“Rebecca”: One Book, Two Films

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.

No smoke came from the chimney, and the little lattice windows gaped forlorn. Then, like all dreamers, I was possessed of a sudden with supernatural powers and passed like a spirit through the barrier before me. The drive wound away in front of me, twisting and turning as it had always done, but as I advanced I was aware that a change had come upon it; it was narrow and unkept, not the drive that we had known…

Moonlight can play odd tricks upon the fancy, even upon a dreamer’s fancy. As I stood there, hushed and still, I could swear that the house was not an empty shell but lived and breathed as it had lived before…

When I thought of Manderley in my waking hours I would not be bitter. I should think of it as it might have been, could I have lived there without fear. I should remember the rose-garden in summer, and the birds that sang at dawn. Tea under the chestnut tree, and the murmur of the sea coming up to us from the lawns below.

“Rebecca,” by Daphne du Maurier, Chapter 1.

These are the opening lines of “Rebecca,” the 1938 novel by Daphne du Maurier. It was one of my late aunt’s favorite books. I have her original copy, published by Victor Gollancz, with her name and date in it (9th January, 1940). It has been sadly attacked by insects, as so often happens in our part of the world; I am going to try to get it restored.

1940 was the year in which the first film was made of the novel, starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. You can watch it on YouTube. It won two Oscars. This year, a new film has been streamed on Netflix, starring Armie Hammer, Lily James and (thank God) Kristin Scott Thomas. The first film was directed by the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock; the second by Ben Wheatley, whose resumé does not really impress me. Hitchcock, by the way, directed du Maurier’s “The Birds” and “Jamaica Inn.”

Daphne du Maurier at her desk. (Photo: Hans Wild/Getty Images)

I loved the book (a second reading); and the 1940 film was far superior, in my view, to the Netflix version. I read/watched all three very recently. And I have to agree with the New York Times on the latest effort: “Who thought this was a good idea?” Their review is quite scathing, and the New Yorker‘s even more damning. I agree with the latter also: Du Maurier’s story deserves better.

Du Maurier was a great storyteller. This story was written at an unhappy period in her life, when she was living with her husband, a military man who was posted to Egypt. She was extremely homesick for her beloved Cornwall (the setting of most of her novels) in south-west England, with its wild seacoast and lush landscapes (it has a mild climate). The book was published when she was just thirty years old.

Mrs. De Winter (Joan Fontaine) is haunted by the ghost of Rebecca (no – it’s not a ghost story!) Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) is also haunted, in a different way.

I first read the book many years ago – as it was sold to me and other readers, as a “gothic romance.” To my surprise, I found it much darker than that, the second time around. The narrator (whose name we do not know), married on an impulse to the mysterious Maxim de Winter, dragged me painfully through her internal struggles, her waves of denial and self-denigration, and…her anger. I hadn’t realized what an angry book it was. The reader gets pulled into Mrs. de Winter’s emotional twists and turns, her imaginings of the past, and her pathetic attempts to understand the words and actions of others in the context of her own perceived inadequacies. The reader gets to hang around in her daydreams. Eventually, “We deserved better!” the unhappy couple seems to cry, tied in a knot largely of their own making.

And Rebecca? She just laughs, into eternity.

The Hitchcock film emphasizes the darkness. Of course, he was a master at black and white shadows and sudden, sharp profiles. The swirling fog on the night of a shipwreck; the candlelight illuminating Mrs. Danvers’ long, pale face as she walks through the west wing of the house; the stark silhouette of a staircase on the wall. At one point, the camera pans slowly, almost sadly, round Rebecca’s bedroom, as if through a whispering veil. Curtains billow.

The sultry Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter, who knows how to keep a secret or two.

