Why would anyone think they could outdo Hitchcock?
Rebecca is a 1938 Gothic novel written by Daphne du Maurier. It focuses on the plight of a young, nameless woman who marries a widower who can’t escape the memory of his first wife, Rebecca. This book has been adapted many times, including by Sir Alfred Hitchcock in 1940, which won two Oscars. It was also remade by Ben Wheatley and stars Lily James and Armie Hammer. This version was released last week on Netflix.
I haven’t yet read the novel, but watching these two versions of this tale made me want to. It has definitely moved up on my to-read list. The characters are intriguing and the plot surprising. How brilliant is it that the dead wife is the titular character, not the new, nameless bride? We’re already haunted by her presence even before the novel (or film) starts. Well done Daphne du Maurier!
I watched the 2020 version of Rebecca first, knowing little about the story itself. And I was incredibly unimpressed. The only really great part of the film is Kristin Scott Thomas’s performance as Mrs. Danvers. Though Lily James and Armie Hammer play the most prominent characters, they really didn’t bring much to the film. Lily James looks the part of the second Mrs. de Winter, but I really struggled with her character. It felt as though they tried to make her more modern by giving her more agency but the end result wasn’t a positive one. Armie Hammer played Maxim de Winter, but somehow, was incredibly bland; I couldn’t believe that Max had or was capable of the temper a few characters reference throughout the film. Worse still, this version of Rebecca focused heavily on the romance between these two characters, but there was little chemistry between them.
After being underwhelmed with this iteration of the film, I sought out the 1940 film, which I found to be much more riveting. Joan Fontaine is perfect as the nameless, timid Mrs. de Winter. She is fearful, nervous, and clearly much younger than her husband Max (Laurence Olivier). Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) is impressively eerie throughout — she randomly appears in rooms, seems to glide when she walks, and rarely blinks. The additional time we spend with Mrs. Danvers and her rival helps give us more context to her actions at the end of the film.
Hitchcock, of course, was the master of suspense, so it’s probably unfair to compare the two, but I’m going to compare them anyway.
If you haven’t seen either film and you don’t want the differences in either plot spoiled, please go watch them before reading any further. You’ve been warned.
One of the most noticeable differences between the two is in the writing and the pacing of the films. Small creative choices were made by Wheatley to differentiate his film from Hitchcock’s. Because I haven’t yet read the book, I’m not sure if he was staying more true to the source material or if he was making his own creative decisions. Either way, many of the changes didn’t work for me. Sorry, Ben Wheatley!
The Young, Nameless Woman
While watching the 2020 version of Rebecca, I wondered if the writers mistook young and naive for stupid and shallow. At one point, the second Mrs. de Winter asks Frank, Max’s lawyer and confidant, about his first wife, Rebecca. She builds up to her big question, which is: “Was Rebecca beautiful?”
I was so disappointed that that was the question she was dying to ask this man. So much of the film focuses on how beautiful Rebecca was and how this young woman didn’t measure up — this caused me to think she was just vain and insecure. While they did focus on the character traits held by each woman, all of the characters kept returning again and again to each woman’s superficial characteristics.
In the 1940 version, the nameless woman phrases the question as “What was Mrs. de Winter really like?” Frank then responds with the same line, saying that Rebecca was the most gorgeous creature he had ever seen. Of course, this was much to the second Mrs. de Winter’s chagrin.
I know this is a small difference — it’s just a few words in one line — but to me, it made a large impact. In the Hitchcock version, the protagonist is very clearly trying to adapt to a situation that she is ill-suited for. She knows that she’s plain, but that’s not the most important thing, something other characters remind her of.
After this question, Frank offers encouragement and affirmation about the young woman’s character, something that’s lacking in Wheatley’s film. Frank says that kindness, meekness, and modesty are the traits a man truly longs for in a wife. I really didn’t expect that level of tenderness from this film. Though the film is titled Rebecca, the second Mrs. de Winter does have people in her corner who are affirming her value after she has been devalued for so long.
