(I know it’s normally a given that these reviews might contain spoilers, but this is just an extra warning that I’m going to make reference to some pretty crucial and spoilerific plot points here).
This review in particular has been a very long time coming, because I finished the book months and months ago but I’ve been putting off the film for ages, purely because I’m a big silly who can’t face the prospect of watching something in black and white. I need pretty colours to hold my attention, don’t judge me. I’ve finally got myself in gear and given it a go though, and it wasn’t quite as distressing to the retinas as I thought it would be.
Rebecca is another one of those books that everyone’s heard about (or at least has heard of the first line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”). It’s a bit of a weird one actually, because it was very far from what I expected (based on what I thought I knew of the book). I think it can easily get passed off as something Jane Austen-esque, a good read but essentially a romance filled classic, when actually it’s incredibly sinister, and definitely closer to being classed as a thriller than something light and fluffy.
Rebecca is the story of an unnamed protagonist who falls in love with a much older widower, Maxim de Winter, and marries him incredibly quickly. When they return to Manderley, his Cornish home, the protagonist (known only as the second Mrs de Winter) is haunted by the idea of Maxim’s first wife Rebecca who, as Mary Poppins would put it, seemed practically perfect in every way. Our heroine (for lack of a better word, because ‘heroine’ really doesn’t suit) feels she is constantly falling short of Rebecca’s example, an idea which is reinforced by the incredibly creepy housekeeper, Mrs Danvers. However the newlyweds hadn’t been home long before suspicions are raised about the death of Rebecca, at which point everything becomes very, very interesting.
I was actually quite surprised how uneasy Rebecca made me feel. I found the whole thing quite unnerving and spooky. It definitely lulled me into a false sense of security. The imagery in the opening paragraphs was so vivid that I felt transported, but things fairly quickly took a darker turn. I could tell that there was going to be something nasty lurking in the wings or that something awful was going to happen, but I didn’t know what. The suspense and tension was very effective, especially towards the end of the book. I really wasn’t expecting it to be anywhere near as sinister, and at times I found it quite uncomfortable to read. Mrs Danvers was particularly chilling, especially when she tries to persuade our main lady to kill herself.
I’d say the final third of quarter of the book was by far the most gripping, and waiting to find out of Maxim would be found guilty of Rebecca’s murder really kept me on tenterhooks. I knew as a reader I was being manipulated in a strange but very clever way, because I knew Maxim had killed Rebecca but I was desperate for him not to be punished for it, which is a bizarre acceptance of Daphne du Maurier completely inverting my sense of morals. It was clear he didn’t hang for it as the story was mainly told as a reflection or flashback, but as Maxim and his wife are living in hotels at this point I wasn’t sure if maybe they were on the run. I really liked the way that storyline was resolved, and I had such a clear picture of Rebecca’s character manipulating her husband right to the end, so it seemed a perfect fit. I found the overall ending of the book really unsatisfying though. In a way it was satisfying in terms of the drama that was created and Rebecca’s triumph, but it was deeply unsatisfying in terms of the stiflingly dull and miserable lives that we know Maxim and his wife continued to lead.
I must say I also found the unnamed protagonist incredibly irritating. She was such a weedy little drip, I spent the whole novel trying to resist the urge to yell at her to man up! Her character was the ultimate personification of a doormat, and it was SO frustrating, especially when she allowed Mrs Danvers to take advantage of it so much. I even found myself willing her to follow Mrs Danvers’ advice and jump to her death from the window, purely because that would at least show her doing something. You know there are issues when you actually want the main character to kill herself! That’s one thing that really pleased me about Alfred Hitchcock’s film, Joan Fontaine at least gave her a bit more gumption, and even showed her as being slightly (and only slightly) confrontational towards Mrs Danvers. I think Joan Fontaine played her slightly older than I was imagining too, which was a bit of a relief actually. She didn’t seem too mismatched alongside Laurence Olivier playing Maxim, whereas in the novel I got the sense that the age gap was much larger. I have to say the whole relationship between her (why doesn’t she have a name! This is getting so annoying!) and Maxim seems rather odd, and does make me feel a bit uncomfortable really. As well as the fact that he’s in his mid-forties and she’s potentially still just a teenager, he refers to her as a child a lot in both the novel and the film, and I find that downright weird. Why would you want to think of your wife as a child? I think it’s implied (or maybe even said) in the book that it’s a sexless marriage, but it still seems very strange. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of romantic, or even paternal, love from Maxim’s side, and yet lady-no-name completely adores him in a slightly I’ve-got-a-crush-on-the-school-teacher kind of way. Whatever’s going on, that’s definitely not a healthy relationship.
The character of Mrs Danvers wasn’t quite as spooky on film as I’d imagined, she seemed a bit too young and not quite skeletal enough for me, although I suppose severe paleness doesn’t really work so well as a contrast in black and white. Generally though, I’d say the film was a pretty faithful and delightfully eerie adaptation of the novel, apart from the means of Rebecca’s death which, unfortunately, happens to be one of the most crucial parts of the novel, and which weakened the film in comparison. In the novel, Rebecca is murdered by Maxim. He takes a gun when he goes to confront her, and deliberately shoots her when she antagonises him. It’s murder, plain and simple. That’s what makes the final part of the book so tense and thrilling, because her body’s been discovered in suspicious circumstances, potentially with signs of having been shot rather than drowning in a boating accident, and if Maxim is discovered he will hang for murder. It’s a gritty storyline with dire consequences, and I was so desperate for him not to be punished, despite knowing full well that he’s a murderer who doesn’t even regret his actions, which is evidence of simply brilliant writing and makes for a damn good story. However, this is not translated onto film, and so the meaning and the ingenuity is lost. I was really surprised by the tack Hitchcock took because from my (admittedly limited) knowledge of Hitchcock films, I thought the original storyline would be right up his street. But apparently (and this is a big and loose ‘apparently’ because I am getting this information from Wikipedia), the film industry was against showing the murder of a spouse going unpunished, and so in Rebecca they opted for making the death accidental. Rebecca falls and hits her head during a heated argument, Maxim panics and conceals her body in her boat, which he scuttles and sinks. Okay, it gets the film company out of a tricky situation, but an accidental death (even if covered up suspiciously) doesn’t hold the same ramifications as shooting someone in the chest and faking their drowning. I was so disappointed with this ending, because I just couldn’t bring myself to be as invested in it as in du Maurier’s Rebecca, and I felt cheated of the drama. It’s a shame really, but that’s probably the only real issue I had with the film version of Rebecca. Otherwise it seems to be an accurate and fascinating story, but if you happen to have read the book first, it just doesn’t compare.
As a final side note, I was expecting to actually see a visualization of Rebecca at some point, either as a memory, an actual ghost or even just a photograph, so I was surprised when she didn’t appear in the film at all, although I think she probably works more effectively as a ‘character’ who never appears. Perhaps also our protagonist hasn’t been given her own name so that she’s more obscured by Rebecca’s shadow? Or maybe it’s because Daphne du Maurier, after teasing us with a snippet saying she has an unusual name, simply couldn’t think of a name that was unusual enough. Whatever the reason, there isn’t a name in the world that could make her character seem like less of a mouse, more’s the pity.
See also My Culture Mission, or read previous Book Vs Film Review featuring (Rita Hayworth and) The Shawshank Redemption.