by Anna Weber
You do not have to go all the way to Manderley again if you are looking for Rebecca. Ever since that house burned down, Daphne du Maurier’s story roams through popular culture unshackled. It is the ‘Nation’s Favourite Book’ as of 2017 according to WHSmith’s social media poll, beating Pride and Prejudice, To Kill A Mockingbird, 1984 and even its own godmother, Jane Eyre. It won two Academy Awards as Alfred Hitchcock’s famously great adaptation in 1940. It helped Taylor Swift find inspiration for Folklore. Most recently, it washed up on the shores of Netflix as Ben Wheatley’s famously poor remake. Rebecca’s appeal, most likely, lies in its unwholesomeness: Manderley is populated by Cinderella characters reborn as psychopaths. The latest adaptation tweaks the bleakness to suit the tastes of a contemporary audience — what Wheatley calls ‘modernising the book.’ However, considering the plot rests on all major characters’ inability to be sincere and empathetic in their relationships, Wheatley’s rose-tinted spin on the de Winters’ marriage seems more like the consequence of the book’s marketing tradition than a plausible reinterpretation of du Maurier’s much more powerful original.
According to the biographer Margaret Forster, du Maurier herself found Rebecca ‘rather grim’ and had grave doubts about its popular appeal. The book’s generic pigeonhole was determined by her publisher, Victor Gollancz, when he promoted it as an ‘exquisite love-story’. This label was eagerly taken up by the critics — to the Sunday Times, much to du Maurier’s dismay, the book seemed a ‘romance in the grand tradition’. Du Maurier must have been well aware of the implicit value judgements attached to the romance genre. Like most of her other books, Rebecca has since been banished to the cultural cul-de-sac of ‘women’s fiction’ and, by extension, the ‘middlebrow.’ This history manifests itself in Wheatley’s focus on the plot’s apparent romance aspects, through which he genders Rebecca more rigidly than ever. The 2020 Rebecca is a romantic drama — a genre which remains firmly pitched to a female audience. This would not be a problem at all, of course, if the story actually made sense as a romantic drama.
While the modernised Rebecca deserves the ridicule it sparked, let us appreciate that Wheatley had good intentions. He tries his best finally to wrench a ‘romance’ from this ‘rather grim’ tale: no more 1930s marital hypothermia. While it takes du Maurier’s emotionally unavailable de Winter more than three months to kiss his new wife in a ‘hungry, desperate’ way, Armie Hammer’s version seduces her after a few days’ acquaintance — on a beach, in broad daylight. Are we surprised, then, when he carries her over the doorstep of creepy Manderley? The original de Winters depend on the cricket scores in the papers to save them from ennui in their later exile; Wheatley’s version bristles with yet more sun-drenched sexual chemistry. And because this is a Modernising Remake, there is even some female agency in their relationship. Lily James’ updated Mrs de Winter makes her own choices, as apparent in her last words: ‘I can see the woman that I am now, and I know I made the right decision to save the one thing worth walking through the flames for.’ If you were wondering, that thing is ‘love’, on which happy note the movie ends. Rebecca just got chick-flicked.
In its newfound female assertiveness, Rebecca joins a procession of classics by women writers currently being (re-)adapted and contemporised. Production companies seeking to cash in on the contemporary appetite for some feminism celebrate their protagonists as proper girlbosses, or for their liberated thirstiness, or both. Sometimes, the result is a gift to humanity, like Greta Gerwig’s 2019 take on Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Sometimes, it simply looks fun, like the upcoming Nancy Mitford adaptation of The Pursuit of Love with Lily James. (Kudos to Lily, by the way: in continuing the supply of fresh-faced costume dramas, she really is the Keira Knightley of our decade.) Like the example of Rebecca shows, however, the quality of the New Old Period Piece varies greatly. Modern Persuasion on Netflix recently sought to, well, modernise Austen — let us just say it was a disservice, if anything. There will be another, unrelated new version later this year: ‘Postmodern Persuasion’, I guess? Kenneth Branagh, who was responsible for the underwhelming 2017 Murder on the Orient Express, is currently remaking Death on the Nile as ‘the sexiest Christie that has ever been made’: a bold ambition, considering the BBC’s juicy takes on And Then There Were None (2015) or ABC Murders (2018), but true to a broader trend of remakes that strive to justify their existence by adding some timely explicitness.
