In an age of endless remakes, sequels, re-imaginings, and reboots, Hollywood’s penchant for relying on the same conventions and stories can still manage to surprise us. The announcement of Netflix and Working Title’s upcoming Rebecca adaption marks the latest head-scratching-inducing, remake-related phenomena.
Per Variety, British director Ben Wheatley will direct the adaption of Daphne du Maurier’s classic Gothic romance, and two powerhouses, Lily James and Armie Hammer, will star.
Jane Goldman (Kingsman: The Secret Service) will write the screenplay based on du Maurier’s novel, which chronicles the marriage between a naive young woman, Mrs. de Winter, and the older, brooding Gothic hero Maxim de Winter. When Mrs. de Winter arrives at Maxim’s foreboding coastal estate, Manderley, she finds herself constantly reminded of her husband’s dead first wife, Rebecca, whose legacy exerts severe torment on her, the tortured Maxim, and their home.
From Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful 1940 version to Jim O’Brien’s 1997 BBC miniseries, various film and television adaptations of the celebrated novel have suffused pop culture for nearly 80 years. Adapting Rebecca in 2018, therefore, may seem devoid of purpose — why bother touching a novel that has already been competently made countless times?
As a faithful adaption of the atmosphere of du Maurier’s novel, Hitchcock’s incarnation starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier remains one of the most superb adaptations of any book, period. Its delineation of shifting dynamics and insuperable barriers in relationships is chilling and powerful, and its portrayal of lovers desperate to keep their fading lust and sparks intact shows Hitchcock at his most vulnerable and human.
Notably, Hitchcock’s film continues to exert a palpable influence on filmmakers today. Paul Thomas Anderson cited Rebecca as a major influence for Phantom Thread, which also features a controlling, secretive gentleman bringing a youthful, lustful woman into his house. Considering the abiding interest in Rebecca, it will be a tall order for Wheatley to add a fresh take on such a revered story and thereby justify the existence of another adaption.
Fortunately, if there’s anyone to reinvent the story and tropes encircling Rebecca, it’s Wheatley. Since 2010, the promising and versatile director has released several acclaimed, modest-budgeted movies, including the well-executed, psychological horror film Kill List, last year’s crime thriller Free Fire, and the sardonic oddity Sightseers. Wheatley has established himself as a capable filmmaker across various genres, which will prove useful for adapting a novel like Rebecca, which infuses elements of romance, horror, crime, and mystery.
Not all of Wheatley’s films are unequivocal successes, but he reliably imbues his projects with his unique voice and succinct ability to capture the darker sides of humanity. If Wheatley’s previous work acts as any indication, he will use his idiosyncratic, darkly comic sensibilities to differentiate Rebecca from its previous film iterations.
James and Hammer’s casting as the leads all the more heightens the intrigue of Wheatley’s adaptation. Considering James and Hammer will “star” in the project, it’s heavily implied that their respective roles will be Mrs. de Winter and Maxim. Surpassing Fontaine and Olivier’s pitch-perfect performances in Hitchcock’s film will prove itself a difficult feat, though James and Hammers are appealing — if not the most dynamic — actors with impressive credits to their names.
In particular, James plays naivety and innocence well, as exemplified in her performance as the sweet-natured Deborah in Baby Driver. With an ingenue style of beauty and warm screen presence, she has the potential to embody Mrs. de Winter’s modesty and sincerity to a tee.
Whether playing an aloof, confident grad student in Call Me By Your Name or a raging capitalist in Sorry to Bother You, Hammer perpetually exudes a charming, albeit distinctly American, bro-ish vibe. Imagining the actor playing a wealthy Englishman feels hilariously offbeat and uncharacteristic, but not wholly infeasible. Hammer has only been a leading man for a few years; perhaps his performance as Maxim will unleash a range and talent that hasn’t already been exposed to us and, in turn, give justice to du Maurier’s iconic character.
Still, Hammer’s casting as the beleaguered Maxim is befuddling. In the novel, Maxim is roughly 20 years older than Mrs. de Winter, while Hammer is a mere three years older than James. Pointing out these age differences may seem arbitrary, but within the novel, the considerable age gap between the couple leads to perpetual tension and a skewed power dynamic between them, as Maxim often treats Mrs. de Winter like a child.
Hammer’s young age may hinder the more abject unnerving dimensions to Maxim and Mrs. de Winter’s relationship, though Wheatley may find other, more innovative ways for their dynamic to still retain its overpowering ickiness.
With a creative, gifted director and two likable leads, Wheatley’s Rebecca has the ingredients to inventively distinguish itself from the beloved novel’s previous adaptations. Now it’s time to fan-cast Mrs. Danvers, Manderley’s imposing housekeeper. God, I hope it’s Ann Dowd. Or Lesley Manville.