The acting in the 1940 film is far superior to the Netflix version, also. Mr. de Winter is suitably austere, with some grey hairs, and his brooding, distant look is…well, it’s Laurence Olivier, a Shakespearean actor of repute. Joan Fontaine also does a good job of looking deeply confused and out of her depth, her emotions flitting across her face and disappearing as she tries to say and do the right thing – usually unsuccessfully. She lives through other people’s stories, and it is exhausting. She is what my aunt might have called “a bag of nerves.” She is also of the wrong class, and suddenly “Lady of the Manor,” very much in the shadow of her predecessor – the first Mrs. de Winter, whose beautifully monogrammed possessions she finds all over the house.

Setting aside the almost non-stop background music in the 1940 version, and the strangely clipped pronunciation of words that were features of acting at the time – give me Laurence and Joan, any time. They had a whole heap of charisma and complicated emotions, between them. Besides, much of the dialogue is taken directly from the book, and therefore rings true.

In this year’s version, Lily James seems just a little scatty most of the time. Kristin Scott Thomas portrays the tortured, grieving housekeeper Mrs. Danvers very well, however – although I feel she smiles too much. The Australian-born actress Judith Anderson gave an Oscar-nominated performance in the first film, with her startlingly black, luminous eyes and her taut figure, seemingly inhabiting every hallway and corner.

Kristin Scott Thomas looms over Lily James in the Netflix version of “Rebecca.

One critical aspect of the book is that there is quite a large age difference between Maxim and his “young bride.” This is completely lost in the Netflix version, in which Mr. Hammer looks too young and rather lost, rather than brooding. In fact, the relationship between the two newly-weds is supposed to be more like father and daughter than lovers. Maxim often tells his wife things like: “It’s a pity you have to grow up.” In the Netflix version, they have far too much sex and sleep in the same bed; in the book (and the first film) there is hardly an inkling of sex and it is mentioned several times that they slept in separate beds. However, the subtle sexual undertones of the book are quite lost in the films (especially the latter one); there is more than a hint of eroticism in the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers’ obsession with her former mistress. The Maxim character (almost parental) likely reflects the author’s dominating father. Daphne du Maurier was bisexual. None of these possible psychological themes were explored in any way in the Netflix version. It just hops and skips through the story to the end.

Armie Hammer doesn’t do too well with his British accent in some of these scenes.

But then, this is Netflix; keep it light and glossy. The costumes, the settings look lovely. The house itself is not the dominant, living breathing creature it should be, however, despite the lovely rooms, the flowers, the minstrel’s gallery. For some reason, a white fancy dress costume becomes a red one (just as in the first film, the house of Rebecca’s doctor is transplanted to Shepherd’s Bush, rather than Barnet). Some decisions by filmmakers are hard to fathom, but for some reason I always notice these details.

Also, no one has tea in the Netflix version; in the book, afternoon tea, usually a lonely affair for Mrs. de W, is a ritual that punctuates her days, with sandwiches, scones, crumpets, two kinds of cake. That’s right: it’s not British enough, and despite the lovely dresses etc., it doesn’t have the “old-fashioned” feel of that period.

One thing I noted was not captured in either of the films: Manderley and its grounds, sweeping down to the sea and up to the house. The book truly has a sense of place – outdoors as much as inside the house of secrets.

“There,” said Maxim suddenly, “Take a look at that.”

We stood on a slope of a wooded hill, and the path wound away before us to a valley, by the side of a running stream. There were no dark trees here, no tangled undergrowth, but on either side of the narrow path stood azaleas and rhododendrons, not blood-coloured like the giants in the drive, but salmon, white, and gold, things of beauty and grace, drooping their lovely, delicate heads in the soft summer rain.

“We call it the Happy Valley,” he said.

“Rebecca,” by Daphne du Maurier, Chapter 10.

One thought on ““Rebecca”: One Book, Two Films

  1. Rebecca is one of my all-time favorite books; I read my worn copy about every four or so years and never get tired of it. If I open the book and read that opening paragraph, I’m useless until I reach the end. Thank you for this wonderful review, the movie link, and the feedback about the newest version…

    You have been very prolific – wow, so many amazing posts. Loved the complete UN Sec/General’s speech .. and the yoga post as well! You’re a wonder woman!


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