Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier’s most famous novel, endures not just because it has proven endlessly adaptable—as a play, for radio, on television, as the Alfred Hitchcock-directed winner of the Best Picture Oscar in 1941, and a new Netflix film released nearly 80 years later. The story of Rebecca taps into a near-universal insecurity: the fear of never being enough, never living up to those around us. Practically everyone has a superlative contemporary who’s plagued them in the past, be it an excelling older sibling, a competitive classmate, an ambitious colleague. Or, most painfully and in the case of Rebecca, your partner’s apparently perfect lost love.
Du Maurier’s Rebecca is an enveloping, possessing read; it has never gone out of print since its publication in 1938. It’s the tale of a young, poor woman abroad who gets swept off her feet by the dashing Maxim DeWinter and taken back to his palatial English estate at Manderley, a fictional setting still as famous as Tara or the Death Star. There, she finds reminders of his late first wife everywhere, stoked by the strange housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, whose love for the dead Rebecca borders on the obsessive. Tellingly, the second Mrs. DeWinter doesn’t even receive a name in the novel beyond “the second Mrs. DeWinter,” while the whole book is named Rebecca, the moniker seeming to appear on just about every page. The young woman tries and fails to imitate her husband’s dead wife, who she fears he’s still in love with.
The author brilliantly throws a fate-altering plot twist at her protagonist about three-fourths of the way in. Good news: Your husband is not still in love with his dead first wife—in fact, he hated her! Bad news: Whoops, he may have killed her. Rebecca’s presence still has such a strong effect on the lives of the book’s characters that at times it seems equally plausible that Rebecca is actually a witch, demon, or ghost. But du Maurier—just as she did in many of her other works, like her short story “The Birds,” which was also adapted by Hitchcock—offers us a non-supernatural ghost story with Rebecca, showing the grip the dead can have on us, if we let them.
Du Marier’s Rebecca is more compelling than Hitchcock’s or the latest iteration, from Ben Wheatley, because of the second Mrs. DeWinter’s engaging first-person narration. Instead of flailing about in her insecurities, she is charmingly self-deprecating, so that we actually get a glimpse of what Maxim may see in her. She’s even funny, a trait we long to spy in her onscreen version: When a visitor discusses Mrs. DeWinter’s penchant for sketching as “a little talent,” she notes inwardly that “it sounded like a pet disease.” When Maxim’s boisterous sister, Bea, describes the elaborate games of charades her family plays during the holidays, our narrator ponders, “I had an uneasy feeling we might be asked to spend the approaching Christmas with Beatrice. Perhaps I could have influenza.” Plus, du Maurier’s descriptions, especially of the Manderley landscape, are downright poetic:
The sea would look like slate, cold still from the long winter, and from the terrace you could hear the ripple of the coming tide washing in the little bay. The daffodils were in bloom, stirring in the evening breeze, golden heads cupped upon lean stalks, and however many you might pick there would be no thinning of the ranks, they were massed like an army, shoulder to shoulder.
Maybe that’s why Hitchcock’s film adheres so closely to the book, right down to direct quotations. Nobody would mess with a first line as perfect as “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” or Maxim’s witty response to Mrs. Edythe Van Hopper, his future wife’s about-to-be former employer. When she spouts, “Most girls would give their eyes for the chance to see Monte!,” he replies, “Wouldn’t that rather defeat the purpose?” And the original text provided one of the most dismissive proposals in cinematic history: “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.”
Despite Rebecca’s English setting, the film marked Hitchcock’s transition from his earlier, U.K.-made work like The 39 Steps and Jamaica Inn (based on another du Maurier novel, this one about an island full of pirates) to his contract with American producer David O. Selznick. Now that Hitchcock had a big Hollywood budget to work with, the former art director took full advantage, using miniatures and matte painting to bring the palatial estate to life. The film notably marked a Hitchcock film’s only Best Picture win at the Oscars; it also, unsurprisingly, took home the prize for Best Cinematography, Black-And-White. Like du Maurier, the director was able to discern the gothic spookiness inherent in a large English estate. Thanks to the long shadows and backlit actors, 1940’s Rebecca switches genres from a (weak) love story to a ghost story early on and stays there.
