Spangler’s From Sentence to Screen: Rebecca

Rebecca is a 2020 British romantic thriller film directed by Ben Wheatley and stars Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas. The film is based on the 1938 novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, author of many other popular adaptations like My Cousin Rachel, Jamaica Inn, and the short story The Birds. Rebecca starts with the main character, Mrs. de Winter (Lily James), talking about a dream she had the night before about going back to her home, Manderley, which the audience is left to assume is no longer standing. The events of the film take place in the past and are examined through the memories of Mrs. de Winter, starting from her time in Monte Carlo as a lady’s companion to the rich and old Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd). Eventually the 20 something year-old meets the older Mr. Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), and widower, and the two start a friendship that eventually turns romantic. When the future Mrs. de Winter’s employer tells her they are leaving the hotel, she goes to see Maxim to say goodbye. Not wanting to lose her, Maxim asks the young woman to marry him. They honeymoon in Europe and then Mr. de Winter takes his new bride home to Manderley, where she quickly begins to feel uncomfortable. This is mostly due to the head housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), who was incredibly loyal to the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca, having known the dead woman as a child. Though she tries to make an effort to adapt to her new home, it soon becomes clear to the second Mrs. de Winter that she is unwelcome in Manderley and that her husband is keeping secrets from her. In this blog post I will examine the main character, the second Mrs. de Winter, and look at changes made to scenes between the Netflix original film and du Maurier’s novel. 

The heroine of the story is a shy young woman who throughout both versions goes unnamed, except for when she marries and then is only known as Mrs. de Winter. The choice to make her nameless I think is meant to enhance the idea that she is less than the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca. The movie insinuates that she isn’t as beautiful, charismatic, or well bred, all things the narrator already believes and are further pushed upon her by Mrs. Danvers. In the movie these worries are shown to the viewer by the heroine’s body language, confusion, and inability to stand up for herself. An example of this from the film is when Mrs. de Winter first finds Rebecca’s old bedroom, completely clean and kept up as if the deceased woman was going to come back to take her place as mistress of Manderley. Lily James plays the scene as if the character is at first confused, but then when Mrs. Danvers finds her there and she takes on a defensive posture signaling to the audience that she is afraid. Mrs. Danvers tells the narrator about the life Rebecca had in the mansion with Maxim, and how she could never hope to make him as happy as Rebecca did. Even going as far as to tell the second Mrs. de Winter to hold the lingerie of the first wife to her body, to show how only the most perfectly shaped woman could wear it. The whole time it appears that the heroine is unable to speak because she is too uncomfortable and scared. Eventually Mrs. Danvers asks the protagonist if Maxim brushes her hair like he did Rebecca’s. The idea of her husband doing something with her that he did with his first wife forces her over the edge, and she finally gets the nerve to leave Rebecca’s room. Showing that the character is only really able to stand up for herself after being pushed, but even then it feels like there should be a deeper meaning for why Mrs. de Winter doesn’t stop Mrs. Danvers when the housekeeper is being nasty to her. 

The book by du Maurier, is written in first person so the reader gets every thought and feeling the narrator has throughout the story which helps to have a greater understanding of why she takes the torment of Mrs. Danvers. The heroine is constantly thinking about her husband’s first wife, believing that because of how others talk about her. An example of this is shown even from the very beginning before the protagonist even meets her future husband, when Mrs. Van Hopper is telling her about Rebecca and how wonderful she was as a wife, hostess, and mistress of Manderley. This moment early on, and others throughout the story, leads her to having a morbid curiosity about the dead woman, wanting to know everything about her. The scene above is adopted by the movie which projects the same theory as the book though the dialogue differs. With the novel giving a clear reason why Mrs. de Winter would stay and listen to Mrs. Danvers talks about Rebecca even though it is meant to hurt her; that being the fact the narrator yearns to learn more about the dead wife even at the cost of her own mental health. I think the book does a better job of showing the reader how interested the heronian is about Rebecca, mostly because the idea doesn’t seem to translate on to screen. It took time for the movie to present that idea, which ended up making the character appear to just be self-conscious about whether her husband loves her as much as his first wife.

Now looking at the scenes and how they were adapted, I will be looking at two scenes that didn’t happen at all in the book. Overall these scenes don’t have an impact on the story but are interesting to examine. The first of these scenes, is when Mrs. de Winter goes to fire Mrs. Danvers after her fight with Maxim, believing it to be the housekeepers fault, which to some extent it was. When the heroine does this, she changes her mind after hearing Mrs. Danvers story about her friendship with Rebecca, believing the older woman only wanted to keep her lady’s memory alive. So the heroine agrees to let the housekeeper stay on, hoping they can become companions and help each other through the changes in their lives. It turns out this kindness towards the second wife was all an act for Mrs. Danvers, wanting the younger woman to let her guard down. Though this scene doesn’t happen in the book and doesn’t change the overall plot of the story, I think it was a great scene to add because it gives a reason to why Mrs. Danvers is all of a sudden being nice to Mrs. de Winter. In the book it happens out of nowhere and seems rather suspicious, which leaves the reader questioning her motives even if the narrator doesn’t. 

A second scene that was added to the movie, happens at the end when the heroine and Maxime return home to find Manderley on fire. Maxim rushes to help the staff and to make sure everyone is safe, while Mrs. de Winter follows Mrs. Danvers to the beach after hearing that she was the one to set the fire. She finds Mrs. Danvers about to jump off a rocky cliff and tries to convince the older woman not to take her own life. The bitter woman tells Mrs. de Winter that she will never know happiness with Maxim to which she responses, “Yes, I Will.” Then Mrs. Danvers jumps to her death, drowning in the same waters that Rebecca did. I rather liked this resolution to the story because it lets the audience know what happens to Mrs. Danvers. Unlike the story which ends as soon as the couple finds Mandeley on fire, only leaving the reader with the suspension that Mrs. Danvers started it. I think both ends are valid, with the film tying up all loose ends and the book ending on a more ominous tone which coincides with the gothic thriller genre of du Maurier’s novel.

For those who have read my blog before, you have seen my fourth post on the Alfred Hitchcock movie The Birds, which was also based on a short story written by Daphne du Maurier. If it isn’t clear from my two blog posts, I am a big fan of this author. As are so many producers, given how often her stories have been adapted not only for film, but also radio shows, tv, and the stage. She is classified as a romantic novelist, but given the overtones of paranormal elements in her works I would also say she is a great thriller writer as well. Du Maurier’s stories encourage the reader to ask questions and second guess themselves while they are reading, which is one aspect of her writing which makes it so amazing. I would highly recommend reading any of her novels or short stories. Rebecca was a good adaptation overall, but I didn’t quite get the thriller aspect I was looking for, something the book did so well. In my next blog post I will be looking at the 2016 film, The BFG, directed by Steven Spielberg and adapted from Roald Dahl’s novel of the same name. 

— Jo Spangler, Film blogger.

Jo Spangler’s Bio:

Jo Spangler

Jo Spangler is a junior at Lewis University, majoring in English Literature and Language with a minor in Creative Writing. She is a writing tutor in the Lewis Writing Center and a Youth Enrichment Aide for the YMCA. In her free time, Jo enjoys reading, writing, listening to music, and watching movies. She has been to 10 countries outside the United States, including England, Italy, Turkey, and Austria. One of Jo’s favorite book series is The All Souls Trilogy, by Deborah Harkness, because of how she mixes the supernatural with history and the focus on character development. In the future, she hopes to go into the publishing industry to help find new and exciting books for people to read.

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