Sweeping landscapes, luscious costumes, and Armie Hammer’s chiseled jaw were so enchanting in the most recent film adaptation of the novel, Rebecca, that I frothed at the chance to see the plot unfold. The Netflix production value alone promised decadent wickedness and a gorgeously ghoulish tale that could sweep anyone on to the lawns of the seaside manor.
Unfortunately, my visual enthrallment didn’t anticipate the inevitable flaw in scribing such a modern adaptation. The writers fell into the trap of imagining the novel as something other than it was. Rebecca was never a sweeping romance that was twisted by anger and spite and ghosts. Yet, the 2020 adaptation did its best to shape and cram Rebecca’s characters into a mold, pounding and twisting them until they fit into a haunted template that might appeal to test groups. Naturally, the problem is that Daphne Du Maurier’s tale can’t sustain such brutality without losing and utterly transforming itself. Oddly enough, much like the heroine of the tale.
Rebecca is the richest ghost story I have ever read, since it requires no actual specters or ghasts, but merely a memory that can haunt a grand manor and an entire village. Our departed titular Rebecca left a sturdy web of adoration, deceit, and secrets, so that a tiny fly like our second Mrs. De Winter was bound up and trapped before she could even guess at the curse that was upon her.
Here lies the first problem with a film adaptation in the modern style–the new Mrs. De Winter is meant to be a tiny fly. The embodiment of innocence and naivete, she begins the tale as a child with no voice or mind of her own. The original story requires us to root for and appreciate a woman so weak, she is scared of lunch menus and broken cherubs, for only she could appeal to Mr. De Winter (as we would later understand), and only she could be caught up in the web so completely. And it is only through her that we may begin to understand the human mind and condition that caused such a tawdry set of circumstances. Further, she is a handsome girl, but no striking beauty. And this very stark contrast between her and Rebecca is what appeals to Maxim. If she was any stronger, more beautiful, more inquisitive or flirtacious or clever, Maxim would have been repulsed by her.
But in our age of conscious feminism, this seems too damning for any heroine. It’s honestly difficult to root for a terrified girl with a spine made of spun sugar. Our modern sensibilities might pity her, but we have a hard time loving her or imagining that such a timid creature can be admirable. And worst of all, we might be tempted to be angry that our heroine wasn’t given her full due, and consider it an insult to the female gender. It’s true that Du Maurier’s novel is not flattering to the female sex. Every single woman is a horribly flawed animal–some of them wretched and manipulating like Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers and Mrs. Van Hopper, and some of them lost and frightened with no real agency, like the new nameless Mrs. De Winter and Clarice and Granny. The men seem to be helpless idiots bobbing in the wake of these women and not knowing what they want or why. So in this way, Rebecca is an indictment of gender roles in its own time.
This is where screenwriters have a problem–there is no easy, likable way to indict 1930s gender politics and still be gripping and sensual. So they made a few edits.
Enter Lily James, a shocking beauty in her own right, with sensual waves in her hair and a wardrobe of drool-worthy fashions. Our updated Mrs. De Winter brimmed with curiosity and, more poignantly, pursued this with questions and a sense of self. This new brazen mistress even enjoyed a salacious horse ride with a stranger. Then she pushed Maxim to host the fancy dress ball, and actually used her personal preferences and talents to organize the fete. She flirted on the beach and took Maxim on a picnic blanket. These are things Rebecca would have done. These are things that would have repulsed the literary Maxim.
Max, too, is a much altered character in the film. The dapper gentleman I watched was affectionate, even romantic–sending little flirtatious notes, wading into the ocean, and pursuing the new wife with more than a couple hand squeezes and a slice of bitter orange. Dare I say, the new Maxim seemed to even possibly love his second wife, when he isn’t popping into violent outbursts or…sleepwalking? But this widower wasn’t supposed to be emotionally available. Rebecca had thoroughly undone him and robbed him of passion and identity. She left everyone of her acquaintance altered, and no film magic can or should erase the scars, paranoia, and hatred left behind by the former lady.