Because it’s 2020, this nameless woman has been given far more agency than in the 1940 film. Sadly, I don’t think her gusto worked in every situation.
In the newest iteration, the young woman finds the vital piece of information about Rebecca at the end of the film. She ventures off to London on her own to do some good old fashioned sleuthing. I really wanted to like this particular moment, because it was one of the most suspenseful scenes of the film, but it simply felt unusual and out of character.
I struggled to believe that this girl who had been too afraid to fess up to breaking a figurine, was going to break into a doctor’s office and solve the mystery. When she and Max first begin their romance, the film makes it clear that this young woman wants a life of adventure, but even with that, I couldn’t make the leap from an adventurous young girl to an evidence-stealing sleuth.
In the Hitchcock version, Max, Frank, and Favell accompany the inspector to the doctor’s office and uncover the truth together. To me, this makes much more sense for the story, the characters, and the time in which this story was set. Not only that, it leads more smoothly into the final events of the film and builds up far more suspense.
Both films follow the same basic arc: Max fancies this young nobody, they hastily get married and move to Manderley together. Then Max reveals his secret to her about Rebecca and she chooses to stand by him before everything goes up in flames.
But the particulars of this romantic evolution are important. A lot of time is spent in the 2020 film on their whirlwind romance. It’s clear that Max is wounded and closed off, but they clearly like each other and are physically intimate with each other early on. Then the heat between them tapers off as they adjust to married life. Even after Max’s admission of his guilt, they are more emotionally intimate, but we don’t see a significant physical change between the two.
In the 1940 film, we see the polar opposite. Sure, the couple spends time together before they are married, but there is little physical interaction between the two. Even after they are married, they hug or he may kiss her on the forehead or cheek, but that’s the extent of their physical connection. It’s only after he admits to her everything that happened with Rebecca and she stands by him that we see them kissing. In fact, after that moment, their relationship seemed to very clearly grow stronger.
Honestly, I really didn’t think much of their romance in the 2020 film until I saw the 1940 version. That was one of those moments where, while watching, I said aloud “Yeah, that’s better.” It made perfect sense to me that these two would grow more physically intimate with each other after they had become more emotionally intimate. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I think a young, naive girl probably wouldn’t feel comfortable with her husband physically when she felt a Rebecca-shaped gulf between them.
In both films, I have to say that Mrs. Danvers was the star. Both Kristin Scott Thomas and Judith Anderson were perfectly sinister. I believed their devotion to the dear deceased — their respective films really benefitted from all the heavy-lifting they did. Sadly, I think the 2020 script did a disservice to Kristin Scott Thomas’s truly impressive performance.
One of the subtle changes between the two films that I think was significant was when Mrs. Danvers catches the second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca’s room. In both films, Mrs. Danvers launches into a truly menacing monologue comparing the young woman to Rebecca. It’s made clear that Mrs. Danvers has loved Rebecca from a young age and will not be replaced.
In both films, she picks up Rebecca’s hairbrush that was still sitting on the nightstand and invites the second Mrs. de Winter to sit down. In the 2020 version, Mrs. Danvers picks up the brush and brushes the young woman’s hair, at one point rather roughly. Kristin Scott Thomas really stole this scene and sold it — but I struggled to believe Mrs. Danvers would feel comfortable with this newcomer invading her shrine to Rebecca.
In the 1940 version, Mrs. Danvers pretends to brush the young woman’s hair. To me, this choice makes so much more sense. If Mrs. Danvers truly loved and was as devoted to Rebecca as she describes, she wouldn’t dare desecrate something that had belonged to her on this young woman.
Her worshipful reverence toward Rebecca sets the stage for her final actions in the film. Of course she would take her life and take Manderley with her — if Rebecca couldn’t have Manderley, then no one could. She wasn’t about to have Rebecca’s legacy spoiled by someone she perceived to be less than worthy.
