Birds - and you have a group where all but one picture did well at the box office, and du Maurier's sales bloomed all over the world.

Still, a serious writer needs to be wary of the movies - don't look for too many thanks, and keep away from the shooting if you're sensible, because writers' feelings are seldom spared. Jamaica Inn, the first du Maurier novel filmed, was significantly altered to make a star part for Charles Laughton. Far better that the author of Frenchman's Creek not hear the exasperation of Mitchell Leisen, who was obliged to direct the film. When asked whether his attention to colour, clothes and decor had lost sight of "story values", he exploded: "You tell me what the story values were in Frenchman's Creek and I'll answer that. She falls in love with a pirate, leaves her husband and comes back in time not to get caught. That's all. It's as dull as dishwater and it was a lousy picture. It was one of those things, either I did it or I got suspended and my agent didn't want me to take a suspension. I should have but I didn't."

Well, you may say, that's what happens when a picture turns out badly. But then consider what Alfred Hitchcock had to say when François Truffaut asked him how many times he had read The Birds as he pondered how to make that picture: "What I do is to read a story only once, and if I like the basic idea, I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema. Today I would be unable to tell you the story of Daphne du Maurier's The Birds. I read it only once, and very quickly at that. An author takes three or four years to write a fine novel; it's his whole life. Then other people take it over completely."

Lovers of reading, and of Ms du Maurier, need not be alarmed. What we face here is the natural hostility, or trepidation, between novelists and those filmmakers who elect to translate them to the screen. Once upon a time, many movie directors began as would-be novelists (I exclude Alfred Hitchcock from that company) and they failed. It wasn't that they couldn't write quite well for a few days at a time. It wasn't that they couldn't summon up good story material. Their problem was the stamina and the solitude, the way in which a writer of fiction for the page may nurse a world, an intrigue and a group of characters for a year, or much more, persevering in the loneliness. Filmmaking, by contrast, is communal and collaborative. You never know when an actor will improve a line or when the cameraman will suggest a movement you never thought of. But above all (and here Hitchcock was the leader of the pack), filmmakers believe in "visual storytelling" - in short, they reckon that one packed moment on screen may deliver 10 pages of a book.

And that's necessary, for novels are often 300 pages, or more, and the general working estimate is that, whereas a page of script equals a minute of screen time, a rich page from a novel sometimes requires 20 minutes in the movie. Indeed, when Hitchcock came to prepare Rebecca for the screen, he even worked it out that he was going to have to get into the "backstory" (the events that have occurred before the book begins). He thought he was going to have to put Rebecca de Winter into the film! There's another valuable lesson that affects both narrative media: that until the last moment, the novelist or the film director is wrestling with problems. I daresay there was a time when Daphne du Maurier herself took it for granted that, if the book was called Rebecca, she had to be a living presence. Then came the blessed moment when insight struck - of course not, she says, if Rebecca stays a ghost she can haunt the book; and if Rebecca is simply an atmosphere that explains why the second Mrs de Winter, the "I" character is so intimidated, so threatened. Indeed, a Hitchcock might have reasoned: the I character is just the eye that sees the whole thing.

You might then conclude, well, why should filmmaking bother with books if they intend to tell every story visually? The answer is commerce. In the short history of the movies, producers have taken the prior success of a novel, a play or even a story very seriously. It helps them feel confident; it encourages them to believe that there is an audience primed for the film. In turn, that fosters the large fallacy: that there is a natural and true way of translating novels to the screen.

The point to hang on to is there in Hitchcock's rather brusque treatment of du Maurier's original version of The Birds - "if I like the basic idea". Movie people have a simple test when it comes to possible projects. They may ask for a written synopsis, a treatment, or even a script. Yet, in truth, many movie people do not read easily, and film scripts - if you've tried it - are somewhere between prose and a blueprint. So film people say to a writer, "Just tell me the story" - in words, as if we were sitting at the same fireplace on a cold night. And if I'm hooked, if I want to know what happens next, if the hair starts to go up on the back of my neck, then we may be on to something.

Alfred Hitchcock was very well disposed to Daphne du Maurier, who was the daughter of Sir Gerald du Maurier, perhaps the leading actor- manager in the London of the early 20th century, a handsome man, and a very accomplished actor in romance and melodrama. The two men had worked together on a picture called Lord Camber's Ladies (1932), produced by Hitchcock, and actually directed by Benn W. Levy, which starred du Maurier and Gertrude Lawrence. It proved to be more than a regular professional relationship, because Hitchcock and du Maurier discovered that they had a shared hobby: elaborate practical jokes. It has been said that if only, instead of Lord Camber's Ladies, we had the movie of these escapades - of bodies found in dressing-room cupboards; of immense emergency calls that required fools' errands; and the everyday booby-trapping of the prop in the picture.

