Netflix’s Rebecca: The Story of Daphne du Maurier Rolling Over in Her Grave, Lighting a Cigarette, and Giving Ben Wheatley the Side Eye
I was super excited to read about Netflix’s new movie version of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca. Du Maurier is, along with Shirley Jackson, a master of horror. Her works are full of atmosphere and complex emotions and characters with motivations both understandable and horrific. The big difference between the great female and male horror writers is that women understand that no one brushes the dirt off their hands and exclaims “Well, thank goodness we solved that ancient burial ground problem! Now to face a bright and beautiful future!” For women, the horror that results from both supernatural and mortal acts linger, affecting the characters for the rest of their lives. Rebecca is a masterfully told story about a heroine never identified by her first name. She marries an older man with a romantically dead first wife whose beauty and charm completely surpasses her own. This twisting jealousy and humiliation brought about in large amount from her husband’s silence and the quiet menace of housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, brings the heroine’s morality and judgement into question. In short, there’s a reason it has never been out of print since it was first published. It’s great. The scariest thing about Netflix’s Rebecca is that it’s directed by Ben Wheatley, the visionary director behind A Field in England and High Rise, and he seems absolutely unable to understand what makes the story work.
The problems begin with the casting. Rebecca stars Lily James as the heroine and Armie Hammer as Maxim de Winter, her husband. They are gorgeous. They also absolutely work against the story. In the novel, the heroine is very young, broke, parentless, and rather ordinary. She meets Maxim and is overwhelmed by her love for him, in the way of teenagers. Maxim is at least 20 years older than she is and wealthy, well connected, and sophisticated. They marry after a matter of weeks and Maxim takes the heroine home to his glorious family estate Manderley. There she meets the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers and her constant reminders of Maxim’s first wife Rebecca, a woman with whom the heroine can never compete. Lily James is no one’s idea of mousy and this is a problem. There’s certainly plenty of examples of similarly beautiful women being made up to look plain, but the movie doesn’t dare to do that, which works directly against the character. Lily James wears form-fitting well-tailored clothes and, while she doesn’t appear to be wearing makeup, she’s still obviously extremely conventionally attractive. As a result, it feels very strange when other characters contrast her looks and style to the dead Rebecca and judge her to be lacking glamor and physical beauty. In anything, one might expect Max’s well-heeled friends to elbow each other remarking on Max’s parade of foxes. Arguably, Armie Hammer’s casting is even more problematic. This would have been a great opportunity to do typical Hollywood casting and have a waaaay older man and much younger woman. 60 year old Colin Firth or 57 year old Ralph Fiennes could have done this role in their sleep, for example, with a 20 year old actress. Armie Hammer and Lily James have no more than a three year age difference and it makes his behavior unexplainable. Maxim routinely ignores his young wife’s problems running the household, withholds vital information from her, and occasionally calls her “you little fool” in a paternal way. This makes sense if you imagine a man born before 1890 into the English aristocracy. An older man would be more likely to brush off the troublesome emotions of a young woman and more likely to keep painful information from her. It also makes more sense that he might see a much younger woman as a way of refreshing and renewing his life. When Armie Hammer calls the heroine a “little fool,” kisses the top of her head, and ignores her trouble planning dinner menus, he just comes off as an asshole. He’s given a weird attribute of sleepwalking, which I suppose is meant to illustrate mental anguish, but seems more like an opportunity to show off a set of most un-1930ish hunky biceps. This age difference is critical because one of the core themes running through the book is the fragility of youth.
Our heroine in the novel is very young, perhaps only 21 when she meets Maxim, but the book itself is the remembrance of a much older woman. She frequently remarks on how easily hurt and confused young people are. She is crushed by relatively minor comments and too inexperienced to correctly read other statements. For instance, she is mortified at Maxim’s sister’s suggestion that she wave her hair, interpreting it as an insult to her general beauty and appeal when Beatrice is trying to be helpful in a clumsy way. People close to Maxim tell her constantly that Maxim seems happier and that she’s clearly good for him, but she’s so preoccupied with her own perceived lack of beauty that she cannot see the incredible compliment she’s being paid. She lacks the self esteem necessary to see the value she holds for Max and his circle. Since he is so much older, she tends to assume that he’s correct in all areas and at least somewhat justified in treating her like a child. Her youth is reinforced by the choice not to give the character a first name. She has no identity of her own yet and the title of Mrs. de Winter is the only one that she craves. If she had the confidence of a 35 year old when the story starts, the story couldn’t unfold the way it does. An older woman might very well have marched in Manderley, declared herself the mistress of the house, sacked employees who annoyed her, and broken as many porcelain ornaments as she liked. Since the film lacks the extreme youth of the heroine and the age gap that helps explain characters’ behaviors, the heroine seems unnecessarily awkward and unworldly and Maxim becomes generally unlikeable and condescending.
