Why the Novel, “Rebecca”, Cannot Be Made Into a Modern Movie

It was a good try, Netflix. Daphne du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca, seems to scream for a film adaptation and you tried. You even got Armie Hammer, so slick and handsome in spite of his absurd name. And Lily James with her overly statuesque beauty. The sets were gorgeous, the performances rich. But the script? She stunk. Netflix 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. What the 2020 adaptation did was 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 Du Maurier’s tale can’t sustain such brutality without losing and utterly transforming itself. Oddly enough, much like the heroine of the tale. (Spoilers Ahead)

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 an entire manor and an entire village. Rebecca left a sturdy web of adoration, deceit, and secrets that a tiny fly like our second Mrs. De Winter, could not help but be paralyzed and helpless in the shadow of the dead woman.

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. A simpering mouse, if you prefer. She is a child with no voice or mind of her own, yet. 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. She embodies innocence and naivete. 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 consciousness of feminism, this seems too damning for any heroine. It’s honestly difficult to root for a terrified girl who is as delicate as 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. Lily’s Mrs. De Winter asked probing questions and was very curious. She went for a salacious horse ride with a stranger. She pushed Maxim to host the fancy dress ball, and then 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. She had thoroughly undone them all, everyone on the estate and ancillary characters as well.

And 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 it isn’t nearly the psychological thriller and thoughtful study of human character. It’s a completely different story. It isn’t Rebecca.

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. I’m afraid it can’t be done and be successful with modern audiences.

I have even considered that perhaps the story should be told from a perspective other than the new Mrs. De Winter (who, right about now, I wish had an actual name). Moving the focus off of her perspective might enable a haunting tale without politicizing gender too much.

Perhaps the story could be told from Danny’s perspective, and contain flashbacks of Rebecca’s cruelty and intrigues. 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 the suspense of behavioral motives and turn into something really dark, and less moody. A horror film, not a psychological thriller.

I wondered if even Ben might be an interesting narrator. His unique and confused voice would be a fresh twist on the story and characters. Ben could search for seashells and walk the beach, bearing witness 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.

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 enchanting and sad and haunting. She must be the one to experience it all, but must not light the match. So we will just accept our completely flawed, pathetic heroine for all of her simple ways. And we will love the story and bury any gender objectives deep down, all for the sake of a great story.