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Comparing Daphne duMaurier’s "Rebecca" With Its Netflix Adaptation

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Thea is a passionate writer who covers a wide array of topics, including film/tv reviews, opinion-based pieces, and relationship advice.

Rebecca, Rediscovered

Roughly 18 years ago, I was a bright-eyed freshman at my local high school. I was enrolled in an honors English class where the teacher assigned some difficult reads. Admittedly, as a 14-year-old with an underdeveloped ability for abstract thought, drawing conclusions from Daphne duMaurier’s Rebecca when assigned to me was a grueling task. I remember groaning at how long it took her to get to the point, how little action there actually was within the text, and rushing through it, turning in assignments just for the sake of marking them off my list and getting a grade. I was happy when we passed from Rebecca onto Shakespeare, but duMaurier’s paperback novel stayed on my bookshelf, mainly because the bright red cover and curling gilded letters (especially that long, curved R) complemented the rest of my books and made me look like quite a reader. My copy of the novel was forgotten until recently. I was bumbling through Netflix as one often does when they have watched all of the Christmas movies before Thanksgiving has even come, and I saw a striking image of a tanned Armie Hammer and a blonde, simple, yet always stunning Lily James. The title Rebecca, in this instance, was not that golden, scrolling, cursive name with long, sloping letters, but rather it was designed in a minimalist, spaced-out block font. I would come to find out that this was not the only way the Netflix adaptation of Rebecca differed from duMaurier’s text, because I impulsively hit ‘play now’ and later scrambled to find the book in my collection after remembering I had it on my shelf. I set it aside to start reading after I finished watching the film, and that I did. This article aims to point out how different the book and Netflix adaptation are. There will be many spoilers here.

The Netflix film captivated me, I must be honest. I watched it, then watched it again later, and even returned to compare certain scenes to what I was reading in the novel. I feel that the general storyline and especially the big events are maintained from the book, although certain details are added and several characters are compressed into one, probably for sake of time. I wonder if this suspenseful novel would have been better adapted to a six-part series instead of a two-hour film. Still, the writers, producers, and directors craftily brought duMaurier’s mystery back to life with certain aspects that better suit a 21st century audience. All in all, and despite what the film showed faithfully from the novel, there are many differences between Daphne duMaurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca and the 2020 film adaptation.

Mrs. Van Hopper

Mrs. Van Hopper in the book was a snobby and odd woman that other people rejected and avoided, although she never realized this. She was always in others’ business and never made fun of the protagonist (whose name of course is never revealed). She was silly and somewhat of a social climber. She came to Monte Carlo only to see the rich and famous and hobnob with them. In contrast, Mrs. Van Hopper in the Netflix film is more popular and respected; she even entertains a group of friends and they laugh at how silly the protagonist is, and make fun of her drawing skills and perfume. None of these things appear in the book. In the film, Mrs. Van Hopper is seen as downright mean and cruel, certainly to give the protagonist more sympathy from the viewer. From the beginning of the film, we see a sort of damsel-in-distress setup taking play.

The Second Mrs. de Winter

Our main character and narrator begins her story but she never gives her own name. Still, we know a lot about her; in fact, one of duMaurier’s strong suits is really getting us into her characters’ minds. One identifies a lot with the protagonist, as we will call her, as she shares her innermost grievances and whims. The protagonist in the book is supposed to be very young in comparison to her husband, perhaps twenty years or more his minor. She is supposed to be very plain with homemade clothes, flaccid blonde hair, and colorless skin. In the film, as Hollywood would have it, the protagonist has an adorable blonde bob, a beautiful face, and fashionable 1930s clothes. She has so many wardrobe changes and looks great in everything she wears. She does not seem young. She seems about Maxim’s age. The topic of her being young is not mentioned a lot in the film, but it is a central theme of the novel. I believe this is changed because the recent Me Too movement would not condone an authoritative male figure of forty with a teen bride; the cultural climate in the United States is changing and that type of story may not be well received.

Another thing not very developed about Mrs. de Winter is how she became an adult. In the book, as one reads, they become aware of how the protagonist started out as an immature, poor, needy little shy thing, and ended up as a strong, feminine support who lost her fear and fully took on her duties as wife and lady of Manderly. This transformation was not as evident in the film, even though Lily James is a pleasure to watch and fulfills her role beautifully as the second Mrs. de Winter. However, she does seem quite the same person in the beginning and in the end of the film adaptation.

