In black and white film, a house is devoured by flames as a car races down the road, drawn to the scene of the grand estate on fire. By Hitchcock’s direction servants rush along the lawn, looking upwards to the west wing of the house where a woman in black is visible standing by the window. The bed of the first Mrs. de Winter burns in her shadow, the final reach of the dead woman.
Originally a novel published in 1938, Alfred Hitchcock managed to transition Rebecca into an Academy Award winning film in 1940. Often hailed as the master of the suspense genre, he rose in popularity, allowing for his films to endure over the course of many decades. Newer remakes have helped to put his original work back into the spotlight, such as the television show Bates Motel which aired in 2013, launching attention back to the original masterpiece, Psycho.
His film history has lasted to this date, and it was because of Daphne du Maurier that he grew in talent, fully mastering his dramatic camera angles and rigid storyboard method.
Having begun her career as a writer with a series of short stories published throughout the 1920s, du Maurier was thrust into the literary spotlight with the release of Rebecca. Despite having languished while writing the novel as part of her three book deal, as well as trashing the first 15,000 words she had drafted, Rebecca had swiftly come to form after a Christmas spent far away from her own family and children. Having been inspired heavily by du Maurier’s own feelings of jealousy of her husband’s prior relationship, she managed to spin a complex gothic tale of a nameless girl, and a dead woman.
As a romantic psychological thriller, Rebecca told the story of a nameless protagonist and the whirlwind romance between her and Max de Winter, a rich widower. His first wife, Rebecca de Winter manages to extend her presence from beyond the watery grave, stirring strong emotions of jealousy and resentment. Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine take on the roles of the newly married couple, swiftly unraveling over the course of the film and novel.
Hitchcock learned a valuable formula in crafting a classic gothic tale from du Maurier. A female, having arrived at a large English estate shrouded in mystery, struggling to create herself a new life are the bones of the many grim stories that came before. One of the primary achievements of the film was masking the identity of the protagonist so thoroughly, that she often exists without any identity. Other characters talk around her, rarely ever confirming her marital name and status.
This was a massive success for the film, having had to adapt from the first person narrative where readers had the advantage of gaining insight from the narrator herself. By Hitchcock’s hand, the protagonist was reshaped and presented as a floundering girl, someone without any real identity that could contend with Rebecca’s.
The setting of Rebecca allowed for the film to shine. As a grand estate alongside the coast, du Maurier had crafted a complex environment filled with rocky coves and hidden shipwrecks. Because of this diverse landscape, the film was allowed to be visually complex. The structure itself had been massive, looming over the characters. Often, the protagonist would be seen trembling her way through the long corridors and grand rooms, trying to find refuge.
Hitchcock managed to bring a dead woman back to life by scattering symbols of her throughout Manderley. Directed by the original novel, tokens of Rebecca de Winter’s life remain on display. Her embroidered initials stake her claim across the domestic realm of the estate, and it was by her own hand that she transitioned the small building by the cove into a place where she could freely engage in a sexual lifestyle with other men. Rebecca’s bedroom and morning room exist and function as an extension of her domain, allowing her world to remain present.
One of the highlights of the film was the clear representation of a toxic relationship. The protagonist visibly wilts, trying to win her husband’s affections. However, Max de Winter often rebukes her, heaping on criticism of her character and watching her spiral into a state of nervousness. As she attempts to change her appearance numerous times, it is never to his satisfaction. She cannot compete with the beauty of his former wife, and is trapped in a marriage without real love.
The turning point in their relationship is when Rebecca’s ship is recovered. Despite the careful transition of novel-to-film, the ending had to be altered to be approved by motion picture production code. In the original novel, Max de Winter admitted to murdering his wife by shooting her. In contrast, Hitchcock was forced to alter the scene to make it more tasteful by having him admit, in an emotional state, that it had been an accidental confrontation between the two that had led to her death.
The protagonist is able to swiftly take control of their marriage with this confession, delighted with the events that had transpired a year ago. Rebecca had been tarnished, and instead of a murdered victim, she became a hurdle for the two to overcome together. She argues that Rebecca de Winter’s death could be covered up, and that it would always be his voice against a dead woman.
Perhaps the grim thrill of the protagonist throwing herself at Max de Winter’s defense is the real horror of the story. Despite Rebecca having been a murdered woman, the narrator is suddenly able to restore her own identity and take control of the situation, drowning the reality of the situation.
Hitchcock learned a valuable lesson from du Maurier. The grimness of humankind and the toxic relationship between the married couple represented the real peril of marriage; in losing one’s voice and becoming trapped into gendered roles of the time. She gave him incredible pacing building to the shocking truth to Rebecca de Winter’s death, and the transition of a struggling woman into a hardened soul, clinging to their relationship while denying another woman her voice.
However, perhaps the greatest element of Rebecca was the creation of Mrs. Danvers. With numerous descriptions of her ‘dead skull’s face’ in the novel, the film positioned her shrouded in dark shadows, a loathsome figure stalking the protagonist around Manderley.
Admittedly, Mrs. Danvers was the finest creation to be given to the gothic genre as a whole. As a classic element to the genre, her figure could be traced to other published work decades later. For example, her personality could be found in the sadistic cab driver from Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial, or Ruth Ware’s housekeeper in The Death of Mrs. Westaway. Never once a redeemable character, she morbidly obsesses over the life of her deceased mistress. Hitchcock was able to bring her to life, expertly framed in darkness, and let her menace her way about.
While Hitchcock could be said to be the master of suspense, I think it would be fair to claim Du Maurier the mistress of suspense.
While he has transitioned two other pieces of du Maurier’s to film, Rebecca was one he was forced by the studio to remain faithful to, despite the altering of the cold-blooded murder. The novel had been a gift, almost, to Hitchcock, despite his later complaints of the lack of humour the film contained. He was able to take the slow transition of a helpless woman into a hardened accomplice, and to the slow destruction of something grand and make it into something superior to many films of the time.
Has one of your favorite books been transitioned to the movie screen? Was it good? Terrible? Tell me your bookish plights below.
Rachel Small is not a small person and might be the present day reincarnation of Lizzie Borden. She crawled to life one night after midnight in the basement of a bookstore.