Wheatley also makes the slightly odd choice of not casting an actress as Rebecca. This isn’t an unheard of idea since Rebecca is dead a year before the story begins and the heroine doesn’t ever see a photograph of her; but as the heroine constantly imagines and dreams of Rebecca this seems like something of a missed opportunity. With today’s special effects, we could have seen a number of extremely unsettling fantasies of Rebecca, perhaps with her face blurred or otherwise altered. We could have seen a vision of Maxim brushing Rebecca’s hair or her laughing and charming as a hostess to further cement the heroine’s insecurities. Wheatley absolutely has the skill to create such visions. His film High-Rise, for example, is so rife with nightmarish visuals that it’s absolutely haunting: decaying garbage-strewn hallways, a character underlit as he towers over a drowned dog in a swimming pool, a decadent 1970s/Rococo-mash up party that’s so uncomfortable you itch to get away. He has no problems creating atmosphere with suffocating levels of dread and apprehension, so why not extend it to one of the greatest Gothic novels of all time? Instead, he chooses to only have other characters describe Rebecca in not particularly exciting exposition scenes and a couple of nightmare scenes that focus mainly on Maxim symbolically tottering away. This is underwhelming particularly since, as a film, we’re not privy to the personal narration of the book.
All this is secondary, however, to the real problem of the film. Wheatley doesn’t seem to trust or understand the original material. Top film Critic Mark Kermode urges his listeners to not let Alfred Hitchcock’s version overshadow this one, but here’s the big problem with that: the Hitchcock Rebecca is extremely faithful to Daphne du Maurier’s novel. Not altering the plot was a requirement in him making that film, with the exception of minor alterations to fit the film code of the time. Kermode, without realizing it, asks us to overlook the source material. Ultimately, that is the problem. Wheatley’s version attempts to twist the story into his own idea of how the heroine should feel and act.
This is an ongoing problem when men adapt women’s books. The focus, perhaps unconsciously, turns to the man in work as the most important moving part. Maxim turns out to have shot Rebecca and deliberately sunk her boat and body. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Rebecca engineered this outcome and her choice of suicide was murder by Max, but ultimately he did it. The heroine finally gains purpose and agency when she learns this. Instead of being horrified, she is elated to learn Maxim never loved Rebecca and all of her intent turns to make sure that Max gets away with it. However, Wheatley’s version is strangely focused on the ethics of a man who killed his wife getting away with it. The ending scene shows this particularly when the heroine takes a last inscrutable glance towards the camera, despite Maxim’s affections, suggesting she’s uneasy with being married to a murderer after all. Unfortunately, this simplifies the emotions in the novel considerably. Confessing to Rebecca’s murder brings the couple closer, romantically and sexually. Maxim and the heroine no longer have secrets from each other and she can finally relax and bask in his affections. The heroine’s morality is questionable and one of the interesting effects of the revelation is that the position of caretaker swaps. Maxim is no longer a paternal figure with a beautiful intimidating house, but a moorless sad creature who needs his quick thinking and resourceful wife to save him from the noose. She stops thinking about her lank hair and poorly tailored clothes to become the protective force he needs. A large number of women’s novels feature heroines who make morally ambiguous decisions. While we might not agree with her choices, we fundamentally understand them because women in the real world seldom have the position, autonomy, and support necessary to see issues in black and white. Even if you set aside the heroine’s obsessive love for Maxim, what future would she face if she left him? She’s a young woman without family, money, or friends. She doesn’t have any particular reason to fear Maxim killing her because she does not behave at all like Rebecca.