The film smartly gives the second Mrs. de Winter a keen interest in cars because her father “loved them”, and the ability to drive (Maxim tosses her the keys in Monte Carlo and she drives them back to the hotel). This is a useful set up because the production team chose to make Mrs. de Winter much more of an independent go-getter who took the bull by the horns, so to speak. In the book, Maxim and the other men made all the decisions and had all the talk, with the protagonist always left out of the loop, until he confessed to her. After that time, he needed to have her close always, and she was dragged along on their search for their final witness, Dr. Baker, six hours away in North London and was able to report to us, the readers, in first person. The film took a different approach, one of female empowerment. They chose to lock up Maxim for suspected murder, and Mrs. de Winter drives to London (just a few minutes’ drive it seems in this case) and sneaks into Dr. Baker’s office and recovers the files. Of course, she does this just in the nick of time and finds the information that they need to let Maxim off the hook. The way the film chose to portray the protagonist in an action-packed way as a female savior is a bit harder to believe than the book, but perhaps better suited to our current age where we do not like to see women portrayed as powerless tagalongs. Much of her character’s independence had to do with the added Hollywood element of a trial (which always makes a movie better), incarcerating Maxim, and her being his only hope. It also helped to show her love and devotion to him in the film.

Maxim de Winter

Perhaps no character strays so far from the book as that of Maxim de Winter. In the book, Maxim is kind of a jerk to his wife. He is never apologetic like in the film, other than apologizing to her for being rude to Mrs. Van Hopper via letter. He is older than she, around forty-two years old. When they are seeing each other in Monte Carlo, he scares her by deliberately driving the car to the edge of a cliff and seeming out of his mind. He picks on her repeatedly as an older brother would a younger sibling, and seems to start fights and exasperate her until she longs for the topic of conversation to be over. When he proposed to her, he did it while eating breakfast. There was no kissing or warmth on his part. It was very matter-of-fact; just another item of business. During their marriage, after they arrive at Manderly, he is cold to her despite her attempts to connect with him. He does not show her love until the end of the book (spoiler alert) when he confesses to having murdered Rebecca. After that time, he can’t keep his hands off her, and the two are passionately united as constant companions. They are physically together after his confession until the end of the book, when they drive up to find Manderly in flames. Since the book starts by explaining how in love they are, the reader is to believe that they continued in their marriage and found happiness together, far away from Manderly.

In stark contrast to all this is the film’s Maxim de Winter played by Armie Hammer. Hammer is a very good looking man and is much more romantic than the Maxim from the book. He writes her multiple notes to go out with him to explore Monte Carlo, and he kisses her on a beach, as well as places sand in the shape of an M on her back while she’s in the sun so she is branded with his initial (a smart move from the production team, I might add. This alludes to Maxim’s possessiveness and adds to the aspect of his possible dark side and mental instability). While at Manderly, he does things that are incongruent with his character in the book. In the film, he sleepwalks to Rebecca’s rooms in the West wing for no apparent reason, on occasion apologizes and cuddles his wife in their bed, and kisses her multiple times. He even spontaneously throws her over his shoulder and brings her in the great estate playfully. He is not as cruel and does not seem as old as the book would have him to be.

I am sure that in the 1930s when the book was released, having a harsh and cold husband was not something so appalling, and pining after them would be expected. Nowadays, it would have caused a controversy to have Maxim acting so hateful toward his wife, and her crawling after him like a sad puppy. I believe this is why they gave Maxim and Mrs. de Winter much more chemistry and sex appeal; it pleasing to watch a man romancing his wife, not emotionally abusing her. The viewer does get a sense of Mrs. de Winter’s desperation at being cast aside from her husband at Manderly, but it is not as intense as in the book because he is not as cruel as he is in the book. In the film, Armie Hammer really captures the change of face and eyes that duMaurier intended for Maxim to have whenever he remembered Rebecca. His face goes from jovial and handsome, to cold and bitter as if something evil swept over it.

Mrs. Danvers keeps Manderley in tip-top shape for more reasons than one.

Mrs. Danvers keeps Manderley in tip-top shape for more reasons than one.