So it was quite natural that Hitchcock should follow the emerging career of Gerald's daughter, Daphne (born in 1907), and coming into her own by the mid 1930s. That's how he came to make the movie of Jamaica Inn, a project dominated by Charles Laughton's desire to play the villain, "Sir Humphrey Pengallan", thus cancelling out the clergyman rogue from the book. Once more, Hitch was not flattering about the material: it was "an absurd thing to undertake", he said, with a story that made no sense. But the film was a hit, and it's worth asking why. Jamaica Inn may have problems of logic or tidiness, but it has immense atmosphere, a wild setting (the Cornish coast) and a very strong clash between young and innocent characters and some who are older, darker and far more wicked. The story has a hook. We want to know what happens next.

Du Maurier wrote romances, and she liked to have innocent young heroines. But the romance often veers towards something more like horror - I note that in writing on Jamaica Inn, Sarah Dunant said that the bond between the young woman and her towering uncle (the real relationship in du Maurier's book) is like that between Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling.

At some time during the work on Jamaica Inn, Hitchcock got an advance look at Daphne's next book - Rebecca. Did he read it himself, or did he get his very shrewd wife, Alma, to analyse it? Who knows, but the Hitchcocks were mad for the book, and Hitchcock tried to purchase the screen rights directly. Du Maurier was uncertain, for there was word that Hollywood - with much more money - was also fascinated by the book. David O Selznick was bidding, the man famous for having paid $50,000 for the screen rights to Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind. Hitchcock could not compete at that level. But Selznick was interested in picking up Hitchcock, too. The negotiations were very complicated, but they ended with the decision that Alfred Hitchcock would go to Hollywood, where his first production would be Rebecca.

That is not the end of the story. Once he had arrived in Hollywood, Hitchcock, alarmed by the overbearing manner of Selznick, became determined to stay independent. So he took the du Maurier novel and turned it into a Hitchcock scenario with a vengeance. In short, he delivered a script that made Selznick howl in complaint: "But, Hitch, you've ruined the book!"

I do not mean to say that the Hitchcock scenario would not have worked. But Selznick had learned one thing on Gone With the Wind: if in doubt, stay faithful to the book, for millions of readers are prepared to be upset if you make a foolish change. So, bit by bit, and with fierce comic battles, the producer dragged his director back to the du Maurier story. Hitch was hurt, and he took a little more umbrage when in the casting for "I", Anne Baxter, Loretta Young, Margaret Sullavan and Vivien Leigh were all set aside in favour of a relative unknown, Joan Fontaine, who happened to have caught Selznick's fancy at that time.

To the end of his days, Hitchcock protested that Selznick had interfered too much on Rebecca. But viewers of the film - for over 60 years now - have had a hard time picking a fight. They think Fontaine, and Laurence Olivier as Max, are perfect. They feel they know Manderley, the house, and they see Judith Anderson as the incarnation of that great character, Mrs Danvers (one of du Maurier's finest dark creations). Rebecca is nowhere, yet everywhere. You want to know what happens next. And it won the Oscar for Best Picture - which, after Gone With the Wind, made two in a row for Selznick.

Hitchcock was set on a great Hollywood career. In the next twenty years, he would make Spellbound, Notorious, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, North by Northwest and Psycho (his greatest hit of all). At that point, he was at a peak where he could do whatever he liked. And he remembered The Birds. What had hooked him about it? Well, this story may answer that. Once determined to do The Birds, he looked around for a new screenwriter, and his eye fell on James Kennaway who had just had a great success adapting his own novel, Tunes of Glory. So Hitch sent word to Kennaway: read the book, think it over and then we'll meet and you are to tell me the story of our picture - how we'll do it.

So Kennaway struggled with the 37 pages about a Cornish peasant family and their response to a sudden, concerted and unexplained onslaught by all the birds in creation. I think I have the answer, said Kennaway. Yes? said Hitchcock. We film the story, Kennaway began, entirely through the eyes of the family. We never see a single bird. We hear them, but we only see and feel them as our characters feel them!

Aha! sighed Hitchcock. Well, thank you very much, Mr Kennaway, for your efforts. There will be a cheque in the mail.

That partnership was over.

Hitchcock had other ideas: he would switch the action from rural Cornwall to Marin County in California; the characters would be educated, smart, self-aware. But who cared why the birds attacked or what it meant or symbolised? Hitch just wanted to do every trick with real birds of which the cinema was then capable. He liked the idea because of the huge technical challenge it represented. He had - if you like - become a very artistic film director, not overly interested in why things happened. Whereas readers always treasure the story and its first grip; they judge a film by its ability to deliver that old thrill. I think they're right, and the best movies show how Daphne du Maurier could take ordinary nervousness and build it into... dread.

This piece is the edited introduction to "The Birds and Other Stories", part of Virago's new paperback series of the complete du Maurier