The question is: what do Christie’s stories, or du Maurier’s — or anyone’s — gain from a sexy, bold makeover? What makes a Contemporary Remake worthwhile? Roger Michell’s My Cousin Rachel from 2017 offers a clue: du Maurier’s original is charged with sexual tension, which the new version brings out more deftly than the classic adaptation from 1952. 21st-century adaptations are free from constraints like the moralistic Hays Code, which forced filmmakers to down-tone daring fiction for the big screen. They can explore the classics in all their implicit juiciness, not having to blush and skirt around important aspects of the narrative. In this way, they can reassert the value of a classic text for a new audience and recognise its complexity.
In the case of Rebecca, the problem is that Wheatley’s zeitgeisty twists — like real passionate sex and real female agency — undermine any plausibility the narrative may have. Lily James’ decision to reinterpret the second Mrs de Winter as ‘less of a damsel in distress’ hollows out a central pillar of the story: the protagonist’s severely low self-esteem and inability to adapt to her new identity as grande dame. This is a woman who answers her own phone with ‘Mrs de Winter has been dead for over a year’: du Maurier certainly succeeds in her aim to portray her as ‘intimidated, humiliated and even abused throughout most of the story’. While the novel also charts some development on the narrator’s part, the whole point is that this happens in very small steps, such as when she finally stands up to her nemesis and housekeeper Mrs Danvers after three months of harassment: ‘I am Mrs de Winter now, you know’. Is there such a thing as pathological politeness? Compare this to Lily James’ twenty-twentified version. The updated protagonist not only fires Mrs. Danvers, but then heroically races up to London — yes, she can drive a car — and under false pretences obtains access to Rebecca’s medical records, clearing her husband’s name by herself. Why would such a girlboss stick with the same husband in the first place, having learnt a very short time earlier that he murdered her predecessor? Here, the psychological credibility of the plot collapses. Surprise, surprise: not every female protagonist in a ‘women’s novel’ can be coerced into sassy autonomy.
As to the related problem of romance, Lily James has stressed that the film explores ‘difficult areas’ and lets ‘people decide whether it’s a great love story, or whether it’s about an abuser and a victim’. Oh, Lily — how far have we really come in our wokeness if we think this could ever be a ‘great love story’? The original plot certainly begs the question of just where the potential love story is — unsurprisingly, since du Maurier herself thought of Rebecca as ‘a study in jealousy’ with ‘more hatred in it than love’. De Winter famously never loved Rebecca, whose murder he first contemplated five days into their marriage upon finding out that she preferred an open relationship and ‘was not even normal’. As a true landed gentleman, Maxim’s affections were clear to him: ‘I put Manderley first, before anything else’. He and the narrator eventually come to confess their love for one another, directly after Maxim made another confession: ‘Rebecca was not drowned at all. I killed her . . . Will you look into my eyes and tell me that you love me now?’ The narrator will indeed, and after a very short period of bewilderment finds that ‘my heart was light like a feather floating in the air. He had never loved Rebecca’. The bloodcurdling fact that she never questions her loyalty to the man who murdered her predecessor shows that her attachment cannot rest on wholesome foundations. To complete the book’s crisscross of toxic relationships, Mrs Danvers worships the dead Rebecca, her former employer whom she helped raise, with clear, sexual overtones. There are many stories of obsession in this book, but refashioning Rebecca as a romance requires a very peculiar understanding of the genre. Wheatley’s understanding clearly tolerates impressive levels of toxicity as well as implausibility: voilà Rebecca for the present day.
