New on Netflix, director Ben Wheatley’s Rebecca is the latest one in the long line of adaptations of the 1938 psychological horror and gothic novel of the same name.
Written by Daphnie De Maurier, the novel revolves around a young unnamed narrator who begins to recall the events that happened in her former home- the picturesque English estate Manderley. Haunted by the oppressive presence of her husband’s former wife, the narrator struggles to keep herself and her marriage afloat.
While remaining largely loyal to the original novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film, Wheatley has made a couple of changes to appeal to the modern audience.
The Netflix version of Rebecca is set in the late 1930s like the novel. It begins with the narrator, Mrs de Winter (Lily James) uttering the famous line: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Through a series of flashbacks, she reveals the events that have transpired up until this point.
The story starts with her working as a companion for the nosy Mrs Van Hopper (Ann Dowd), whose sole purpose is to advance her social status. During their stay at a hotel in Monte Carlo, they encounter Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), a widower who is still recovering from the accidental demise of his first wife- the eponymous Rebecca.
Soon, Maxim and the young woman embark on a whirlwind romance that results in a hasty marriage. The young bride quickly realises that her husband and she do not have much in common. The undeniable and ghostly presence of Rebecca begins to cast a looming shadow on their marriage.
Insecure about her husband’s feelings for her and the charismatic Rebecca’s beauty, wit, and popularity, the new Mrs de Winter feels out of place. To make matters worse, the housekeeper Mrs Danvers’ (Kristen Scott Thomas) cold and malevolent behaviour towards her increases her suspicions about Manderley and its inhabitants.
Unlike the book and Hitchcock’s version, where Maxim is well in his 40s, in the 2020 version; he is only 33 years old.
The age difference plays a significant role in the aloofness and disconnect that the new wife feels towards her husband once they move to Manderley. Portrayed as a young, inexperienced woman with no “proper high-class etiquette”, the movie does not rely on the male protagonist’s age to propel this point forth.
Painting him as a vulnerable and volatile character is a stark contrast from the charming, aloof, and composed Maxim that De Maurier and Hitchcock portray.
The director also introduces a scene where Maxim sleepwalks to the estate’s west wing which used to Rebecca’s room until her death. Though the scene is not there in the book, it causes the viewers to wonder if he has truly moved on from his former wife.
The psychological horror elements of the novel have been retained. However, rather than depicting them in the unsure and oppressive environment that is Manderley, Wheatley brings them out in Mrs de Winter’s vivid and ominous dream sequences. Even the class conflict is glossed over to focus the story on the mystery.
One of the major changes that the viewers can notice is the costume ball sequence. Mrs Danvers tricks the protagonist into wearing a gown that was worn by Rebecca during the previous ball. This leads to Maxim losing his cool and ordering his new wife to change immediately.
Adding on that, the movie introduces a psychedelic dance sequence, where the protagonist feels as though she is being brought down by the history of the house. She even spots a mystery woman, who she assumes is Rebecca. Whether the narrator was hallucinating or it was indeed a ghostly presence is left unsaid.
Towards the climax of the Netflix movie, Rebecca’s body is discovered and it appears that her boat has been tampered with. Maxim admits to the protagonist that he shot her in a jealous rage. Du Maurier restricts the proceedings to the house. Maxim’s wife, Mrs de Winter, is still not an active participant.
Interestingly, the 1940 film skips the murder aspect altogether due to the Hays Code, which prohibited from movies from showing that it was possible to get away with crime.
In the new version, there is a proper court trial that finds Maxim guilty of murder and arrests him. Then, his wife takes it upon herself to get him acquitted.
The story ends with a deranged Mrs Danvers setting Manderley on fire and escaping after her failure to break up the couple. However, here she jumps to her death after she burns the estate down as she is unable to live without Rebecca. Though it is different from the book, it captures her unhealthy obsession with the dead woman.
Rebecca is a modern adaptation of the timeless novel and its changes in style and the denouement allows the creators to bring the masterpiece into the 21st century.