Study Guide

The Birds Screenwriter

Screenwriter

Evan Hunter

Did anyone ever refer to your high school as "The Blackboard Jungle"? If so, you've got Evan Hunter to thank. Hunter penned the 1954 novel of the same name, about a newbie teacher trying to survive in an inner-city public school. (It was adapted into a hugely successful 1955 film that caused riots in theaters because of its rock-and-roll soundtrack.)

Hitchcock tasked Hunter (born Salvatore Albert Lombino) with adapting Daphne du Maurier's short story "The Birds" into a screenplay. In addition to writing The Blackboard Jungle, Hunter had been a successful writer of crime fiction under the pen name Ed McBain and had written a bit for Hitchcock's television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

The director decided to move the action to northern California. He thought audiences would be turned off by the rural farmers in du Maurier's story and wanted the characters to be attractive, sophisticated city types. Other than that, Hitch gave Hunter a lot of freedom in creating the personalities of the characters and the situations they found themselves in. "Nothing would be too difficult to shoot, he assured me, hence scenes like the gull swooping down on the gas station attendant and the following fire and havoc," said Hunter. "I never again gave a thought to the technical problems that might lie ahead." (Source)

The Jury's Still Out

Did Hunter write a good script? Well, that's a matter of some dispute.

Early reviewers noted that the story takes a long, long time to get to the stinkin' birds; before that, you're hanging around with Melanie and Mitch, neither of whom is really all that interesting. The dialogue is also often overheated and bland. Take a look:

MITCH: I just thought you might like to know what it's like to be on the other end of a gag. What do you think of that?

MELANIE : I think you're a louse.

MITCH: I am.

Hardly witty repartee.

To be fair, Hitchcock said that he wanted to give the audience some light familiarity with the characters before he got down to the real business of the film. He didn't need the kind of psychological complexity that characterized his other films. Still, he said later that he wasn't totally happy with Hunter's work. (Source)

Hunter vs. Hitchcock

Hunter said in an interview that there was one scene he was definitely not responsible for: the scene where Melanie reveals that her mother left her and that she's just a wounded child at heart. "I have the feeling that Tippi Hedren ad-libbed her way through this one, because I can't believe that anyone actually wrote such inane dialogue," said Hunter. "Someone did write it, however. I saw the script." (Source)

Hitchcock also left out a scene that Hunter felt would provide motivation for the bird attacks and also explain Melanie and Mitch's relationship. In that scene, Melanie and Mitch joke about a global bird rebellion complete with a chairman of the bird board urging his airborne associates to turn the tables on the humans. Melanie suddenly gets serious and tells Mitch that she thinks the birds really did come down the chimney deliberately intent on killing them. Then, they embrace and kiss.

Hunter thought the scene explained Mitch and Melanie's affectionate behavior later in the film. Without it, the film made no sense to him. Watching the film on TV years later, script in his lap, Hunter said he realized that the final version was not the one he wrote. (Source)

Sneaky, Hitchcock.

The other major change in the script, Hunter said, was to the final scene.

Yep, that final scene.

Hunter had a whole sequence with Mitch, Melanie, Cathy, and Lydia driving through the town and surveying the devastation. And then? One final bird attack.

That all got cut. (He described the original ending in this interview.)

The End (of Hunter)

Hunter worked with Hitchcock on his next film, too—or tried to. He was supposed to write the screenplay for Marnie, but he and the director had a falling out over the rape scene. Hitchcock fired him. He wrote a couple of other screenplays, but the best-known film work he ever did was The Birds.

But, sadly for Hunter, almost everyone watched The Birds for the birds—not the words.