‘Rebecca’ Is a Story Worth-Revisiting And Netflix's Adaptation Makes It Anew
Ben Wheatley’s adaptation takes on the challenge of bringing justice to Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 gothic romance
When Rebecca was published in 1938, it was an “immediate and overwhelming commercial success,” said Sally Beauman. This catapulted its author, Daphne du Maurier, into further fame and acclaim. Two years later, Alfred Hitchcock directed a film adaptation of the novel, starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, winning Best Picture and Best Cinematography at the 13th Academy Awards the following year. Since then, Rebecca has become a literary classic, spawning even more adaptations across various mediums: television, theatre, radio, and even opera.
The pressure on Ben Wheatley’s 2020 adaptation, then, is enormous. Starring Lily James, Armie Hammer, and Kristin Scott Thomas, this new iteration of Rebecca doesn’t diverge much from the general plot of the novel: a naïve and timid young woman marries Maxim de Winter after a whirlwind romance in the South of France, and returns with him to his ancestral home, Manderley. There, she is haunted by the memory of his late wife, Rebecca de Winter, and hounded by the sinister antics of Manderley’s caretaker, Mrs. Danvers.
The book’s narrator and heroine is unable to escape the heavy, overbearing effect that her predecessor still holds over the residents of Manderley. Rebecca is a ghost in every sense of the word, tormenting our protagonist in her sleep and even in her waking hours. A new version of Rebecca could’ve worked; there’s nothing inherently wrong with the film, after all. But compared to its vivid, brilliant source material, it just feels dull and diluted.
Lily James tries her best as Mrs. de Winter, but she never fully captures the audience’s sympathy, even at her character’s highest, most captivating moment. But it’s hard to fault her, especially since her Mrs. de Winter is such an interior character—the book allows for the reader to identify with Mrs. de Winter, with all her thoughts and soul laid bare. The film further suffocates an already-suffocated Mrs. de Winter, finding herself in that position through no fault of her own.
Armie Hammer as Maxim de Winter, on the other hand, is far from the charming, dapper Englishman readers have come to know in the novel; he doesn’t feel tortured—he only feels bored. But in this mostly unremarkable adaptation, one figure remains absolutely sublime: Rebecca’s cold, manipulative, diabolical handmaid, Mrs. Danvers, played by the illustrious Kristin Scott Thomas. In each of her scenes, she gives Danvers her due: a role so known and iconic throughout history, that even Scott Thomas herself was dying to play.
As Danvers, Scott Thomas is alluring and magnetic, and irresistibly queer. Throughout the novel’s history, critics tend to agree on a queer reading of Danvers, and while Scott Thomas admits that she wasn’t going in any particular direction in her portrayal of Danvers, she said, “I didn’t lean into it. It is there if you want it. She is who she is,” adding that Danvers indeed has a “pent-up amount of love and physicality that she needs to get out of her body.”
In Rebecca, Scott Thomas takes all that is pent-up in Danvers, all that love and that physicality, and transforms it into something menacingly cold and nefarious, and it is absolutely enchanting to watch. She makes Danvers hers, and makes sure anyone who is watching pays attention to her, and her alone.
It’s difficult not to compare Wheatley’s Rebecca to du Maurier’s. The themes of the novel are present and unambiguous—society’s expectations of women, jealousy and toxicity in relationships, class struggle, and power imbalances—and thankfully so, because it’s an exciting thought to have an entirely new generation of audiences, especially young women, encounter these ideas. But the bigger themes that make Rebecca breathtakingly beautiful and important, like one character’s inevitable rebellion and vengefulness against a stifling society where women like her do not fit.
In the end, Rebecca isn’t a bad film; it’s just not packed with the kind of seductiveness and substance that befits the source material and, most of all, its eponymous, haunting mistress. In a way, Rebecca has become its own Mrs. de Winter.
Photos from Netflix