I watched Rebecca as soon as it came out on Netflix, partly because they recommend it to me and partly because it’s right up my alley and I remember loving the book when I was studying it for English Literature GCSEs. I remember it being taught as a supernatural gothic text. And it is, but as time moves on so does artistic criticism, and whilst I wasn’t taught to read Rebecca as a problematic text, watching the recent adaptation made me see all sorts of issues that, in 2009-2010 I would never have noticed.
The Netflix show is an adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s famous gothic text Rebecca, published in 1939. It follows the story of a young woman (Lily James), companion to an American socialite, who meets the much older English gentleman widower, Maximillian (Maxim) De Winter (Armie Hammer), who also happens to be a fabulously wealthy member of the, presumably Cornish, landed gentry.
After falling in love, the two marry and return to Maxim’s estate in England, the famous Manderley, and try to begin their lives together. But when the second Lily James’ character arrives, it becomes apparent that the estate is haunted by the spirit of the first Mrs De Winter, Rebecca, who all of the villagers and servants, particularly the housekeeper Mrs Danvers’ (Kristin Scott Thomas) who was Rebecca’s childhood maid and best friend, remember fondly. They all remind the second Mrs De Winter that she will never be able to replace Rebecca.
After Lily James’ character tries to fit into Rebecca shoes and fails, after she has many spats with Maxim and tragically, though accidentally, dresses up like Rebecca at the behest of Mrs Danvers, Maxim reveals that his marriage to Rebecca was a sham and that he’d shot her when she threatened to make him raise an illegitimate child.
When this is discovered, the second Mrs De Winter comes into her own to save her husband from the noose, and the two eventually escape Manderley and go and live their lives, now free of Rebecca and the house that she had made her own.
The first thing that screams out to anyone who loves literature is the similarities between Rebecca and Jane Eyre. The new, sweet, plain, innocent wife/love interest of an older rich man, trying to fill the shoes of a former, beautiful but wild wife who was actually not as incredible as she sounds. And both of the stories end in the collapse of the grand estate by fire.
Netflix captures all of that. The airy, sunny, fantasy love affair at the beginning. The dismal, pale gothic imagery of Manderley. The eerie, and borderline psychotic personality of Mrs Danvers and the charming but aloof Maxim. I personally think Lily James gave this role all of the timidity and naivety that it required and Armie Hammer, though he not as old as I think he should have been. Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs Danver’s was believable and played the role with a stoic, sinister, dignity, which I believe the part deserved, and I think the whole thing brought all of the psychological horror and mystery that the book had, to life.
The problem that I think some people have is that it captures it too well. It is a very truthful adaptation, and the issue isn’t with the Netflix adaptation itself, but what is being adapted. A lot of us would have studied Rebecca at school, and we were taught to view it as one of the greatest works of fiction. Which it is. But as the years pass, perceptions and views of the world change with it and when that happens, texts like Rebecca and the ideas and ideals that they present us with can seem dated.
As a gothic story, the Du Maurier text has all of the classic tropes of the genre- right down to the ones that many of us today might disagree with. And because of that, it is an excellent psychological thriller. But it is also these traits that, when taken out of the context of the era in which they were meant for, can make the story, and the adaptation of it, seem weak. As a story without ghosts and ghouls, what makes this story gothic are three themes: death, the old English mansion, and the virgin and the whore theme.
The theme of the British mansion is always going to go down well with any viewer/reader. It’s one of those themes that even if a show or book doesn’t have skeletons jumping out of closets, can still set the tone of the whole piece. Netflix’s choice to shoot at Cranmore Manor in Dorset was the right choice, and it does set the tone for the rest of the movie, and the theme of death is to be expected.
Continuing to use the trope of the virgin and the whore is where I think Netflix messed up. And not because they were wrong to give a faithful adaptation. A lot of remakes that come out these days edit out or change things that won’t go down well with modern audiences. While I really appreciate that Netflix didn’t do that, because I think it’s important to keep reminders of things, for a movie that was shot the way it was, with very current actors in outdated roles and stereotypes, it came across as shoddy, lazy, writing when, in actuality, it’s just being faithful to the original book and the era.
There has been some criticism of Lily James’ performance which I think is unfair. I remember in the book the second Mr’s de Winter was supposed to be, naïve, quiet, shy, small, pretty and the overall image of the timid, rather misogynistic, ‘angel of the house’. So, if you think her performance is weak, it’s because her character in the book, at least at the beginning, has no substance.
Where the second Mrs De Winter is the ‘angel’, the first is said to be tall, dark-haired, and reputedly a devastating beauty. She is more expressive, domineering and sexually free, and it is these traits, that Maxim claims, made her a ‘cruel’ woman, whilst the lack of them is what drew him to the second Mrs De Winter.
And we never learn the name of the second Lily James’ character – she is simply ‘Mrs De Winter’. She has no identity of her own, only that of the man she marries- a paragon of early 20th century British virtue. Rebecca, on the other hand, very much has her own identity. She has a name which everyone knows and remembers, and she is a persona beyond simply being Maxim’s wife.
All of these things, whether we realise it or not, work to create this image of Rebecca as this awful woman- which she was- but you can be a horrible woman and still be blonde, short, plain, and naive with no identity save that of your partner’s. All of these additional traits that Du Maurier gave Rebecca, the paraphernalia of evil; dark hair, beauty and freedom of character all act as embodiments of her bad character rather than simply circumstantial character traits.
The implication is then that what makes Rebecca terrible is, in reality, the fact that she spoke her mind and had her own identity outside of her husbands, which the second Mrs De Winter never has. And when the second Mrs De Winter finally begins to come out of herself, it is only to go to the aid of her husband- not to defend herself against those who would do her harm or humiliate her. And when this does happen the first thing Maxim says is that he missed that ‘lost, innocent look’ which drew him to her.
This is why I think it irks a lot of modern-day viewers. When the second and the first Mrs de Winter are pitted against each other, it creates the ‘angel and the whore’ complex, a classic gothic motif but one which modern-day viewers may find unsettling. All of this would not have been unusual for the time of Du Maurier and her contemporaries, but to us, it reads as the misogynistic love of infantile women and the need to suppress female liberation. To the extent that did ruin my experience of the adaptation. But I had to keep reminding myself that was normal for the time and in line with the original book.
So, if you subtract those aspects away from your criticism of Rebecca, the movie is actually beautiful to watch, and the acting is on point. It is not a bad movie. It’s a truthful adaptation of an iconic novel- it’s simply a novel that no longer sits well with modern viewers. Criticism of art changes with time, and our post-woke criticism hasn’t yet adapted to the idea that things were done differently in eras past and often adaptations of art and literature suffer as a result of that.