Thursday, March 05, 2020

Frank Baker and The Birds

Sixteen years before Daphne du Maurier wrote her short story The Birds (first published in the short collection The Apple Tree in 1952), which Hitchcock's The Birds (1963) was loosely based on, British author Frank Baker wrote a novel also called The Birds, in 1936.

Frank Baker had an interesting, if mostly forgotten, career; first, inauspiciously, in a London insurance company. He then moved to St Just in Cornwall, becoming a church organist. He also began to write, publishing his first novel, The Twisted Tree, in 1935. The Birds was published the following year. Set in pre-war London, the apocalyptic tale depicts birds attacking people with the intention of the destruction of mankind. Despite the novel receiving decent notices, with the Birmingham Mail going as far as to call it "The most original piece of imaginative fiction since Wells wrote The War of the Worlds", the book only sold several hundred copies.

Nevertheless, Baker continued writing, and Miss Hargreaves, written in 1940, became his most famous book. It later became a stage play, TV show and radio programme. During World War II Baker was a professional actor, touring with the likes of Paul Scofield. Then he was the pianist for Players' Theatre, a West End music hall. Still writing, he produced novels, short stories, articles and plays. His 1954 novel Lease of Life was adapted into a film by Ealing Studios the following year.

When Hitchcock's film The Birds came out in 1963, Baker was tempted to sue Universal Studios for the similarities between the film and his novel, believing his story to be the inspiration for the film, but demurred. Daphne du Maurier denied ever having heard of Baker's The Birds, though they both lived in Cornwall (a small county where everyone seems to know everyone else), and, by coincidence, Baker's The Birds was published by Peter Davies, who was du Maurier's cousin. Apparently excited about publishing Baker's book, it is likely he might have mentioned it to du Maurier at some point.

Hitchcock scholar Ken Moss believes the Baker novel has more in common with the Hitchcock film than the du Maurier short story, citing certain scenes including an attack in a phone box as well as the triangle of the main characters. Author Christopher Fowler goes as far as to say Hitchcock meant to buy Baker's version but bought du Maurier's instead, accidentally.

Anyway, it seems Baker himself wasn't immune to a bit of plagiarising. In his autobiography, I Follow But Myself, published in 1969, he admits that his birds book bears some resemblance to Arthur Machen’s The Terror, published in 1917. Baker's The Birds was reprinted in a paperback version in 1964 (above) featuring a cover with characters not unlike those in the Hitchcock movie. It was reprinted again in 2013.

Frank Baker and Daphne du Maurier ended up writing to each other. In one letter, du Maurier tells Baker, "I wish for your sake Hitchcock had bought your novel rather than my short story from which to adapt the film". They both lived and died in Cornwall, du Maurier a legend and Baker a complete unknown.

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