Unfortunately, Rebecca should ideally be a mystery shrouded in a love story, and with its two lead actors, Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, the romance never rings true. It could be because Olivier wanted his soon-to-be-wife, Vivien Leigh, in the part of the second Mrs. DeWinter—though she would have been terribly miscast. (If the dynamic Leigh resembled any of Rebecca’s characters, it was Rebecca herself.) Olivier’s Maxim can barely hide his near-constant irritation with his much younger new bride (in the book, a few decades separate the pair, while Olivier and Joan Fontaine were only 10 years apart). He frequently refers to her as a child, cautioning her to eat her breakfast and to stop biting her nails in a creepy, paternalistic manner. Granted, Fontaine’s passive performance doesn’t offer him much, so when the marriage appears to fall apart almost immediately, it’s not a surprise, Rebecca or no. Fontaine grants the part a little more backbone toward the end, but that hapless washcloth delivery appeared to work for her: She won the Oscar the following year for playing a similarly clueless wife in Hitchcock’s Suspicion, opposite a more engaged (but equally sinister) Cary Grant.
In the production notes for Netflix’s new Rebecca, producer Eric Fellner calls the film “a new adaptation of the novel, not a remake,” listing the project’s strengths: “a strong female lead, great period setting and a fantastic literary pedigree.” Director Ben Wheatley (High Rise, Kill List) admits that the production was “a bit outside of my wheelhouse. But then, I’ve got a general plan with stuff where the more extremely unlikely a project seems, the more likely I am to look at it.” Where Hitchcock captured long shadows perfect for his black-and-white palette, Wheatley tacks on dark elements like Maxim sleepwalking, or a nightmare sequence in which Mrs. DeWinter gets ensnared by vines within the house.
Far more successful than those awkward insertions is the fact that the 2020 version gives us a more worthwhile courtship for Maxim and his second wife, now closer in age, removing that painful paternal element. While Fontaine’s chatter only offers us a single story of her father painting the same tree over and over, Lily James’ Mrs. DeWinter is full of fascinating factoids. Fontaine’s and Olivier’s characters first meet as he appears to be considering jumping off a cliff in Monte Carlo; James and Armie Hammer have a much better meet-cute, and their physical attraction is quickly established. The scenes shot in Monte Carlo all have a sunny, yellow cast (often reflected in the characters’ wardrobes), so that the dark bleakness of Manderley comes as a grave shock. Similarly, Hammer’s Maxim is so delightful at the beginning of the film that his turn to tortured when he goes back to his homestead reads as a more dramatic personality shift. Olivier appears to be mildly cranky throughout Rebecca, basically reprising all the growling, grimacing tricks he used as Heathcliff in 1939’s Wuthering Heights.
But Rebecca’s main characters pale next to the story’s true star: Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper who remains as devoted to Rebecca in her death as she was in life. The book and the 2020 version give us more of her backstory, revealing that she’s been with Rebecca since she was a child, wrapping much older men around her little finger even then. Mrs. Danvers unnerves the new lady of the house so much that when she breaks a figurine in the drawing room, she’s afraid to confess it, resulting in a servant being blamed; the new Mrs. DeWinter can’t even pick out a sauce for the veal on the daily menu, while Mrs. Danvers notes that her predecessor “was very particular about her sauces.” While Dame Judith Anderson is hard to equal in her depiction of Mrs. Danvers’ unsmiling, placid menace, a tightly wound Kristin Scott Thomas comes close, her frequent exasperation with the inexperienced young woman who will never live up to her beloved Rebecca painfully obvious. Mrs. Danvers was clearly in love with Rebecca, dismissing all the men in her life as mere playthings that she toyed with, pointing out that Rebecca was so strong that she could only have been killed by the sea.
Mrs. Danvers is responsible for two of Rebecca’s most unsettling scenes: first when the second Mrs. DeWinter wanders into the vaunted west wing, where Rebecca’s rooms remain untouched, right down to an unwashed negligee caressed by the housekeeper (a detail that raised red flags for the enforcers of the then-all-powerful Motion Picture Production Code). Mrs. Danvers is so stern and expressionless before this point in the film that the way she brightens by being surrounded by her dead mistress’ things is harrowing. It’s then that Mrs. Danvers posits her theory that everyone in the house is being viewed by Rebecca: “Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?” Fontaine’s Mrs. DeWinter can only scurry away to relative safely, a scene palely mimicked in the 2020 version.