In reinforcing Rebecca’s implausible romancing, Wheatley’s ‘update’ of the story exposes itself as more conservative than its 1940s forebearer, Hitchcock’s version. This first adaptation presents Rebecca as a psychological thriller, congruent with Hitchcock’s artistic brand. Although it reinterprets Rebecca’s death as an accident rather than murder to satisfy the conditions of the Hays Code, which would have required a murderer to be punished, it does not attempt to make the story more romantic than its inner logic allows. As a psychological thriller, Hitchcock’s Rebecca broke free of its gendered genre constraints. This fact doubtlessly facilitated its subsequent Academy Awards success, where it received the highest number of nominations that year. Together with Hitchcock’s status as a creator of classic cinema, the first movie version of Rebecca thus amassed better credentials of high culture than the novel ever did. For illustration, just note how du Maurier’s original continues to be advertised as an ‘international bestseller’ rather than a classic. An ‘international bestseller’ clad in pulpy gothic covers — the stuff of airport newsstands rather than academic reading lists. Exceptionally, Virago has now issued Rebecca as part of a Modern Classics series, presenting their 2012 hardcover edition in neutral patterned linen. But the paperback versions in their aesthetics of gothic romance continue to scream ‘shallow women’s lit’: ornamental typeface, sombre background, decaying flowers. And — despite the publication of du Maurier biographies, a non-academic companion to her work and a number of journal articles during the last twenty years — academia, as a central gatekeeper of high culture, largely continues to ignore Rebecca. In this context, and set against Hitchcock’s take on the story, Wheatley’s recent adaptation is a step back in Rebecca’s reception.
But then what is the way forward for well-meaning, woke-ish filmmakers? When it comes to stories of female passion and agency, they have to make up for lost time, after all. One lesson can be imparted from Rebecca: ‘women’s lit’ does not always need a modernising touch. The novels are subversive and complex as they are. In Rebecca, a self-determined, passionate woman is hiding in plain sight: Rebecca. A credible, cinematic re-imagining of the story should have focused on her, as one of the book’s literary spin-offs — Sally Beauman’s Rebecca’s Tale (2001) — masterfully does. Rebecca owns her sexuality. She owns her body to the extent that she incites her own murder at a time when assisted suicide was to remain illegal in Britain for another 60 years. Famously, she has ‘beauty, brains and breeding’, meaning she is a hot, clever snob: everyone’s favourite chick-flick heroine. Rebecca says, ‘I shall live as I please … and the whole world won’t stop me.’ One hears Megan Thee Stallion cheer from the back: real hot girl shit.
Bizarrely, Rebecca’s (and Mrs Danvers’s) authentic thirstiness is one of the book’s facets that Wheatley deliberately ignored. ‘Was Mrs. Danvers in love with or having sex with Rebecca?…I could see some inference of it, but it wasn’t something that, as a part of modernising the book, we wanted to lean right into’, he has said. Is to ‘modernise’ Rebecca, then, to heteronormatise it? The novel’s inferences of queerness are in-your-face by the standards of 1938, and integral to its subversiveness. According to de Winter, the past life of his ‘not even normal’ first wife was full of ‘things I shall never repeat to a living soul’. This diction reflects the painful ways in which du Maurier wrestled with her own bisexuality in her letters and journals, thinking of herself as ‘unnatural’ and agonising that ‘if anyone should call that sort of love by that unattractive word that begins with “L”, I’d tear their guts out.’ Du Maurier was a troubled writer, and Rebecca is a troubled book, yet it is rich enough in female fervour to render any ‘modernising’ efforts absurd.
What to do, however, if one wanted to leave Rebecca dead and buried but still retain some female agency, sex-positivity and general wholesomeness? Maybe that is the second lesson here: there is nothing to do. Even if cinema’s only aim was to provide role models for emancipation, which would reduce the variety of characters populating our screens considerably, it would not make sense to supercharge a nameless narrator into a fully formed #queen within a space of months. Good narrative is not a before/after video: people identify with slow journeys from relatable beginnings — in other words, they want to see credible development. In general, though, not every female character in every film is improved by a Florence Given-spin, least of all if that trashes the psychological credibility of the plot. If the story does not allow for a goddess, embrace female characters in their contradictions, complexities, insecurities, pathological obsessions with their partner’s dead exes — whatever their issues may be. Not every woman feels empowered in real life, thanks to 2,000 years of patriarchy and counting — it is misleading to pretend otherwise on the big screen. For the 2080 Rebecca re-remake then, let us try something new. And let us have a woman direct it.
ANNA WEBER reads for a MSt in English (1900-Present) at St Hilda’s College. She’ll spend the whole of next year rebounding with “airport fiction”.
Art by Millie Anderson