The final section of this post contains major spoilers for the book and film of Rebecca, so stop reading after “The Bottom Line” if you don’t wish to be spoiled.
The Book: I wrote up my detailed reactions to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca for my Classics Club post, but suffice to say that it became one of my all time favorite books. The eerie mood gripped me from the beginning, and the nameless heroine was the perfect narrator through which to experience this haunting story. It becomes a fascinating exploration of character and point of view through her narration. And du Maurier’s prose makes it even more gripping. Rebecca is one glorious Gothic novel.
The 1940 Film: In the hands of producer David O. Selznick and director Alfred Hitchcock, Rebecca received the Hollywood treatment in 1940. In fact, this was Hitchcock’s first American film. At Selznick’s bidding (or, more truly, demand), Hitchcock retains much of the plot of Rebecca, hardly changing the story, save the ending, which I discuss – with major spoilers! – at the end of this piece. The Master of Suspense brought his trademark touch to the story, successfully translating du Maurier’s Gothic elements to film. The strength of the movie, however, is in its casting. Much has been said about Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers, and she is quite brilliant (though I wish she were taller like in the book). But, to me, the standout is Joan Fontaine, who appears to have been born to play the second Mrs. de Winter. I admit that I had known Fontaine played the nameless narrator before ever picking up the book, and I couldn’t help imagining a Fontaine-like person as her. But when I saw the film, she not only looked the part – the hair, makeup, and costume people really must be applauded as well – but she also fully embodied her meek persona. I distinctly remember a scene in which Fontaine, with a haunted expression on her face, seems to shrink into a chair; more than any piece of dialogue, that image shows how insecure and scared the character felt.
The Bottom Line: Rebecca is a compelling story in either medium. Since it’s the mood that makes it, Rebecca makes for a fine comparison on how literature and film portray mood. Due to changes in the ending, however, I would recommend reading the book first.
For those of you who are familiar with the story, feel free to read ahead for my thoughts on the ending of the book versus that of the movie.
Thoughts on the Ending: When I closed my copy of Rebecca, I thought the ending was sheer perfection. All of its power is in what is not shown: you know that Manderley is gone forever, that Mrs. Danvers burned it to the ground, and that life is going to be very different for Mr. and Mrs. de Winter. Instead of leaving it to the imagination, the movie shows this – and even shows Mrs. Danvers dying climactically in the fire. Apparently, this was done because the Hays Code could not allow wrongdoers to get away with evil – thus, Mrs. Danvers could not get away with the destruction of Manderley. Likewise, Maxim didn’t kill Rebecca according to the movie because the Hays Code wouldn’t let a character get away with murder, so the movie makes Rebecca’s death an accident.
But, even in the book, did Maxim really get away with murder? After all, he lost his home – really lost everything except his wife. The book makes it seem as though Rebecca does have her revenge in the end. I think that an argument could have been made to view the destruction of Manderley as Maxim’s punishment. But the Hays Code probably wanted a more traditional (read: legal) form of punishment for Maxim, so that likely explains why the changes were necessary.
For those of you who have experienced Rebecca in both forms, what do you make of the changes in the ending?