Then, to boot, the bride becomes a detective. A new posh Nancy Drew. Except that such assertiveness and curiosity means that Rebecca’s spell isn’t as sweeping as it ought to be. The bride is almost impervious to her spell. All of a sudden, we have a detective/mystery story instead of a ghost story. Maybe that isn’t such a bad premise–a young gorgeous sleuth comes in and discovers a shocking secret and saboteur. Except that the literary masterpiece wasn’t that at all. Rebecca was a simmering, bubbling psychological study of genders and madness. This leaves us, the audience, defrauded by the title and thievery of characters and settings that belong to another story.
This has me wondering then, was this a flaw in the interpretation of this particular adaptation? Or is Rebecca a story that can’t be faithfully adapted to modern film? I suppose the title of this piece gives away my conclusion straight off. But, I will say that after the credits had rolled and the TV had been shut off with a dull sigh, I stared at the lit fireplace in the quiet of my living room for quite some time, puzzling over how it could be done.
First, I considered that a new narrator and/or perspective might be needed in order to blunt some of the new wife’s staggering flaws. My first thought was to employ Ben as a narrator. Through his confused and nearly invisible perspective, he uniquely witnessed both wives and how they both impacted the characters around them. Ben could search for seashells and walk the beach, privy to visitors and secret conversations, even if he personally didn’t understand the meaning or context. Granted, he didn’t have sufficient access to all of the information and characters, but his innocence would be in keeping with some of the original themes in the novel.
On the other hand, for optimal upclose access to the story, maybe it should be told by Danny. She could supply us with flashbacks of Rebecca’s escapades, the brutal fights, the lovers, the parties, and more. She could provide us a prequel-like glimpse into Manderly. Then Danny could stalk the new Mrs. De Winter and try on Rebecca’s nightgowns and cackle and seduce Jack Favell in the marital bed. Of course, that would remove all suspense of behavioral motives and turn into something creepy and gory. A horror film, not a psychological thriller. We might as well just sponsor yet another remake of Psycho.
Actually, I think the best alternative narrator would probably be Frank. He could take on the role of the quiet witness in the vein of Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby. The best friend who was confused by his friend’s dissonant marriages, and trail of conflicts and rumors stemming from the grounds at Manderley. The sad irony is that promoting a male character to primary protagonist unfairly removes the new Mrs. De Winter from her privileged position. So in an attempt to promote a more feminist perspective, this would strip the original protagonist of her voice only further.
No, if we take away the new Mrs. De Winter’s authentic, tiny fly-like experience, we take away everything about the story that is hauntingly sad and awkwardly beautiful. She must be plain and dull and stupid. She must be afraid and overshadowed. She must be so insignificant that the sea wouldn’t take her. And most importantly, she must be the one to experience it all, but must not light the match. It must be her, our unnamed bride, who tugs us along through the story as it unfolds. No one else can adequately substitute.
Then we are back at the same predicament that made Lily James’s portayal so misguided and in opposition to the very crux of the story. We cannot, should not ever admire the bride or wish to be swept up into Max’s arms and whisked away to Manderly. Moreover, any faithful, meaningful interpretation will require us to swallow the indictment of the female gender in historically harmful contexts and accept it as commentary rather than truth. It is a comfort that our social advancements have made Du Maurier’s critiques anachronistic and I’d like to think she could be proud of her heroine’s ultimately limited shelf life.
Nevertheless, without historical context, literary analysis, and the ability to suspend your own notions and standards, the story just simply does not work. Expecting a mass market audience to adhere to these requirements is a non-starter, as apparently the screenwriters well understood. It stands, then, that they should have scrapped the plan and left the classic with its own identity. Rebecca’s ghost needs to be contained within book pages and never exposed to anyone who is not invested in tearing apart her web just as it was spun.