Rebecca’s characterization is also ambiguous in this film. Wheatley seems to be teetering on the verge of declaring her a girl boss. Rebecca lived life on her own terms and did whatever she liked and was successful; as a marked contrast to the undynamic heroine. It would be tempting, I suppose, to rewrite her as a modern feminist who simply refused to bow to the patriarchy in the form of her stuffy husband. Certainly, this idea is compounded by the addition of the ancestress of Maxim’s, who both Rebecca and the heroine dress up as, as an early female doctor. The script deliberately leaves out small pieces of evidence of Rebecca’s nature to foster this idea. Most of the gushing praise of Rebecca in the book is given by acquaintances who didn’t know Rebecca well personally. Those who did: Beatrice, Maxim’s sister; Ben, a local man with mental retardation; Frank, the overseer; and even Mrs. Danvers all give little hints about Rebecca’s true nature. Rebecca was outwardly fun, lively, and physically beautiful but she also enjoyed tormenting others. It’s hard to make someone into a girl boss if she threatened to throw Ben into an asylum or spurred a horse until it was bloody and trembling. Mrs. Danvers even explains that “she cares for nothing and no one.” Wheatley’s Maxim justifies Rebecca’s murders by pointing to her affairs- that she intended to keep seeing other men and may even have gotten pregnant by one of them. However, sexual jealousy isn’t the Maxim in the novel’s primary issue. He says that on their honeymoon “she told me about herself, told me things I shall never repeat to a living soul” and that she was “incapable of love, of tenderness, of decency. She was not even normal.” Rebecca is described as being able to flawlessly manipulate anyone she met on a surface level, in the manner of fictional sociopaths. Her affairs were of little consequence to Max as long as she kept them in London and didn’t cause suspicion around Manderley. Wheatley glosses over these anti-social traits and focuses on the affairs as Maxim’s motivation, which does make him feel more culpable. His film even suggests a possible sexual relationship or fascination between Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers. It’s curious that he latches onto the idea of the affairs more than her abnormal mental state; but perhaps it made him more comfortable to see Maxim in the center of the web. After all, the revelation in the novel makes Maxim the one who lacks agency. He is unable to see Rebecca’s true nature before he marries her, he is unable to divorce her without ruining his own reputation, he’s not even capable of killing her until Rebecca wants him to, and he’s unable to protect himself from prosecution without the help of his new wife. Perhaps the idea of this helpless man who should hold all the power, but ultimately is at the mercy of the women around him makes Wheatley uncomfortable; but it’s far more likely he never saw that interpretation in the story at all.
The ending of the novel reinforces this idea and it would have looked great on film. The heroine and Maxim are driving home from London and she falls asleep. She dreams that she sits at Rebecca’s dressing table and Maxim is brushing her hair. Except it’s not her hair, it’s Rebecca’s long dark hair and Rebecca’s face peers back at her from the mirror. Then, as she watches, Maxim takes the strands of hair, twists them into a rope, and wraps it around his neck. When she wakes up, she thinks she sees the light of dawn, but it’s Manderley on fire, possibly with the missing Mrs. Danvers inside. This is a spooky ending. We know that they survive and go on with their lives because the book is narrated by an older heroine, but the implication is clear. Rebecca will always have a hold on them. They will never get true closure or healing because Maxim will always feel shame and guilt over their marriage, the heroine will always feel a targetless rage, and the two of them will always harbor a secret they cannot share with anyone else. The film, however, opts for something much less effective and far less subtle. Mrs. Danvers confesses a boundless love for Rebecca and flings herself off a cliff to drown as Rebecca drowned. This is… odd. For one thing, it’s inexplicable that she’d choose to unburden herself to her submar new mistress, who has conveniently happened by. In the book, she disappears and the reader can speculate that she started the fire. It also deflates the curiosity the reader feels at the nature of their relationship. In the book it’s ambiguous whether Mrs. Danvers feels motherly towards Rebecca, is sexually attracted to her, or regards her with a level of hero worship. Rebecca is, undoubtedly, the most interesting person in the novel and it’s too bad her power is downgraded from an astonishing level of strategic cruelty and charm to just seducing everyone in her path. Then we have the final ending where the heroine and Maxim are in an exotic country and she smokes cigarettes and gazes uneasily into the camera. The implication is that she’s afraid or uneasy being with Max, but this takes the unease firmly into the arena of “things you could do something about.” If you fear your husband you have some practical options: leave, divorce, or murder him. If you fear you and your husband will be plagued by negative memories and emotions caused by a woman who is long dead… there’s a lot less you can do about that.
Rebecca the novel is a fascinating story with a lot of depth and a lot that’s open to interpretation. Rebecca the Netflix film is like a bear skin rug: decorative, visually appealing, but lacking the flesh that would give it life, emotion, or ferocity. It’s too bad because all of it is there waiting in the novel to be let out by a great filmmaker. Unfortunately, that great filmmaker was not Ben Wheatley this time. It’s hollow because he didn’t trust Daphne du Maurier’s genius and stuffed with the sawdust of lesser ideas. I hesitate to think that even those who are unfamiliar with the book would enjoy this film because it’s essentially the story of a neurotic yet attractive woman married to an attractive yet murderous man. I waited anxiously for this interpretation and I am very sorry to be disappointed.