Mrs. Danver’s ultimate triumph is when she convinces the blindly trusting Mrs. DeWinter to wear the same ensemble that Rebecca wore the previous year at the Manderley costume ball, a re-creation of a painting of a DeWinter ancestor—resulting in an enraged reaction from Maxim. In the 1940 film’s most famous scene, a distraught Mrs. DeWinter confronts Mrs. Danvers, who tries to encourage the poor, friendless young bride to leap from a window and meet her fate, like Rebecca before her, in the water below: “Go ahead. Jump. He never loved you, so why go on living? Jump and it will all be over…”
For the 2020 version, Mrs. DeWinter’s humiliation is only compounded as she changes out of the costume into a frock that looks like a nightgown (one guest compliments her on looking so comfortable) and meekly wanders around the increasingly more menacing party (unsubtly, the crowd starts chanting “Rebecca” at her, resulting in a hallucinatory effect). As in the book, her showdown with Mrs. Danvers arrives the next day, but again is interrupted by another huge revelation: the discovery of Rebecca’s body in a sunken boat in the bay.
Maxim becomes undone by this, and soon the truth is revealed: He actually hated Rebecca, and he’s the one who put her body in the boat. How she got there is illustrative of the era of each of the cinematic adaptations. Hitchcock’s hands were tied once more by the Production Code Administration, which objected to Olivier’s Maxim getting off “scot free” for his wife’s murder. Instead, Maxim and Rebecca argue in her seaside cottage, he strikes her, and she dies by hitting her head on some boating gear. In 2020, Maxim shoots Rebecca right through the heart, just as du Maurier wrote it.
Rebecca wasn’t the perfect woman, but in fact evil and corrupt, a fact that relieves the new Mrs. DeWinter of her insecurities. When it comes to the profound effect of this information, du Maurier has the advantage, her first-person narration allowing the heroine to explain that she can barely focus on what her husband is saying, as she is so overcome with joy about not losing him to a ghost. Poor Joan Fontaine had to interpret this somehow, resulting in a dazed, smiling expression and a reading of “You don’t love Rebecca” that makes her appear as if she’d just been hit in the head with a shovel. Wheatley’s version is more sinister, punctuated by the dark amber shadows in the boathouse and James’ spirited Mrs. DeWinter immediately hatching a plan to save Maxim from a murder charge.
What follows Maxim’s big “Why I hated Rebecca” speech in the book and the 1940 film is anticlimactic: an exploratory inquest, suspicions of an extramarital pregnancy, the revelation that Rebecca was terminally ill lending plausibility to the ruling that she died by suicide. Wheatley plays up this part of the story, ratcheting the tension with Maxim in jail and a determined Mrs. DeWinter racing to a doctor’s office to swipe the evidence of Rebecca’s condition for herself. But even with that added, unnecessary drama, the truth that the DeWinters keep to themselves remains the same: The first Mrs. DeWinter, facing a brief, agonizing decline, goaded her husband into murder—the last cruel act in a life filled with them.
There’s greater variety in the interpretations of what happens next. In the book, the fate of Mrs. Danvers is nebulous (the narrator wonders where she is today); a burning Manderley greets the DeWinters when they arrive home, and we are left to speculate why. Hitchcock wisely provided some answers: Upon hearing that Maxim was to be acquitted, Mrs. Danvers burns the whole place to the ground. The final images are chilling: the housekeeper trapped in a fiery grave of her own making, flames curling around the “R” on Rebecca’s old coverlet—the power she had over her husband and his new wife is no more. Wheatley, unfortunately, ups the camp: A cliffside encounter between Mrs. DeWinter and Mrs. Danvers ends with the arsonist walking off the edge and into the waters she once urged Mrs. DeWinter to drown herself in.
The middle of the 2020 Rebecca is a bit of a muddle—its best moments are at the beginning and the end, showcasing the romance that encases the film’s mystery. In its final scene, it puts a fresh spin on a classic du Maurier line, this one from Maxim to his bride: “‘It’s gone forever, that funny young, lost look I loved… I killed that when I told you about Rebecca.’” In a steamy room in Cairo—a departure from the novel’s modest European hotel—we see the new Mrs. DeWinter altogether changed: smoking, seductive. The film ends with her glance, straight into the camera, that seems wholly Rebecca-like—an image even more unsettling than the flaming embers of Manderley. While far from out-and-out successful, Wheatley’s Rebecca does manage to find some new possibilities in unexplored corners of a story that continues to resonate. Ironically, the new film has the same problem that the second Mrs. DeWinter did: failing to live up to the impossibly high standards set by a predecessor.