Tuesday, 26 January 2016

From short story to celluloid

One of the future interests of Ink Tears, who are publishing my short story collection, is the market of short story to screenplay to films. This prompted me to think of Daphne du Maurier's harrowing short story, 'The Birds'.

Director Alfred Hitchcock retained only the title and theme when he made the film of 'The Birds'. He added special effects and a slight sub-plot. He altered the lead character from a down-to-earth farmworker trying to support and protect his family to a socialite who develops a relationship with a lawyer. He even changed the setting from nineteen-fifties rural Cornwall to San Francisco.

The original story contains no lurid description. In fact, the prose is plain and matter-of-fact. After one of the attacks by the birds we are told;

Trigg's body was close to the telephone. He must have been trying to get through to the exchange when the birds came for him.The receiver was hanging loose, the instrument torn from the wall. No sign of Mrs Trigg. She would be upstairs...He forced himself to climb the stairs, but half-way he turned and descended again. He could see her legs, protruding from the open bedroom door. Beside her were the bodies of the black-headed gulls, and an umbrella, broken.

No vivid adjectives, no lingering over the injuries. And the simple pathos of the 'umbrella, broken' is a touch of genius. Likewise, the best scenes in the film are not those showing wounds and blood, but the silent ones where the birds land and begin to gather. In both book and film, the suspense is chilling and beautifully handled.

A gathering of cormorants is apparently called a gulp - this gulp was spotted by my husband from his hotel window in Greenock, looking out over the Clyde. By coincidence, he took the picture while I was writing this post.

The power of the short story emanates from du Maurier's idea that nature might, without warning or reason, become the enemy of humankind. Each page of unadorned prose gradually unfolds the growing horror. We are with the farmer and his family every step of the way, hammering in the nails to barricade the house, blocking the chimney and dashing out between attacks to find supplies. The developing horror works so well because we can imagine ourselves in his situation while turning the pages in the comfort of home, maybe glancing out of the window at a blackbird singing from a tree or a robin pecking food from a bird-table, and wondering, "What if...?"

Hitchcock may have rearranged many facets of the book in order to turn it into a film, but he left unchanged the most vital aspect of the story - Why? 

Both versions keep us on the edge of our seats, freezing our blood with the thought, "What went wrong - and could it ever actually happen?"

Like all great stories, the original highlights a main character battling alone against all the odds, a hero on a mission to save himself and his family when the world slips off its axis. My favourite moment is when he stands on the shore and realises the white caps on the waves are, in fact, an immense and growing number of gathering gulls.

Like many short stories, there are few characters - in this case only the protagonist and a small supporting cast - and a limited setting: the house, the neighbouring countryside and the surrounding sea. Hitchcock, however, augmented the film with many extra scenes and characters. Where the story is plain and stark, he created technicolour mayhem. The du Maurier original is, for me, far more haunting, yet the cinematic reworking created a new, compelling and unforgettable piece of drama.

In the metamorphosis from story to film, if the scenes and characters from a five-hundred page novel are changed beyond recognition from how they appear in the reader's imagination in an attempt to maximise screen appeal, the disappointment may well be enormous. With a short story, however, since time is more compacted than in novels and the number of characters reduced to a handful, it can be enlarged and elaborated, rather than trimmed. Even if the expansions and modifications are sweeping, as they are in 'The Birds', the process is slightly more understandable and forgiving. Liberties might be taken, but if the concept and final message are the same, then the outcome might still be memorable and both story and film equally, yet separately, enjoyed.

Short stories are snapshots of a moment. They are just enough. This allows their contents some flexibility within the framework. Although complete within themselves and therefore unextendable as a narrative piece, this does not preclude the possibility of fleshing out characters, dwelling deeper or longer on the key scenes, or twisting the plot a little, adding diversions along the way.

I have just watched '45 Years', the beautiful, mesmerising film of author David Constantine's 'In Another Country'. No horror this time, but a nonetheless emotionally harrowing exploration of the effect on an enduring marriage of a secret frozen in time. I am looking forward to reading his short story now and discovering the changes made in the transition from page to celluloid.

'When Planets Slip Their Tracks', my first story collection, is to be published in hardback and as an e-book very soon.