Adapted From: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Starring: Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, George Sanders, Judith Anderson
Screenplay By: Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison
Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock
This article discusses the full plot of both film and novel. Please be aware of these spoilers.
In previous articles, I have considered the entirety of novels and their adaptations when writing my analysis, selecting the salient points from throughout in order to reach my conclusions. For Rebecca, I'm adopting a slightly different approach to focus on one particular moment in the narrative, the confession and circumstances of Rebecca's death.
Most changes made to the novel are minor - the addition of rain before the unnamed second Mrs De Winter's arrival for example - and done mostly to increase the tension in an already unsettling story. The gothic splendour of Manderley is rendered perfectly in black-and-white, Joan Fontaine is a faultless second Mrs De Winter and she is more than matched by the gravitas of Sir Laurence Olivier and the macabre performance of Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers. It is, in my mind, one of Alfred Hitchcock's best films and the only one to ever net him the Best Picture Oscar.
However, there is one creative decision that was enforced by a legal necessity, rather than simply the ideas of producer David O. Selznick or the control of Hitchcock. The confession scene in both film and novel marks a crucial moment in the development of the de Winters' relationship. The build-up to this moment is defined by the second Mrs de Winter's anxiety that her husband doesn't love her and is kept by his memories of Rebecca. The housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, uses this to torment the second Mrs de Winter until she is an emotional wreck. However, the discovery of Rebecca's body forces her to evaluate her relationship and Maxim to face up to his past.
Here, the hidden circumstances surrounding Rebecca's death are revealed. Around three quarters of the way into the novel after the body is discovered, Maxim confesses that he had killed Rebecca. Despite the appearance of a perfect marriage which had fuelled the second Mrs de Winter's anxieties, Maxim and Rebecca hated each other and on the fateful night in which she taunted him with the suggestion that she could be pregnant with another man's child and no one would ever know, he shoots her and disposes of her body in her boat. He then puts it out to sea, sinks it and claims she died in a boating accident. The second Mrs de Winter decides at this moment to support her husband, despite his confession, because she realises he loves her and not Rebecca.
The film has to adopt a slightly different approach, thanks to the Hollywood Production Code still very much in force during Rebecca's production, established by the organisation which would go on to become the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). For those who are unaware, these industry moral guidelines, also known as the Hays Code, were created for American motion pictures released by the major studios, enforced from 1930 to 1968. One such guideline stated that any character known to have committed a serious crime, such as murder, must also be punished before the end of the film. Given that du Maurier's novel hinges on Maxim quite literally getting away with murder, the film has to be altered in such a way to keep him on the right side of the Code.
The film resolves this by turning Rebecca's death into an accident, falling and hitting her head without Maxim's involvement, thus ensuring he could get away with it and not have to change the entire ending of the narrative. The confession scene is the only narrative beat that is fundamentally changed by the imposition of the Hays Code. As a result, the scene is an excellent example of the way in which an adaptation can capture the spirit of a novel without remaining utterly faithful to the mechanics of the text itself. It is one of the most masterful yet deceptively simplistic scenes that Hitchcock produced in his lengthy and distinguished career.
Du Maurier relies on the narration of Mrs de Winter to capture the interiority of her anxieties and the projection of Rebecca appears as a result. Although never actually seen, the neurotic thoughts of Mrs de Winter allows her to become a character within the novel and the descriptions from the other characters allow that figure to become more three-dimensional and more real. In the novel's confession scene, Mrs de Winter states that "the real Rebecca took shape and form before me, stepping from her shadow world like a living figure from a picture frame."
This line could also be used to describe the way in which Hitchcock films the adaptation's version of the same scene. He shoots the scene as if she were really there, almost like a quasi-flashback as Maxim narrates his story. The empty spaces where Rebecca had been in the moments before her death are seen in close up, the camera moving as she would have moved before her fateful fall. The simple use of the camera to evoke the presence of Rebecca produces a startling effect, one which even caused me to misremember the film after my first viewing, determined that an actress had appeared to portray the character.
Throughout the film, a haunting, melodic score is also used at any point in which Rebecca is called to mind. It returns once again here whilst Maxim reports her dialogue and maps the movements and actions of her as she taunts him. Olivier's monologue is, unsurprisingly, the work of a true master of his craft, conveying the shifting emotions in tandem with the technical prowess on display. It is a stunning visual and one which succeeds in recreating the spectral Rebecca of the book, one which haunts the characters throughout without ever appearing in person.
However, I must confess that I have always found this change to the story to be dissatisfying, removing as it does one of the darkest elements of du Maurier's novel, though of course the blame cannot be laid at the feet of the film-makers. However, it is a change that fundamentally undermines the tension and character work that the film has carefully built throughout its preceding runtime.
The second Mrs de Winter has no regard for the murdered Rebecca and is willing to lie to just about everyone and live a life on the run with her guilty husband, simply because she realises he loves her. It's an extremely disturbing undercurrent to a character that had been the audience's entry point into this world, sharing her anxieties and eliciting their empathy. Though the film similarly allows Mrs de Winter to convince her husband to continue lying, the fact that Rebecca's death is an accident ensures that sudden development in behaviour is not quite so disturbing.
The murder also drives the tension for the rest of the book; will Maxim get away with it? In the film, knowing that he hasn't actually killed her and she simply fell to her death deflates that tension somewhat and does the character of Maxim a disservice. In the novel, he is the engineer of his own potential destruction and his guilt around that defines much of his actions yet this is only the case up to the point with the film version. Olivier plays him as a mercurial Byronic hero with a dark past, but the stakes don't seem quite as high nor perilous as they could have been.
Just as it marks a turn in the narrative for the novel, the confession marks a similar turn for the film, though one that makes for an unsatisfying ending despite not changing the overall narrative too significantly. However, the skill in which Hitchcock and his cast build the tension up to the point of the confession and the way in which the confession is filmed mark Rebecca as one of the finest films in Hitchcock's canon. With rumours that a new adaptation is on the way, it will be difficult for it to capture quite the same atmosphere as this film, even though it will be allowed to remain faithful to the narrative. Until then, Hitchcock's remains the definitive adaptation, one which allows Rebecca to haunt us all.