Page & Screen: Rebecca

A semi-regular, ongoing series of posts where I discuss movie adaptations of books, because I love books and I love movies.

It’s always exciting when my book club reading naturally aligns with a film release. Last month the classics book club I attend read Rebecca, the gothic novel by Daphne du Maurier, only to discover that Netflix was releasing a new version of the movie just weeks later. Kismet!

However, we were confused by the trailer, because it didn’t particularly feel like the book we’d read. It looked very… sexy? Passionate? Like it had cast an actor with far too much charisma as its male lead? But marketing teams often seem to play a game of bait-and-switch with movie audiences. Maybe that’s what was happening here.

Having now watched Netflix’s Rebecca, I can report that the trailer oversells the sex appeal. There is very little. However, the movie still gets the story wrong. This version is a romance– something the book is not. And while many good adaptations of older works make changes to speak to a contemporary audience, the choices here render major plot points non-sensical.

Rebecca is the story of a young, unnamed woman who is “swept off her feet” by a much older and wealthier widower. They quickly marry and return to his ancestral estate of Manderley, where the memory of his late wife, Rebecca, still looms large.

Now, while I used the phrase “swept off her feet” in the above description, know that this is very much a one sided feeling in the book. The second Mrs. de Winter (as the protagonist is called; I’ll abbreviate it as MdW2) is quite taken with Max– or at least, she’s taken with the protection and stability he provides her. For his part, Max barely seems to care about his second wife. She’s basically there to keep him company (We weren’t even sure they had consummated their marriage). At one point MdW2 compares herself to one of Max’s dogs as he absentmindedly pets her head. What a dream relationship!

It’s therefore strange to see movie Max (Armie Hammer) acting like he actually loves his new bride. His proposal feels passionate, not overly so, but definitely not the “let’s get hitched, dummy” way it’s portrayed in the book. They frolic through Monte Carlo, kiss on beach, and he playfully carries her over the threshold of Manderley. They’re obviously in love– and much of the plot that follows makes no sense because of it.

Much of the conflict in Rebecca is between MdW2 and Mrs. Danvers, Manderley’s overbearing housekeeper, who worshipped Rebecca. Part of what puts them at odds with one another is that the protagonist never really knows where she stands with her new husband. Mrs. Danvers is able to wield power over her in part because MdW2 fears how her husband might react. But in this movie, the protagonist doesn’t really seem to fear Max at all. They appear to have a loving relationship, one where she could probably confide in him about Mrs. Danvers’ mind games and get her fired.

Then there’s the ending. In order to give MdW2 more agency, they make her central to discovering the secret surrounding Rebecca’s death. This is the least imaginative way of updating the story for a contemporary audience.

In fact, the book as it was written in 1938 already has the seeds of a story that would resonate in 2020. There’s a 20+ year age gap between Max and his young bride that I felt the movie should have leaned into. Make it about that uneven power dynamic and MdW2 questioning her new husband’s motives in marrying her. Make him genuinely frightening and volatile. Trap our protagonist in a claustrophobic Manderley, then have her fight her way out. Just don’t make this a romance.

Book: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (416 pages)
Movie: Rebecca (2020) (2h, 1 min)

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