Last night I dreamt I watched a decent adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 gothic masterpiece Rebecca. Imagine my horror when I woke to the crushing realisation that I had instead fallen asleep halfway through Ben Wheatley’s mangled 2020 film interpretation. Reality can be cruel.
Du Maurier’s Rebecca explores obsession, haunting, power, class, and moral ambiguity. While working as a lady’s maid, our nameless narrator is swept off her feet in Monte Carlo by handsome widower Maxim De Winter. His manners are strange, alternating between romantic and cold, but she grows infatuated and barely hesitates when he asks her to marry him (his proposal: “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.”). They return to his priceless country estate – but there, the real horror begins. De Winter’s late wife Rebecca, who was unsurpassably clever and glamorous, casts a long shadow over the new marriage. The housekeeper, Mrs Danvers – who adored Rebecca – develops a hatred for her new mistress. De Winter, meanwhile, grows increasingly cruel and withdrawn, quickly turning the tale into one about control, abuse, and the unique terror of becoming a wife in the first place.
So what do Wheatley and Netflix do with this rich and complex source material? They try to brighten it; smooth it out; make it just another pretty period drama.
The resulting film is to the book what a meme of Grumpy Cat in a smock dress is to the Mona Lisa. It is an aberration. Indeed, Wheatley chose to interpret an unconventional, ambiguous tale in the most conventional of ways, insisting the story is primarily about ‘two people in love’ (referring to the straight protagonists, apparently) . “I wanted to make something that had more love in it,” he says.
Love? There is plenty of love in Du Maurier’s Rebecca – just not of the sun-kissed, cookie-cooker variety. All of it is ambiguous, open to interpretation, and at least a little unhealthy. The power of Du Maurier’s Rebecca is that De Winter’s coldness is contrasted by Mrs Danvers’ obsessive yearning for her late mistress; a yearning which is, if anything, the real love story.
Unlike one of Rebecca’s characters, however, I am not interested in flogging horses, either dead or alive. For an in-depth analysis of why Netflix’s Rebecca flopped so badly, I would recommend Constance Grady’s article ‘The exhausting failure of Netflix’s Rebecca’ , which offers an astute summary of the film’s shortcomings. What interests me is a related topic as yet unexplored in other Rebecca reviews. Namely: Du Maurier’s Rebecca has been adapted dozens of times across film, television, radio, opera, and theatre, including a 1940 film adaptation that won Best Picture. How and why do these adaptations differ; what do these differences tell us about our values; and do any of these adaptations actually do the book justice?
Since reading Rebecca, I have sought out its various adaptations, curious to see how directors interpreted their source material. What became clear was that each adaptation reflected pervasive anxieties in Western society, particularly surrounding gender politics. Indeed, adaptations of Rebecca vary in two key ways: firstly, the extent to which Maxim De Winter is positioned as Rebecca’s murderer; and secondly, the degree to which queer and feminist subtext between Mrs Danvers and Rebecca is explored.
The directorial or production-based push to flatten De Winter into a classic romantic lead is evident across many adaptations. De Winter is frequently either blameless – his murder of Rebecca rewritten as her falling and hitting her head – or, as in Netflix’s adaptation, his violence is depicted as justifiable and he never explicitly confesses to killing his wife, as he does in the book. These adaptations linger on Rebecca’s cruelty and emphasise her husband’s belief that she wished him to murder her and manipulated him into doing so.
Such adaptations protect De Winter in order to portray him as an archetypal love interest, supposedly longing to be with his second wife but trapped and haunted by the first. Frankly, these rewrites of his character are disturbing: they effectively remove the novel’s ambiguity and present male violence as justifiable. Moreover, this repeated rewriting arguably speaks to a filmic and cultural preference for uncomplicated stories rather than honest, complex ones.
The 1940 Hitchcock adaptation at least had a reason for its rewrite. A set of moral guidelines known as the Hays Code, enforced in Hollywood between 1934 and 1968, prohibited depicting a husband murdering his wife in a positive light. Netflix, however, has no excuse; the fact Wheatley chose to depict De Winter as a romantic hero is regressive especially in an era shaped by #MeToo. Indeed, making De Winter a period drama brooder instead of exploring his manipulative, murderous tendencies reflects real-life issues around testimony where women are silenced and men – especially rich white men – are forgiven their crimes.
As for queer subtext, the relationship between housekeeper Mrs Danvers and Rebecca has long been debated: some argue it is obsessive and maternal rather than romantic, while others argue it is sapphic. I fall into the second (and campier) camp, whose reading invites a more complex understanding of the book. One can argue Du Maurier, herself a bisexual woman, explored her then-taboo desires by writing a coded relationship between two women who are demonised by others primarily for seeking to live beyond patriarchal social norms. Even were the two not lovers, their rejection of men effectively shows them queering social mores; an act that typically has them read as villains. The question remains, however: where is Rebecca’s side of the story? What pressures did she face in marrying? Should she be demonised for being either unwilling or unable to love a man who is, at best, ‘difficult’? A man who shoots her dead?
While feminist or queer readings of Rebecca need not be seen as definitive, they offer a valuable perspective in understanding a story whose moral conflict is grounded in opaque, one-sided testimony. A queer reading of Rebecca suggests a more empathetic and feminist understanding of the titular character. Several adaptations depict this reading – take Hitchcock’s famous, deliberately queer scene where Mrs Danvers strokes Rebecca’s clothes , or the 1997 adaptation where Mrs Danvers lies down on Rebecca’s bed, embracing her nightgown, while the house burns . Conversely, in Anamika, a 2008 Bollywood film based on Rebecca, Mrs Danvers/Malini is rewritten as hating Rebecca/Anamika because she in love with De Winter/Sisidoya. Through such variations, adaptations say as much about their creators, eras, and cultural contexts as they do about the story they purport tell.
Netflix’s Rebecca is a missed opportunity. It could have adapted its source material in an innovative way – perhaps blending biopic and fiction à la 2019 Little Women, for example – but Wheatley instead shies away from the very elements that make Du Maurier’s novel enduringly fascinating. His adaptation engages with neither the complexity of De Winter’s awfulness; the full extent of Mrs Danvers’s queer potentiality; the moral quandary surrounding complicity in murder; nor the topical, intersectional themes of emotional abuse, power, and class.
This conservatism could suggest Netflix is currently marketing traditional comfort content to viewers – nice aesthetics, palatable mainstream feminism, and perhaps a pinch of queerness but not so much as to break new ground. Netflix’s Rebecca is more Emily in Paris than Du Maurier masterpiece. Such blandness potentially reflects the financial conservatism and emotional anxiety characterising 2020.
If you are looking for a half-decent Rebecca adaptation, I would recommend the 1940 film for its tone and cinematography, the 1979 TV series for its faithfulness to the book, or the 1997 TV series for its boldness. The best part of the 2020 adaptation is when Mrs Danvers burns Wheatley’s Manderley to the ground.