I assigned myself a few books at the beginning of the year, Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca being one of them. It was . . . how shall I put this? A challenging read.
But I knew I wanted to watch the 1940 adaptation, anyway.
Rebecca won for both Best Picture and Best Cinematography. It is, unfortunately, not one of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock movies.
I won’t spoil the film or novel until the actual Spoiler Section, but I am going to spend quite a bit of this review comparing the two, so, just so you know. I’m not really looking at these things separately, and objectivity be damned.
When a hopelessly naive and annoying timid young woman (Joan Fontaine) marries the older and excessively broody Mr. de Winter (Laurence Olivier), she fears that she’ll never live up to being the kind of woman that his first wife, the late, great Rebecca, was. Wailing and mild suspense ensues.
1. In all honesty, I’m not sure how much I have to say about Rebecca without spoilers. It’s a fairly faithful translation of the novel, up until the last thirty minutes, anyway, where a few things are changed around in order to satisfy that pesky production code. (This both works in the story’s favor and against it, which I’ll discuss in considerably more detail later on.)
Joan Fontaine seems to give a fairly accurate portrayal of our unnamed narrator, which unfortunately doesn’t make me like her any better.
I feel sorry for the second Mrs. de Winter, but she’s still a frustrating character to spend any serious amount of time with. She dissolves into tears easily and refuses to show any kind of backbone for much of the movie. When she finally does seem to grow a spine, well. Let’s just say that it’s for the wrong reasons, for totally appalling, horrifying reasons.
It’s hard to say whether I prefer her in the novel or the film — well, no, I definitely like her better in the film, if only because I don’t have to spend quite so much time dealing with her complete inability to stand up for herself — but I will say the movie version makes it a little harder to understand why she falls so desperately in love with Maxim de Winter in the first place.
Laurence Olivier shows glimmers of charm, here and there — in fact, his perfect little eyebrow raise reminds me of a young Cary Elwes . . . or should that be the other way around — but for the most part, he is grumpy and rude and incredibly unromantic. This is not entirely out of character with the novel version of Maxim (who basically makes fun of our narrator for hoping for a more passionate marriage proposal than, “Would you like to keep having a sucky life, or would you like to marry me?”) but I found her attraction to him a tiny bit easier to bear in the book, perhaps because we got to spend a little more time with them together prior to their return to the dread Manderley.
I know our narrator is supposed to be all enchanted with Maxim’s wealth and handsomeness and mystery and all that — and it’s true that her situation IS kind of miserable, so she might well be looking for any kind of escape — but you think anybody with any kind of sense at all would look at this guy with his capital ‘i’ Issues and think, Maybe tying myself to this dude for the rest of MY LIFE is not the soundest plan.
2. I really like Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers — I think she’s delightfully creepy — but I wish she was a slightly bigger part of the movie.
The best part about reading Rebecca is Mrs. Danvers. She may be one of my favorite antagonists ever, but unfortunately, her role feels a little limited here. Which I get — you only have so much time in a movie, and this film is already 130 minutes long — but I still feel like something’s missing, particularly near the end, when certain things are Being Revealed. I definitely wish there had been more focus on the awesome Mrs. Danvers .
3. In general, I feel like the whole ending is kind of a letdown. Certain changes were made, supposedly to add tension to the final act, but I actually think they had rather the opposite effect. The movie and book both end in pretty much the same place, but the novel feels more or less complete — perhaps because it begins with the epilogue and flashes back to the events that led up to it. The movie, on the other hand, just sort of seems to stop.
4. I also like Frank Crawley a lot more in the book.
Not that he’s so awful here, exactly, but he’s a much more interesting character in the novel (my second favorite, actually, after Mrs. Danvers), and a much more important one, too. In the film, I’m almost surprised they bothered with him at all. The same goes for Maxim’s sister, Beatrice, whose scenes are rather severely cut down for the film. (Too bad, too, because I did rather enjoy Gladys Cooper for the limited time we had with her.)
