Rebecca and the Art of Adaptation

by Noemi Arellano-Summer

**SPOILERS for Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier**

This is a story that has been living rent-free in my head for nearly the past decade. To think that I found it by accident.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier was written in 1938, inspired by one of her husband’s previous relationships. She wrote it when living in Egypt, and her love for Cornwall bleeds through every page; this Gothic suspense novel revealed more of its author than I’m sure she intended.

The most famous of du Maurier’s works (the next most-known is probably 1951’s My Cousin Rachel), it yielded several adaptations for radio, film, stage, and television. Alfred Hitchcock got his start in America with the 1940 film adaptation starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. It was the only one of Hitchcock’s films to win Best Picture. There are two adaptations for television: a miniseries in 1979 and a 1997 film. Finally (at least for now), Armie Hammer and Lily James played the de Winters in a Netflix original film, released this past October.

I fell in love with Rebecca over Christmas break the year I was thirteen. For reasons that are difficult to put into words, I related deeply to this story about a dysfunctional marriage in a grand manor house set between the world wars. Since Netflix just released their adaptation, I figured it was high time to talk about Rebecca and it’s adaptations, seeing what creators have done differently each time.

The narrator (whose name is never revealed) works as a companion for an American woman, Mrs. Van Hopper. When staying in Monte Carlo, they run into Maxim de Winter, who owns a famous English property called Manderley. His wife Rebecca recently drowned in a boating accident. Maxim takes an interest in the narrator and they begin a strange sort-of courtship. When her employer decides to go to America, Maxim abruptly and unromantically proposes marriage.

The narrator accepts, and they head home to Manderley, where the new Mrs. de Winter is intimidated by the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers. Over the next several months, the narrator comes to believe that Maxim has only married her as a distraction from his grief for Rebecca, whom Mrs. Danvers paints as the perfect hostess, someone the narrator feels she cannot live up to. Rebecca’s boat is eventually found with her dead body inside. Maxim confesses to his wife that he actually hated Rebecca and, due to her boast that she was pregnant with another man’s child, shot her dead and sunk her boat. The narrator, upon learning that Maxim loves her, is instantly on his side and begins working with him to cover up the murder. Due to Rebecca’s previously unknown diagnosis of uterine cancer, Maxim de Winter gets away with his wife’s murder. However, when the de Winters drive back to Manderley, they find it in flames.

Daphne du Maurier hated when people called her novel a romance. She preferred to think of it as a study in jealousy. When I first read it, I appreciated the romantic aspects sprinkled in between a deeply disturbing bittersweet story, and only realized later just how many interpretations there are of the characters’ motivations and actions.

Every adaptation generally follows the novel’s plot, with some changes due to directors’ differing visions. Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, succeeds in creating a dark, distrustful atmosphere. Reportedly, Hitchcock told Joan Fontaine the rest of the cast hated her in order to foster a better performance of an insecure, uncertain young woman. Judith Anderson, with quiet menace, is Mrs. Danvers personified. Hitchcock expands her queer-coded characterization from what is in the novel, and it’s one of the best parts of the film. However, there was one change Hitchcock had to make if he wanted his film to see a wide release: the manner of Rebecca’s death. From 1934 to 1968, the Hays Code censored what could be shown in an American film: Maxim could not murder his wife and get away with it. Therefore, Rebecca’s death is instead an accident, but what’s interesting is that the rest of the plot stays essentially the same. Hitchcock’s Rebecca was made at exactly the right moment, with the perfect director and actors. There is no better adaptation of the novel, though other directors would try different interpretations.

The 1979 miniseries is, for me, the most finished version. Four hours gives enough time for the story to breathe and tell all it needs to. It has all around brilliant casting, including Jeremy Brett, Joanna David, and the incomparable Anna Massey. Brett plays down Maxim’s rude misogynism. Several of his lines are the same as the novel’s, but he manages to spin them in a humorous direction, which is an improvement for his character. Anna Massey’s Mrs. Danvers is aggressive in all the right ways. The miniseries is ultimately a more complete interpretation when compared to Hitchcock.

According to director Ben Wheatley, the 2020 Netflix interpretation is emphatically an adaptation, not a Hitchcock remake. The beautiful cinematography is shown in a long first act as Lily James and Armie Hammer’s characters get swept up in each other. Wheatley makes some bold changes toward the climax, but the outcome doesn’t overtly change. Many people have asked why a new adaptation is necessary, considering the perfection of the Hitchock film, to which I say, why not see what other creators do with the material? Wheatley takes his characters in a romantic direction, something completely alien to any interpretation of Rebecca up to now, including the novel. The narrator personally seeks to save her husband’s life by driving up to London herself to find the doctor Rebecca went to see the day she died. Ultimately, it ends the same way, but the second Mrs. de Winter has a darkened sense of self as someone who has been changed by her choices and experiences.

Rebecca is, ultimately, the story of two dysfunctional people who struggle to communicate in their untested marriage. It’s the story of a man who would do anything, including murder, to protect his name and home, and that of a woman who slowly takes her identity back from the ashes of the dead. Daphne du Maurier was a woman living in a place she hated for the sake of her husband’s career, and she wrote a novel that brings deceit and jealousy to the fore. There might even be some love in there, but it all depends on your interpretation.