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Mrs. Danvers

The character of Mrs. Danvers was one of the most faithful to the book, both in personality as well as physical aspect. There were a few changes made. In the film, Danvers is shown as at one point befriending Mrs. de Winter and helping her with the preparations for the dance, but this never happens in the book. Another difference is that Danvers testifies in the film during Maxim’s trial (which never happened in the book) that Rebecca de Winter may have been pregnant when she died, which was not a detail given in the book other than when Rebecca taunted Maxim with a hypothetical bastard child. Also, the film shows Mrs. Danvers throwing a match and lighting Manderly in fire, when in the book it only says that she packed her things and fled, then the protagonist has a nightmare of Rebecca smiling at her in the mirror and laughing maliciously, before they drive up to Manderly to see it in flames. This ending inferred that Rebecca had finally won by setting the home on fire. Otherwise, Mrs. Danver’s character and lines are very similar to those in the book.

Other Secondary Characters

Beatrice in the film was strikingly similar to the one in the book, but perhaps had a bit more natural class and tact than the tacky and intrusive Beatrice from the book. Giles is almost not present in the film, but is a silly and kind supporting character in the book. The protagonist finds herself in a group of four or five people and actually feeling accepted and loved, and Giles is one of these people. Frank Crawley is fabulously developed in the book as a shy, somewhat nerdy, character who was a very good friend to Mrs. de Winter. In fact, when her husband mistreated her, he was always there, concerned for her wellbeing and even her pride, sheltering her from embarrassment and helping her socially during any lull in conversation. The film really missed a great opportunity with Frank Crawley. His character in the film was much more distanced, less supportive, less present. The protagonist seemed much more alone, which could have been done on purpose.

Another greatly missed opportunity in the film was that of the character of Ben. When the book was written in 1938, the offensive text described him as having “the eyes of an idiot”, squinting “slant eyes”, and a “red, wet mouth”. It seems to me that she is describing a person with down syndrome. I am not a fan of cancel culture, but I do believe we should evolve and educate ourselves and obviously 1938 was eighty-two years ago and much has changed in the way we refer to people who happen to have disabilities. Ben in the book was a crucial witness during the questioning, and it was satisfactory to see Favell’s accusations come to nothing when Ben refused to witness for him. I feel this triumphant role could have been given to an actor with Down Syndrome to diversify the cast.

Speaking of Favell, he was much too handsome and thin in the film. He needed to be sleazier, redder, more drunk, as in the book. It was hard to dislike him and I was even sympathetic to him in the film. In the book, even though his accusation that Maxim murdered Rebecca was true, I found myself rooting for Maxim and his wife to overcome his accusation and cover up the truth and go free. I did not want Favell and the truth to come out, because Favell was so disgusting and Rebecca so vile. It was like they deserved it, and even though Maxim was lying, it was as if he had delivered justice and his arrest would have seemed unfair. DuMaurier masterfully works her text so that the reader comes to believe the evil of Rebecca’s murder was good and just, and the accusation of the act by Favell was a threat to justice. DuMaurier, as always, is full of tricks and teases. This is important and Favell’s character’s normal nature did not make him hated enough.

Although not a character, duMaurier rambles on and on about flowers, plants, and pastries in her novel. At times it is tiresome, but it serves a purpose, namely to further link Manderly to Rebecca’s influence. While the views captured on film are exquisite, there is not much focus on the azaleas, hydrangeas, or rhododendrons. No attention is paid to the food they eat at tea or the wastefulness at Manderly, which always bothered the protagonist. For some reason, the production team chose to leave these aspects out of the film.

A Final Thought

All in all, the book Rebecca by Daphne duMaurier is a classic of gothic mystery fiction that is a true page turner (except when she’s writing about breakfast foods or flower petals), and the film adaptation from Netflix of the same title does not disappoint, even though it is very different from the text. It is a pleasure to watch, even with added Hollywood elements. It really works well as a film and in my opinion is based enough on the main events of the book to do it fair justice. But, don't just take my word for it. Read it yourself (it's very cheap on Amazon) and catch the film on Netflix. Be sure to reach out about your own takeaways from this literary-classic-turned-movie.

© 2020 Thea Tsayt

Comments

Thea Tsayt (author) from Spain on December 02, 2020:

Liz,

Thank you. The same is true for me! I almost always find the book or at least a synopsis.

Liz Westwood from UK on December 02, 2020:

This is a well executed analysis of the Netflix adaptation compared to the novel. I often find watching a film of a book I have read leaves me looking for the differences.

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