The newest adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca, which arrives on Netflix on Wednesday, follows the book’s unnamed female narrator—identified in the movie credits only as Mrs. de Winter, her married name—as she meets and weds a wealthy widower in Monte Carlo. While living at his gorgeous English coastal estate Manderley, she becomes consumed with jealousy of her new husband’s deceased first wife, the titular Rebecca, who seems to have been universally worshipped by all who knew her.
Below, we break down all the ways the film, directed by Ben Wheatley, compares to du Maurier’s moody best-seller—including how its famous plot twist unfolds. Needless to say, spoilers ahead.
Maxim de Winter
In the film, the male romantic lead is played by Armie Hammer, who’s extremely handsome in a standard-issue hunk kind of a way, which is very different from how the narrator describes Maxim in the book: “He belonged to a walled city of the fifteenth century, a city of narrow, cobbled streets, and thin spires, where the inhabitants wore pointed shoes and worsted hose. His face was arresting, sensitive, medieval in some strange inexplicable way.”
This medieval-looking Maxim exudes aloof control. When the two first have lunch together, the narrator describes him as having a “quality of detachment.” As readers, we come to believe that de Winter’s motivations are suspect: He is, like many romantic heroes, powerful, inscrutable, and intensely attractive, but maybe not exactly good—a combination of qualities that, as Laura Miller points out in her review of the new movie for Slate, the more conventionally good-looking Hammer struggles to convey.
Armie Hammer is also only three years older than Lily James, the film’s female lead, whereas in the book Maxim is 42, nearly twice the heroine’s age. “I suppose you are young enough to be my daughter,” Maxim says to the narrator when their relationship shifts from the platonic realm into something more. This age gap is not a small matter; it provides much of the drama in this couple’s relationship, and it feels glaringly absent in the film.
The Narrator (aka Mrs. de Winter)
Lily James is the kind of radiant young woman you can imagine a wealthy middle-aged widower fixating upon, were he to encounter her by chance at a Monte Carlo hotel. The novel’s narrator, on the other hand, has unremarkable looks, into which she puts very little work. (She describes herself as a “raw ex-schoolgirl, red-elbowed and lanky-haired.”) At first, you think du Maurier’s narrator must believe herself to be uglier and less put together than she actually is, but then comments from external observers confirm that her hair is, indeed, “lank,” and her clothes unsuitable.
The film sticks James in some baggy frocks, but she’s just plain beautiful, and that’s hard to hide. The mismatch in glamorousness between Maxim and his new bride was important to the couple’s dynamic in the book, distinguishing the narrator from Maxim’s first wife, and the lack of an age difference in the movie again muddles their relationship. In the book, the narrator’s lack of worldly experience appeals to Maxim, and we assume that he finds this refreshing for the usual reasons powerful men like to be worshiped by younger women. To put it more sympathetically, the narrator’s youth, and her lower-class status, mean that she seems more authentic to Maxim than the other women he knows. (“It’s a pity you have to grow up,” he says, after she confesses her love, quite openly and without guile.)
But as the book goes on, Maxim’s attitude toward the narrator’s youth starts to look condescending. He’s “brusque” with her after she upsets one of the many glasses and vases of flowers she clumsily breaks in the course of the story. He scolds her for biting her nails, and although she hates visiting, makes her fulfill their social obligations with a stiff upper lip, showing little sympathy for her discomfort. Mrs. de Winter chafes at this attitude, feeling like a favorite daughter or a pet dog: “I wished he would not always treat me as a child, rather spoiled, rather irresponsible, someone to be petted from time to time when the mood came upon him but more often forgotten, more often patted on the shoulder and told to run away to play.” All this is lost by casting the close-in-age, equal-in-beauty pair of James and Hammer.
The Beach Scene
In the movie, the first time Maxim and the narrator kiss, they full-on make out, From Here to Eternity-style, on a secluded beach. Lips locked, the two gorgeous leads are covered in sand and bathed in golden sunlight. When the narrator tells her employer that she’s getting married, the employer warns her, “When you trap a man between your legs, they don’t stay around for long.” This is a far cry from the novel’s much less heated leadup to the engagement, which features nothing more intimate than some kind words and a kiss on the head.
