Rebecca has been adapted for film (and radio, and theatre) countless times, the most famous one, of course, being Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 version, starring Laurence Olivier as Maxim, Joan Fontaine as Mrs. De Winter, and Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers (the housekeeper who remains loyal to the dead Rebecca). Orson Welles beat everyone to the punch, though, adapting the best-selling book for radio the year it was published; he peppered the cast with Mercury Theatre regulars. Along with numerous adaptations for American television, the BBC produced an excellent mini-series version. The book’s reach is global. There have been a couple of Bollywood films inspired by Rebecca, for example. As much as I love the 1940 version, there’s no reason it should be considered so definitive no one should dare touch it. But the new adaptation for Netflix, directed by Ben Wheatley, with a screenplay by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, highlights the strengths of the 1940 version, and underlines its own lack, in terms of style, atmosphere, and general understanding of the story itself.
The novel starts as a dream with the famous opening line: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” This adaptation keeps that structure before leaping to Monte Carlo where a young woman (Lily James) suffers under the control of her employer, a ghoulish social climber named Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd). While it takes place explicitly in 1935, the Great Depression is nowhere in existence. This is a glittering Jazz Age world, all champagne-fizzy and golden-lit, rich people in linens, swing-y jazz in the background. One morning, the glamorous Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) rescues our heroine from social embarrassment, and, captivated by her, invites her out for a drive. The whispered gossip is Maxim is still grieving the death of his beloved wife Rebecca. After a quick romance, including soft-core sex on the beach, he proposes marriage and swoops her back to Manderley.
The second Kristin Scott Thomas, as Mrs. Danvers, her eyes as cold and dark as black ice, slithers across the room to meet the new lady of the house, she establishes the proper style for this feverish material. Her face is powdered white, and her lipstick makes of her mouth a dark slash. It’s difficult to eradicate the memory of Judith Anderson’s terrifying and eroticized performance (even with the Production Code, the 1940 film is more explicit about the nature of Mrs. Danvers’ devotion to Rebecca than this updated version). But still, when Thomas arrives she makes the Monte Carlo sequence seem a prologue. As the new Mrs. de Winter wanders through her new home, she notices the letter “R” literally everywhere. Everyone she meets, including Rebecca’s cousin (Sam Riley), who has been banned from the house for mysterious reasons, is still haunted by her memory. Mrs. De Winter is cowed by the this “ghost,” jealous, confused, and hurt by Maxim’s transformation from romantic playboy funboy to gloomy-puss simmering with anger and secrets.