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Rebeccas

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Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson in a scene from Rebecca (1940), dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Netflix has released a new film version of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, the first feature film adaptation of the book since Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar-winning version from 1940. (Though there have been multiple TV movie and miniseries versions in the interim, and I guess I don’t know what the difference between a Netflix movie and a TV movie is except, I suppose, budget.) It’s dreadful! Don’t watch it, unless you’re in the mood for a really bad movie. Though even as a bad movie, this new Rebecca doesn’t do much to entertain. Its choices aren’t weird or amusingly bad so much as perfunctory. It does the things that a sumptuous period/literary adaptation is supposed to do to “improve” on a stone cold classic in a way that feels almost insulting, as if the only reason for its existence is that a Netflix executive slapped their hand on a conference table and exclaimed “dammit! No millennial is going to watch a black and white movie from 1940! We’ve got make it in color, sexier, and more woke!”

Reader, it is none of those things (well, I suppose it is in color). But the existence of a truly dreadful version of Rebecca felt like a good excuse to revisit some good versions of it. I’ve definitely watched Hitchcock’s version before, though possibly not all the way through. And I first read the original novel in 2004, but this was my first time returning to it. It is, and I will brook no argument on this point, easily among the top literary works in the English language, accomplishing things with narrative voice and unreliable narration that few other novels even attempt. The introduction to my edition, written in 2002, claims that it has long been dismissed as “women’s fiction” and a mere romance (not that there’s anything wrong with romance, but Rebecca is not a romance). I hope that’s changed, and either way, if you have, for some reason, neglected to read this novel, I suggest you correct that omission.

Rebecca is a simple story, ingeniously told. Inasmuch as it is a feminist work (and I’m not sure how fair it is to hold up that yardstick to a novel published in 1938), it is through its interrogation, and finally rejection, of the fairy tale trope in which a handsome prince marries a penniless but virtuous orphan. Its most obvious antecedents are Jane Eyre and “Bluebeard”, but I think its closest cousin today is probably Gone Girl. A rich man marries a woman he can’t control. She’s smart, talented, glamorous, vivacious, and she builds a life for them with his money that he could never have achieved, but also has no input into. Finally, in a jealous rage, he kills her. Then he marries a woman who is the exact opposite of his dead wife: meek, anxious, painfully self-conscious, and most importantly, extremely young.

The genius of Rebecca is that it tells this story from the second wife’s point of view, as she’s immured in a house that the dead wife made her own (because even though her husband hated his wife, he loved how she ran his life, and expects her replacement to do the same even though he chose her specifically because she didn’t have the personality for it). The second wife’s fragile psyche crumbles under the weight of having to live up to her predecessor, until she finally learns the truth—that her husband hated and killed his first wife. At this point, she’s so emotionally battered (and was, let’s be honest here, of sufficiently weak character to begin with) that what matters to her is that she’s loved, even though that love is clearly toxic and needy. She helps her husband evade the law (though really he manages it because he’s rich and connected and none of the people in charge want to know the truth). And then the first wife gets her revenge from beyond the grave, destroying the house that she had made her own. The couple end up in exile, living a proscribed, passionless half-life that is no less than either of them deserve.

To be clear, this is tough to convey in a screen adaptation. Hell, it’s tough to convey on page, and du Maurier only manages it because she’s a supremely skilled writer who has created, in the nameless second Mrs. de Winter, a creature of both immense complexity and a subservience so complete that it makes your skin crawl. The narrator of Rebecca is keenly observant, occasionally wry, and, in her own way, quite intelligent. But she uses those mental powers to construct psychological traps for herself, embarking on flights of fancy in which she imagines that everyone around her is judging her and commenting on her (this is one thing that strikes you when you return to the novel after fifteen years—only a young person could imagine that anyone cares enough to talk about them when their back is turned) and pictures the life that her husband had with Rebecca, a life that never existed but which nevertheless becomes real enough to her that it nearly drives her insane. She finds her strength only when she realizes that her fantasies were just that, but the purpose to which she uses that strength—helping her husband evade justice for murdering his first wife—reminds us that she is still a fundamentally weak person.

Hitchcock’s 1940 version of the story (with a script by Robert E. Sherwood, Joan Harrison, Philip MacDonlad, and Michael Hogan) doesn’t even try to convey the darkness of the original novel. A lot of people blame the Hays Code for the film’s ending, in which it turns out that Maxim de Winter didn’t really murder his wife Rebecca, and anyway she was a bitch and anyway she had cancer, so happy ending! But really, this is an attitude that runs through the entire movie, which imagines Maxim and his second wife’s relationship as a romance that just needs to clear a few hurdles, as opposed to the clearly unhealthy, manipulative relationship it is in the novel.

