(Click here for information on the 2015 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. As all of the four selected titles have filmed adaptations, we will be looking at the movie versions as we go along. This month, the June selection, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.)
I tend to buy into the speculation that the Gothic genre got a shot in the arm courtesy of World War II, when women might be hastily marrying men they hardly knew, or found husbands returning home “not quite themselves”. Rebecca remains the most famous variation on the theme, due in part to it being adapted as Alfred Hitchcock’s first Hollywood movie, the Academy Award winner for 1940.
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again…
Begins both novel and movie, as the nameless heroine, a young English woman working as a paid companion to a vulgar American tourist in Monte Carlo, describes her meeting and hasty marriage to Maximilian de Winter, a mysterious widower twice her age, and her failure to adjust to her duties as the new lady of the manor.
While the second Mrs. de Winter is a naturally anxious and naïve personality, everyone she encounters is still enthralled (or haunted) by the memory of Maxim’s first wife, the woman with “beauty, brains, and breeding”, the dazzling Rebecca. As the weeks pass and her new husband becomes ever more moody and withdrawn, Mrs. de Winter comes to believe that he will never get over the death of his first wife, who drowned at sea less than a year prior to the start of the story.
Foremost in encouraging these notions is Manderly’s head housekeeper, the sinister Mrs. Danvers, who had “been with Rebecca” since before her marriage and had become her closest confidant. Mrs. Danvers does not approve of Rebecca having been “replaced” and undermines the second Mrs. de Winter at every turn.
The third-act reveal, after a disastrous costume ball in which Mrs. de Winter is tricked into appearing in costume worn by Rebecca, is that Maxim didn’t love Rebecca at all- in fact he hated her, her beautiful and sophisticated veneer covering a “deviant” soul, and behavior that included a long string of affairs, including an ongoing liaison with her first cousin, Jack Favell. When Rebecca’s capsized boat is discovered with her body still aboard, Maxim admits to his wife that Rebecca had taunted him with the news that she was pregnant with Favell’s child, driving him to murder her and cover it up as an “accident”. Mrs. de Winter’s reaction is one of relief:
What did it matter whether I understood him or not? My heart was light like a feather floating in the air. He had never loved Rebecca.
The reader’s urge to shout (as I have with certain, lesser, literary lights) SECOND MRS. DE WINTER! MAXIM IS NOT THAT GREAT! is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the story is narrated from an unknown point in the future (the reason why the de Winters can never return to Manderly isn’t revealed until the final sentence), in which Mrs. de Winter has assumed a new confidence in her own life, and now seems to be the dominant person in the relationship, managing the life of an increasingly broken Maxim.
Producer David O. Selznick, still in the midst of production on Gone With the Wind, acquired the rights to du Maurier’s novel, then a modest seller, and used it to lure Alfred Hitchcock to the United States (Hitchcock had just wrapped another du Maurier adaptation, Jamaica Inn, and would film her short story “The Birds” nearly 25 years later).
The Selznick-Hitchcock adaptation sticks closely to the original, plot-wise, but makes several major changes in characterization.
The first was to appease the Production Code, which would not allow a murderer to get away with it: Rebecca’s death becomes an accident and Maxim only responsible for the cover-up.
The second is that Hitchcock does away with the ghost story aspect, and Rebecca’s malevolent spirit is replaced with the earth-bound villainy of Mrs. Danvers, who burns Manderly to the ground herself rather than see Maxim live there with another woman, giving the young Judith Anderson a terrific opportunity to cut loose with a mad scene. In the novel Danvers merely disappears after Maxim’s acquittal, and the couple arrives back to find Manderly ablaze, at the implied hand of the vengeful spirit of Rebecca.
Hitchcock also streamlines much of the novel’s (somewhat tedious) third act, as the characters scuttle about the English countryside in search of the lady-doctor who can provide a motive for Rebecca’s “suicide” and “clear” Maxim’s name.
Du Maurier provides a cast of allies for the anxious heroine (including Maxim’s sister and his lawyer), while Hitchcock prefers to leave his heroine (played by Joan Fontaine) twisting in the wind. However, the major change in characterization comes with the casting of George Sanders as Rebecca’s cousin and lover, Jack Favell. In the novel Favell is a slobby, sweaty, drunkard, indicative of Rebecca’s “deviant” tastes. Sanders is suave (and slick: the film literally makes him a used car salesman), but also a touch sympathetic: he is overcome with grief when he learns of the real circumstances surrounding her death (incurable lady-cancer); he’s a scoundrel and a blackmailer, but he truly loved her.
Stray Thoughts and Observations:
I feel like I should at least mention that Maxim is played by Laurence Olivier. He is serviceable in that role. While his performance doesn’t really demystify why the heroine would think he’s so great (he’s not…. at least not murder-forgivable great), the screenplay does at least suggest why he would marry Unnamed Heroine: the movie opens with him contemplating throwing himself off of a cliff, until he is spotted by Unnamed Heroine and stopped by her screams. Olivier does manage to suggest that this stranger is the first person to have shown real concern for him since his wife’s death.
Film buffs often play around with the question of who could have been cast as the unseen Rebecca. The correct answer is Gene Tierney, full stop. Rebecca and Ellen Berent Harlan are two peas in a pod, villainesses who make deviance look good.