Rebecca, a Retrospective: From the novel & Hitchcock film to Netflix adaptation

7 min read

by Casey Reihardt

As hype grows for the new Netflix movie, Rebecca, directed by Ben Wheatley, it’s high time we took a good hard look at the book, published in 1938 by Daphne du Maurier and its counterpart, the 1940 Hitchcock film. So, how do these classics of English Lit & film hold up to modern scrutiny?
We’ll start with the film, where Hitchcock’s opening comes straight from the pages of the book. Our unnamed narrator, Maxim de Winter’s second wife, has a vision of Manderly, their former home, in decay. The passage is read beautifully by Joan Fontaine who plays our heroine. It sets up the supernatural undercurrent which will unfold as the second wife battles the legacy of the first: Rebecca.

Daphne Du Maurier

Just as we are lulled into a sense of familiarity with our heroine, Hitchcock diverges, abandoning that close first-person account with a shift to her future husband, Maxim de Winter at the edge of a cliff in the south of France, about to leap into the sea. Here, our heroine is nothing but a concerned passerby, afraid he might commit suicide. He rushes her away with scorn.

Later at the Monte Carlo, during their first lunch together, Maxim tells her to “eat it up like a good girl.” Again and again we come back to him treating her like a child, lamenting the very idea she would grow into an adult woman. And while she may be young at the start of this book, she is, in fact, an adult woman. But she never bats an eye and never questions.

The dreamy, starry-eyed character Fontaine plays is not an exact match to her character in the book. In the movie, she is more tolerable, more pleasant, and a little more sure of herself. While reading, there were many times I wanted to reach my hands through the pages to strangle her for being so stupid—but then, she knew she was being stupid, but more on that will come later. Suffice it to say, Rececca in both forms is full of wide, winding emotional landscapes, much like that road to Manderly. It’s a work unparalleled in its day. There’s a reason we’re still reading it.
On the other hand, Hitchcock nails Maxim’s character. He is ‘broken’ as Mrs. van Hopper says; he is crude and debasing in the most gentlemanly way.

He says to her:

“Promise to never wear black satin and pearls and never be 36 years old.”

He says to her:

“I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.”
He says: “It’s a pity you have to grow up.”
He hands her a sweater before a walk. She says, “Do I really need that?” He responds, “Can’t be too careful with children.”

I know. I KNOW. You’re thinking, it was 1938, calm down. But even in 1938, du Maurier did this on purpose. She did it to make us uncomfortable. I don’t mean to take away from the belittling of women that did occur during this time period, but this story is billed as romantic suspense. If anything, this novel through a modern lense is an anti-romance. There is no love within these pages.

Halfway through the movie, I find myself asking the same question I did over and over again while reading the book: Why on earth is she so in love with this condescending aromantic man? Perhaps because she never thought she’d be married at all. When Maxim asks her to marry him, she’s shocked, saying, “I’m not the sort of person people marry.” She is not a rich heiress. She was a paid companion to a rich woman, suddenly catapulted into a society she is completely alien to. Our narrator lacks even the smallest bit of confidence. The Rebecca in her mind grows and grows until she cannot imagine any flaw at all whatsoever. Flaws are what she finds in herself. These ideas are reinforced again and again.

As she struggles with this haunting by his ex-wife, Maxim abandons her to his own business. He withholds information which could help bring Rebecca down from the angelic platform held in his new wife’s mind. She is desperate to please him, but he is pleased only by her youth and her differences from Rebecca.

It’s at this point we have to ask: Who is the antagonist in this story, really? The imagined ghost of Rebecca? Maybe our narrator is her own antagonist, fighting with herself to grow but not grow. Maybe it’s Maxim himself. And what of Mrs. Danvers? She is at every turn a vessel through which Rebecca remains omnipresent. And Maxim choses to keep her in the house; he puts her in charge of his “child” bride.

During the scene in the West Wing, Mrs. Davers gives our narrator a tour through Rebecca’s room, preserved down to every detail. Here Rebecca is brought back to life in full, from her lush wardrobe, knick knacks and other mundane details. What did she wear? How did she comb her hair? Where did she store her underwear? Mrs. Danvers says, “Sometimes I wonder if she doesn’t come back here to Manderly, watch you and Mr. de Winter together.”

Shortly after suffering through this degradation, our heroine finally finds some confidence to stand up to Mrs. Danvers, insisting she remove Rebecca’s things. She then begs Maxim to let her throw a Masquerade Ball. It’s such a drastic turn in character that it’s as if, for a moment, she is possessed by Rebecca.

This is a stark shift from the book, wherein Lady Crowan suggests the Ball. The narrator’s deliberation on whether or not to go along with it highlights the difference between Fontaine’s character, the more palatable version, and the novel’s Mrs. de Winter:

“Maxim still watched me doubtfully over the tea-pot. It occurred to me that perhaps I could not face it, that being shy, as he knew only too well, I should find myself unable to cope. I did not want him to think that. I did not want him to feel I should let him down.”

And so she gives in (or gets her way) and that pivotal moment of humiliation occurs. She comes down to the ball in the white dress copied from the Manderly Gallery at the urging of Mrs. Danvers. She walks into the room with a wide smile on her face, full of confidence and vigor—possibly for the first time in her entire life. What is she met with? Anger and ridicule from Maxim for something she could never have known. In the movie, Mrs. Danvers delivers a monologue that will make your bones shake as she tries to coerce our heroine into killing herself. As if being dead were better than contending with the spirit of Rebecca.

The much meeker narrator in the book does not confront Mrs. Danvers after this climactic scene, instead she catches sight of the woman in a corridor:

“I looked about me stunned and stupid like a hunted thing. Then I saw the door leading to the west wing was open wide, and that someone was standing there. It was Mrs. Danvers. I shall never forget the expression on her face, loathsome, triumphant. The face of an exalting devil. She stood there, smiling at me. And then I ran from her, down the long narrow passage to my own room, tripping, stumbling over the flounces of my dress.”

What of this fierce devotion of Mrs. Danvers? Her love for Rebecca, a woman who refused to bow to the whims of a man, refused to be treated as a child and debased. A woman who knew only luxury and praise. Someone who had the good fortune to choose a life on her own terms in an intensely patriarchal society. Who takes what she wants, everyone else be damned? Can Rebecca herself, not even present on the page to give her own voice to the accusations laid at her feet, be viewed as an antagonist to either the new Mrs. de Winter or Maxim himself?

Once Maxim confesses that Rebecca died after a fight and that he left her in her own sailboat at the bottom of the sea to avoid an inquiry, our narrator jumps on this opportunity. The shroud of Rebecca finally lifts. She helps Maxim to devise a plan to keep him out of prison, and he is still lamenting that this ordeal has aged her.

It was an interesting choice of Hitchcock’s to leave his wife behind when they went to confront the doctor, so that Maxim could come back and rescue her. Mr Knight in Shining Armor returns as a free man to save is beautiful child bride. Du Maurier had better sense than that.

The big question to take into this new adaptation is how a modern audience will feel about Maxim de Winter as a love interest. Will the new version double down on his strange obsession with her youth or try to make him more romantic? Will the heroine remain so naive? In the same way Joan Fontaine brought her own style to the narrator of Rebecca in the Hitchcock masterpiece, let’s all hope Lily James has plans of her own.

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