Still, if you’re willing to tolerate these limitations, Rebecca is one of history’s few perfect movies, and gets a lot right about the novel even if it won’t reach for its heart. As the second Mrs. de Winter, Joan Fontaine gives a disturbingly neurotic, quivering performance that captures, even as her character’s internal monologue is eliminated, how completely outmatched she is by both the living and the dead. Hitchcock’s direction turns Maxim’s home of Manderley into an almost labyrinthine space, a house that is haunted without any ghost. And Judith Anderson’s performance as the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers is chilling, making what could have been a caricature into one of cinema’s most terrifying (and yet, in her own way, most justified) villains.

Perhaps because Rebecca is so good at capturing the novel’s sense of mounting tension and dread (and perhaps because Hitchcock was something of a misogynist), it doesn’t take much work to read into the film the novel’s original take on its central romance. You see it in the way that Maxim infantilizes his new wife, at the same time as he expects her to shoulder an adult’s responsibilities when it comes to making his life comfortable. You see it in her palpable glee when she realizes that no, her husband doesn’t still love his dead wife, he’s just upset because he might not get away with killing her. And you see it in the film’s ending, which closes not on the lovers’ reunion, but on the image of Manderley burning to the ground. You can choose to assume that things turn out well for the de Winters after this, but the film’s choice, to close on an image of destruction, leaves space to conclude the opposite.

There’s no such space to read against the grain in the new Rebecca, mainly because the film itself is so dull and surface-y that no one could possibly be inclined to try. It’s obviously not fair to ding director Ben Wheatley for not producing a feat of direction on par with Alfred Hitchcock (that way lies Gus Van Sant’s shot-by-shot remake of Psycho), but one might have expected him to try to give the material his own stamp. Wheatley isn’t the kind of jobbing director you bring in when you just want a respectable-looking period piece. He’s an auteur whose work includes well-regarded action (Free Fire, 2016), gonzo psychedelia (High Rise, 2015) and just plain weirdness (A Field in England, 2013). None of that is in evidence in his Rebecca, whose single advantage over the 1940 version is that Wheatley had more money and better technology. So he can shoot the film on location, showing off the stark Cornish scenery with handsome drone shots. And he can field dozens of extras to portray the ranks of servants that make a great house like Manderley run. None of it actually means anything (Rebecca is all about class, of course, but calling attention to the servants says nothing about this topic), and none it conveys even an ounce of the anxiety that suffuses any single frame of the Hitchcock film.

The result is that you watch the new Rebecca, and with every scene you ask yourself yet again why they even bothered. The film feels almost embarrassingly like a “modernization” whose sole claim to that title is that it does the things that every other movie is doing. It’s 2020! We can show nudity! Not the lead actors, of course, because we didn’t pay them enough for that, but we will show some unclothed extras just because we can. We will not, at any point, stop to consider what sex means in the context of Rebecca‘s story and how we can use it in a 21st century adaptation (there is, for example, a compelling reading of the novel that argues that Maxim and his second wife don’t consummate their marriage until she learns about his murder of Rebecca; not something Hitchcock could have depicted; definitely something Wheatley could have, if he had cared to). It should come as no great shock that this approach produces an entirely sexless movie. Even the famous scene in which Mrs. Danvers shows the second Mrs. de Winter Rebecca’s clothes has somehow been leached of the original’s erotic charge. (No, not even with Krisin Scott Thomas playing Danvers. Thomas is a treasure, but even she can’t make something compelling out of this movie.)

But the most egregious choice made by the new Rebecca is the one to “empower” its heroine. I’ll say this again: the new adaptation of Rebecca, a novel that is all about its narrator’s meekness and weak character, has decided that what the story really needed was a heroine who is plucky and adventurous, who dreams of traveling abroad, and possesses esoteric knowledge on such topics as botany, forensics, and medicine. This isn’t feminism—the new version does nothing to change the story beat in which the heroine handwaves the fact that her husband murdered his first wife, and helps him evade justice. It’s some executive’s ham-handed idea of wokeness, a panicked reaction against the possibility that people might not like the second Mrs. de Winter. Well, no shit, Sherlock. We’re not supposed to like her! This is a freaking horror story!

It’s quite something to watch someone pour millions of dollars trying to “fix” a story that not only wasn’t broken, but whose point they have clearly failed to comprehend. It’s particularly galling because there are no shortage of ways of empowering the second Mrs. de Winter, if that’s what you want to do (and again, you don’t have to; the original story is perfect just as it is). But all of them require you to acknowledge that her relationship with Maxim is no love story, and that she needs to leave it behind. The new Rebecca fails to realize this so completely that it even bastardizes the novel’s famous opening line into a love-conquers-all message intended to convince us that helping your husband get away with murder is the perfect way to bring spice into your marriage.

The one good thing I will say about the 2020 Rebecca is that, as a result of its being so awful, a lot of people on my twitter feed have been watching and talking about the 1940 version. Maybe this will get it into some people’s heads that old movies can still find new audiences. And maybe some of the people watching Hitchcock’s version will read the original novel, and grasp the things about it that no adaptation, so far, has managed to capture.

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