Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again,” recites Lily James, as she becomes the fifteenth actress to play the second Mrs. de Winter on screen. Netflix’s 2020 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel, Rebecca, is the latest in a multitude of film and television versions. Rebecca as a novel, classic Hitchcock film, play and many television series has made quite an impact on pop culture.
Rebecca The Novel
Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca was first published in 1938. The thriller is the story of a young, unnamed woman who marries a wealthy widower after only knowing him for two weeks. The 42-year-old Maxim de Winter takes her back to his beloved mansion, Manderly, in the countryside of Cornwall, England. There, she discovers that the mysterious death of his late wife, Rebecca, haunts the mansion, staff and Mr. de Winter himself. Head of the mansion’s staff is the sinister Mrs. Danvers, who constantly compares the young wife to how beautiful and accomplished Rebecca was. Rececca’s strange presence at Manderly creeps into the second Mrs. de Winter’s head and drives her to believe that her husband is still in love with his late wife. It is later revealed that Rebecca goaded Maxim into killing her by telling him she was pregnant with another man’s child. Maxim stages a suicide, sinking Rebecca’s boat with her body inside. When an inquiry is made into her death, her doctor tells the police that she was not pregnant, but had cancer that metastasized beyond hope. The police believe that Rebecca committed suicide, but Mrs. Danvers burns Manderly to the ground in protest.
Rebecca was a hit as soon as it was published. Despite lukewarm reviews by critics, it quickly outsold expectations and became a classic thriller. Du Maurier won the award for favorite novel in the US from the American Booksellers Association in 1938, and Rebecca was named the UK’s favorite book of the past 225 years in 2017. The lasting impact of the story has seen the novel translated into many different languages and republished until 1994. It was last adapted for television as a miniseries in 1997, and for film in 2020. The newest Netflix version has introduced a new generation to the story of Rebecca, but the story has been capturing the imagination of filmmakers for decades.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Classic Film
The first film adaptation in 1940 was wildly successful critically and with audiences. Now considered a classic thriller, the Alfred Hitchcock directed film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards. It took home Best Picture and Best Cinematography, the only Hitchcock film to win Best Picture. The film stars Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs. de Winter, Laurence Olivier as Maxim, and Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers. In 2018, the United States National Film Registry selected the film to be preserved by the Library of Congress.
The major differences between the film and the novel are small, but significant. At the time, the Hollywood Production Code would not allow the film to be made if Maxim was not punished for killing Rebecca. Therefore, in the film he tells his wife that he thought about killing Rebecca, but that her death was ultimately accidental. The novel and film also end differently. Although it is implied that Mrs. Danvers burns down Manderly in the novel, the book ends right as Max and his wife see the burning mansion. In the Hitchcock film, Mrs. Danvers is shown inside the burning building looking vengefully out of the window. In the Rebecca zeitgeist, it’s widely accepted that Mrs. Danvers is the one who sets Manderly ablaze. The Hitchcock film ups the gothic tone of the story, and creates a haunting atmosphere that echoes the novel.
Rebecca in 2020
This is perhaps the most significant difference between the Hitchcock film and Ben Wheatley’s 2020 adaptation. The two films deviate in many ways, and in different ways from the novel, but the overall tones are quite different. Wheatley’s 2020 version begins in Monte Carlo, before the future Mrs. de Winter and Maxim have met. It uses the bright, happy setting of the beautiful coastline to contrast the second Mrs. de Winter’s discomfort upon arriving at Manderly. The mansion isn’t particularly gothic, but instead viewers are encouraged to feel the emptiness and vastness of a place that Mrs. de Winter cannot fill. The film feels like a modern thriller, putting the second Mrs. de Winter on more of a journey of gaining confidence and a sense of self.
While the novel begins upon the couple’s arrival at Manderly, the new adaptation of Rebecca shows us the beginning of the second Mrs. de Winter’s courtship with Maxim, played by Armie Hammer. The viewers are introduced to a rather meek and inexperienced girl who is of much lower class and wealth than Maxim de Winter. He takes her under his wing and they begin seeing each other in secret before eloping and heading off to Manderly. The film is fairly faithful to the novel up until the discovery of Rebecca’s boat and her body. The inquiry that takes place into Maxim’s involvement in Rebecca’s death is turned into a full public trial, and the young wife fights to clear Maxim’s name, even though she knows that he did kill Rebecca. The reveal of Rebecca’s cancer is in a tense scene where the wife steals into the doctor’s office during the night, and finds Rebecca’s medical files before the law enforcement.
As with the Hitchcock film before it, the 2020 version of Rebecca changes the ending slightly. Mrs. Danvers is shown setting the fire at Manderly, but escapes the house. The second Mrs. de Winter finds her walking towards the beach on the property, where Mrs. Danvers jumps off a cliff into the ocean. The de Winters are then shown in an apartment in Egypt, where they live happily far away from Manderly, and Rebecca. As to which ending is more poetic, the audience must decide for themselves.
In today’s world of popular female-led thrillers, where does Rebecca fit in? It’s a much more modern story than one would expect. The two female leads, Mrs. de Winter and Mrs. Danvers, carry the story, while the men in their lives, and in Rebecca’s life, stir the story in the background. The main tension in the plot comes from the animosity between Mrs. de Winter and Mrs. Danvers, who try to outsmart each other until the end. And then, of course, there is Rebecca herself. Rebecca orchestrated she and Maxim’s life behind the scenes, cheating on him and keeping secrets about her health. Rebecca presents the audience with strong and complicated female characters, worthy of a place in contemporary pop culture.
After enchanting decades of audiences, the story of Rebecca remains just as thrilling. No doubt Rebecca’s presence will continue to be felt by fans for years to come.