The Final Act
The endings of these two films also differ greatly. I have read that the 2020 version is closer to the ending of the book, but I don’t know if that was the best choice creatively. The novel had to end with Mrs. de Winter seeing the burning house because she was the narrator — her stumbling upon it is probably very suspenseful, especially if she has a bad feeling as they’re coming up the drive. However, in a film, you have much more creative control and I think this newer version of the movie squandered the opportunity to carry the suspense.
The 1940 film understood the importance of continuing to build off of the suspense of the previous scenes. The small change of Mrs. de Winter being back at Manderley made Max’s approaching the mansion engulfed in flames all the more suspenseful. Maxim is clearly terrified, worried about the fate of his wife. Our not knowing her fate makes the entire scene even more tense.
The Bigger Picture
Sometimes, art is created simply for the sake of making art, but not always. For me, Rebecca seems like it should be trying to say something. There are themes of grief, love, perception, and relationships. I imagine that the book dives even more deeply into some of these themes and has a lot to say about the world as a whole.
The 2020 version of Rebecca somehow managed to water-down many of these themes. Sadly, I really didn’t feel the stakes of the film. This unknown protagonist is a woman of no means — she has no money and no family — so she has little hope of climbing out of the class she was born into. While the film mentions this fact a few times, it doesn’t make a big deal out of it. Throughout most of the movie, I just thought that she was an awkward, slightly poorer introvert. While she didn’t go to all of the best schools or have a ton of money, I didn’t see her as coming from a different world than Max. I wasn’t painfully aware of the societal gulf between them.
The 1940 film really highlights the differences between the two. Not only is this nameless woman far younger than Max, she really has no right to become Mrs. de Winter. This is mentioned in the beginning with Mrs. Van Hopper and is reiterated by nearly everyone else the young woman interacts with. Because the woman lacks so much confidence in her position as “lady of the house,” this distance between her and Max stayed at the forefront of my mind. Even Mrs. Danvers sees herself as of a higher class than this young girl — she’s more poised, more professional, more sure-footed — and she uses that against her at every turn.
And, of course, there’s Rebecca. I would be remiss if we didn’t talk about this important titular character.
I found the movie to be more forceful when they just mention Rebecca but we never see her. And maybe this is because Hitchcock was the master of suspense, but Rebecca’s presence is clearly felt in nearly every scene. She is the pall that hangs over Manderley. She haunts Maxim and is worshipped by Mrs. Danvers — we can’t escape her if we tried.
But Wheatley’s film shows us glimpses of her. I wasn’t sure if the young woman was slowly going mad or if there was truly a spectral presence in the house. Instead of setting the mood of her presence, this film chooses to show her in dream sequences. Though Rebecca is consistently praised throughout the film, I didn’t feel her impact like I did in Hitchcock’s film. I didn’t perceive the gaping hole she had left in Maxim’s life, Manderley, and their social circle.
One final thought: I was more impressed by the Manderley in Hitchcock’s film than I was in Wheatley’s. This truly shocked me. Though this updated version was in full color and was clearly a gorgeous house, it didn’t feel as expansive or other-worldly as in the 1940 film. While I felt like I would need a map to make my way through the 2020 Manderley, I felt like I was trapped in a terrifying maze in Hitchcock’s. I was aware of the scale of the rooms and the utter emptiness found therein. I truly felt like I was in a haunted house, whereas the Netflix film just made me think the young woman was having a bit of a rough time adjusting to a far larger house.
After all that, what else is there left to say?
Honestly, Wheatley’s Rebecca isn’t awful, it’s just a shame that this same story was made by one of the greatest directors of all time. This new version never really stood a chance because it was always going to be compared with an Oscar-winning film. While strategic changes were made to the film, it wasn’t different enough to avoid that comparison and all the criticism. I also think that the attempt at trying to make a female character more relevant and relatable ended up making the story as a whole less impactful.
Nice try Netflix. Better luck next time.
Fun fact: The first time I heard of Rebecca was a song by Meg and Dia that tells a portion of the story. Listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBa8DzpHsYY.