5. I don’t always notice the technical stuff right away, but I did enjoy the gothic, moody lighting in Rebecca. I’m thinking of one scene in particular, where Maxim and the second Mrs. de Winter are watching a reel of their honeymoon. Story-wise, I found that scene a little problematic, mostly because Maxim’s kind of creepy, paternalistic attitude towards his bride is often so hard to watch that I wished we could’ve seen these supposed Happy Times of theirs as actual scenes, so that maybe, maybe we might have some understanding of what drew her to him. But I did like the lighting. I mean, it’s not subtle, but I thought it worked pretty well. The movie does have some serious atmosphere going for it, even if Manderley is only a model. (Seriously, it’s the first thing I thought when I saw the house.)
6. Finally, before we get into spoilers, I should just mention that Alfred Hitchcock, apparently, was a totally terrible person. I’ve seen about ten of his movies, liked maybe half of them — yes, onward and upward with the blasphemy — but I actually know surprisingly little about him. This is what I get for not watching either Hitchcock or The Girl.
But according to good old IMDb trivia, Laurence Olivier treated Joan Fontaine like crap because he wanted his then-girlfriend, Vivien Leigh, to get the part. Fontaine was miserable about this, as you so often are when your coworker is a total dick to you, and Alfred Hitchcock, ever the opportunist, decided that he could get a better insecure, ostracized performance out of his lead actress if he told Fontaine that everybody on the set hated her.
Dude. I’m not saying the guy couldn’t make movies, but Jesus, what an asshole, right?
So, let’s just get to the biggest change, shall we? In the book, Maxim intentionally kills Rebecca. Sure, Rebecca goads him into doing it because she’s secretly dying and all, but let’s be clear here: Max absolutely murders her. He shoots her, in point of fact, because he’s been stuck in a loveless marriage for years, and after numerous affairs, Rebecca finally tips him over by the edge by lying that she’s carrying another man’s child, which Max will have to raise as his own. I’m not saying that’s a nice thing to do, but you know. Max still very much murders her.
In the movie, however, Max only pushes Rebecca to the ground, and when she falls, she hits her head on a handy plank of wood or something and dies. Which is still totally a homicide, but it does downgrade Max from intentional murderer to accidental wife-killer. (Plus, Rebecca was an opportunistic slut, so, you know. That makes it okay that she’s dead.)
The change-up here is a result of the production code, since a character who outright murdered someone would have to be punished at the end of the movie, and Max has a . . . well, a sort of happy ending. Anyway, he doesn’t get charged with anything, and he lives, so that’s basically a happy ending, even if his lifelong home does burn to the ground. (We’ll get there.) Making the whole thing an accident does rob the story of some of its horror. Everything’s just a little too pat: Max never meant to kill Rebecca, and she was evil anyway, so he’s still a good guy! Everyone wins!
But it does make our heroine’s continued love for him slightly easier to bear, like, I can at least sorta get standing by your man after finding out that he accidentally killed someone. I mean, I’d probably be pretty touchy about my personal space for a while, but conceptually, I can get that.
What I can’t get my head around is the novel’s version of events, which go something like this:
Max: “I shot and killed Rebecca because she was a whore.”
Narrator: “Wait, you never actually loved Rebecca? OMG, I’m so HAPPY!”
I was on my lunch break at work when I read this, and I actually set the book down and said, not in my quiet voice, “What. The. Fuck.” (Luckily, I take my break on the isolated side of ICU where there was no one around to be shocked by my profanities.) I had considered, early on in the story, the possibility that Maxim killed Rebecca — in fact, I kind of hoped for it, because I assumed our weak-willed narrator would be appropriately frightened for her life and have to outwit him or kill him or something like that. It never even occurred to me that she would entirely sidestep all that troubling murder nonsense and hone in on the one apparently important thing, that Max wasn’t still in love with Rebecca because he’d never been in love with Rebecca. It was literally the only thing that mattered to her.