In fact, there’s a certain ominous coldness to the novel’s courtship story. The narrator convinces herself that she doesn’t care that Maxim’s proposal is businesslike or that he doesn’t want to have a big fancy wedding, though her fantasies suggest she really does care. As time goes on, she will come to look back at this as evidence that Maxim doesn’t love her—not like he loved Rebecca. Without that initial rift, it’s harder for the movie to convey the gulf that widens between the two as time moves on.
Du Maurier’s novel makes much of the narrator marrying “up” and the resulting awkwardness. The new Mrs. de Winter senses that the servants dislike her, thinking, after meeting Mrs. Danvers, that the housekeeper “despised me, marking with all the snobbery of her class that I was no great lady, that I was humble, shy, and diffident.” The narrator of the novel also notices, for example, the “magnificence” of the breakfasts at Manderley, describing the spread the servants provide for her and Maxim as “enough for a dozen people.” She muses on how odd it is that Maxim has eaten this way for years, “seeing nothing ridiculous about it, nothing wasteful.”
But by the end of the novel, the narrator has come to terms with the great expenditure of resources she sees around her at the estate, even adding to it by ordering that the staff provide the couple with something new to eat at a given meal, rather than re-serving leftovers from a recent party. “So much waste goes on in this house anyway that a little more won’t make any difference,” she says to Mrs. Danvers, proving that she is slowly but surely reconciling herself to the unfair advantages of her new station.
This complex class drama is downplayed in the film—perhaps because it wants to spend more time on the romance, or perhaps because the book’s dynamic is so very British, while the film is marketed to audiences worldwide.
A More Active Heroine
The film shows Mrs. de Winter “growing up” through her actions: She takes charge of planning a costume ball at Manderley, overcoming her fear of acting as hostess, choosing menus and flowers. Shortly after, the famous twist occurs, with Maxim confessing to her that Rebecca, who was secretly a deceptive psychopath, didn’t die in an accident at sea, but that he killed her, which also happens in the book. (Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation differed by making Rebecca’s death an accident that Maxim tried to cover up.) There’s a trial, and Mrs. de Winter burgles the offices of Rebecca’s doctor in a daring nighttime plot, looking to steal crucial evidence that she fears will convict her husband.
This is much more than the novel’s Mrs. de Winter ever manages. The story is mostly about her watching events unfold, not about her actions in relationship to them. Somebody else plans the costume ball, and she merely attends, and has a horrible time, to boot. And as the authorities investigate Maxim’s involvement in Rebecca’s death, the most Mrs. de Winter does is to faint at the inquest and generally fret from the sidelines.
The film condenses the investigation of Rebecca’s murder into a single trial, whereas in the novel, it’s a more drawn-out process, featuring a coroner’s inquest at which Maxim is cleared of wrongdoing, and then a behind-the-scenes sequence in which Rebecca’s cousin and lover comes to Manderley to present evidence and accuse Maxim anew. In both the film and the book, Maxim is exonerated because the fact that Rebecca had terminal cancer comes to light, providing a possible motive for her to have committed suicide.
However, in the novel, the magistrate who follows up on the cousin’s accusation is a man who had been to Manderley for social occasions in the past. He gives Maxim the gentleman’s treatment, allowing him to stay at Manderley overnight, instead of being taken to jail, as they investigate. He also apologizes profusely throughout the proceedings, advising Maxim, after he’s cleared, to go abroad, to avoid gossip. Clearly, Maxim’s privilege as a wealthy owner of a famous house has helped him avoid blame for a crime that he actually committed.
As Miller argues in her review, the new film treats the narrator’s experience at Manderley as a coming-of-age tale. She arrives at the estate young and in love; she learns how to stand up for herself. Some of that happens to Mrs. de Winter in the novel, but the story of her growing up is not quite about empowerment—or at least, not only about empowerment. When Maxim says to her, near the end of the film and novel, “You’ve lost that funny lost look you had,” he’s mourning her loss of innocence. But at the conclusion of the film, as we watch the lovers canoodle in a hotel room, it seems like everything worked out fine. At the end of the novel, you’re not so sure the narrator has learned the right lessons by sticking with a husband who killed his last wife. Nor are you sure that these two—a wife no longer innocent and a husband who loves control a little bit too much—are destined for a happily-ever-after.
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