Once the second Mrs. de Winter realizes that Max never loved his first wife, she finally grows that backbone that you’ve been waiting to see for the entire book. Which is horrifying, really; this is a serious moral and pragmatic priorities fail. It’s actually a little horrifying in the film, too, where she remains considerably more focused on Max’s feelings for Rebecca than about her husband’s history of accidentally killing his WIVES . . . but it’s especially bad in the novel.
Let’s see, what else . . . well, like I said before, a number of scenes are shortened and condensed, presumably for time management. I thought having the shipwreck happen the same night of the ball was clever, although I do feel like we lose something — a sense of desperation, perhaps — by not seeing Mrs. de Winter search around all day for her husband. I miss Crawley, too, who in the novel is both Mrs. de Winter’s only real friend as well as Max’s loyal right-hand man. He’s in the interesting position of knowing both their secret fears and, out of duty, is incapable of revealing them to either party.
But if I could change only one other small element about this movie (and not, you know, the whole story, which I’d love — I repeat — I’d love to do; I have SO MANY rewrite ideas), I’d give Mrs. Danvers more time to shine near the end.
Near the end, Rebecca’s cousin Jack — who she was having an affair with — accuses Max of the murder. He brings in Mrs. Danvers as a witness to Rebecca’s character (at this point, the official word is that the first Mrs. de Winter killed herself), thinking that she’ll back him on the notion that Rebecca and Jack were in love. Mrs. Danvers, however, basically laughs at that idea because Rebecca wasn’t in love with anybody — she took any number of lovers and made fun of them, just because she could. This is just a line in the movie, but in the novel, it’s more like a monologue — it’s like you’re watching Mrs. Danvers sort of unspool before your eyes. All through the book, she’s very controlled, precise — and here it’s like she’s coming apart, revealing the full extent of her love and grief for Rebecca. They have the most fascinating relationship in the whole story — one of the things I do like about Rebecca is how all the main characters have such clear relationships with someone who is never actually present in the novel, not even in flashbacks. It’s a rare book when the most important character is someone who’s not even in it.
This scene is the first time Mrs. Danvers begins to suspect that Max killed Rebecca. And while the others whisk away to a mysterious doctor to find out that Rebecca was dying all along (she secretly wanted Max to shoot her, see, to simultaneously end her suffering and, also, just to fuck with him), Mrs. Danvers sets Manderley on fire.
In the novel, the second Mrs. de Winter goes with everyone to the doctor’s, but in the movie, she stays behind at the house, and it’s Maxim who somehow Feels that something terrible has happened on the drive home. Supposedly, this was to add tension to the end of the film, but I don’t think it really works, since we begin the movie with her VO, and while dead narrators happen, they’re pretty rare. (And even when they are dead, they generally don’t say things like, “Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” The dead, as a general rule, don’t seem to dream — although maybe if Mrs. de Winter’s first name was revealed as Cthulhu, I suppose that could work.) I actually think the tension should be at the doctor’s office, like it is in the book — will our helpful MD say say that Rebecca was pregnant, confirming Jack’s assertion and all but condemning Maxim? (I mean, it would be more tense if I really cared what happened to Maxim. But still.)
Mrs. Danvers dies in the fire because, you know, bad guys have to die at the end, good guys win, blah blah. (Although if we’re considering Mr. and Mrs. de Winter as the good guys in this story, I think we need to seriously consider a new take on things.) But in the book, it’s never directly said what happens to her, and personally, I assume she survived, possibly going off to punish other wife-killers who got away with their heinous crimes.
Mrs. Danvers, everyone. The first vigilante.
It’s not one of my favorite Hitchcock films. And admittedly, I didn’t expect it to be, since I struggled so much with the source material, but some of the changes near the end really didn’t work for me. On the upside, it is pretty atmospheric, and I generally like all the actors involved. I’m totally okay with Rebecca winning the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Best Picture, though . . . not so much.
As long as your man loves you, that’s really all that matters. Right, ladies?