According to IMDb, Daphne du Maurier’s hit 1938 novel Rebecca has been adapted for the screen fifteen times, including the latest version for Netflix (never mind the number of stage and radio productions). And each of them since the first one has been compared to the original, which was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and released in theaters in 1940.
Hitchcock’s notoriety as a director and the film’s Academy Award for Best Picture are two reasons why his adaptation has become the version to live up to. Netflix’s new feature, directed by Ben Wheatley, is probably the most notable take on the material in eighty years, which makes it especially suited for comparison. And there are indeed some major differences between how the two films tell the same story.
That story follows an unnamed young woman who, while traveling in Monte Carlo with her boss, meets the wealthy aristrocrat Maxim de Winter. His wife died tragically, and he hasn’t been the same since. But something about this new young woman intrigues him, and they elope. When the new Mrs. de Winter returns home with Maxim to Manderley, his seaside mansion, she finds it hard to live up to constant comparisons to Rebecca, his first wife.
The cold and unwelcoming head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, is especially hard on Mrs. de Winter, eventually driving a wedge between the newlyweds. Mrs. de Winter’s hope to put the past behind them are thwarted, however, when a boat washes up on the shores of Manderley with Rebecca’s body inside. Maxim’s attempts to conceal what really happened to Rebecca are now no match for the town’s careful investigation, and the de Winters are in danger of being torn apart.
The first difference between the 1940 and 2020 films occurs within the first moments. In the 1940 version, the future Mrs. de Winter, played by Joan Fontaine, happens upon Laurence Olivier‘s Maxim as he looks over a cliff like he’s contemplating suicide. When she yells out to him, Maxim claims that he is fine, and they part.
The two then meet officially in the Monte Carlo hotel where they both happen to be staying. They are introduced by Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates), an exasperating older woman who employs the future Mrs. de Winter to accompany her on all her travels. When Mrs. Van Hopper falls ill, her paid companion has the time to begin a love affair with Maxim. No matter how good their little dates are, however, that first time they met forever hangs in the back of the audience’s mind as a sign that things are not as romantic as they seem.
In the 2020 version, the future Mrs. de Winter, played by Lily James, and Armie Hammer‘s Maxim have more of a classic meet-cute than an ominous beginning. The young woman asks the host of the hotel’s restaurant to seat her and her boss (Ann Dowd) with Maxim, who looks on behind her. Nervous, she drops the money she’s meant to bribe the host with.
Maxim then does the typical romantic comedy bit of pretending not to be who he really is. He says that “Maxim de Winter” is quite the bore and they wouldn’t want to sit with him. It’s only when the host addresses him that the young woman realizes he is in fact the Maxim de Winter. Their initial meeting does not have the foreshadowing of what will come later. Wheatley’s film definitely leans more toward romance than thriller.
The two films’ casting and respective portrayals of Maxim also present a significant difference between how each version interprets the character and the relationship between him and the new Mrs. de Winter. In the 1940 version, Olivier dons gray streaks in his hair, a sign that he is considerably older than the young woman who will be his second wife. This version of Maxim hints at the age difference several times, warning his new bride that she is wasting her life away on this older widower.
Hammer shows no indication of the age of his Maxim. The actor is as much of a dashing young man as he is in any of his other roles. The age gap between the two lovers is clearly not the focus in this version. Instead, the 2020 adaptation plays up their class difference. The future Mrs. de Winter is denied a seat at the hotel restaurant when her lady, Mrs. Van Hopper, is ill. Working girls such as her are not welcome at the restaurant by themselves. So, Maxim invites her to dine with him.
Mrs. Van Hopper also jokes with her friends about how uncivilized and peasant-like her paid companion is while the young woman listens from the room next door. This class difference continues to plague the new Mrs. de Winter once she’s at Manderley, where courtly duties are expected. What separates the two lovers in this film is their upbringing and assumed place in society.
Unsurprisingly, the 2020 version is more outright with its sexuality compared to Hitchcock’s film. The 1940 adaptation makes underlying references, but there was less it could get away with at the time, under the Production Code. Mrs. Van Hopper does ask the future Mrs. de Winter if she and Maxim have been doing anything they shouldn’t when she hears the news of their sudden engagement. The line is forward for the time in which the film was made, clearly alluding to pre-marital sex without needing to explicitly say it.
Hitchcock’s version also contains one of the most fascinating scenes ever to get past the censors during Hollywood’s studio era. As Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) shows the new Mrs. de Winter all of the things still in Rebecca’s old room, she opens the underwear drawer to reveal the lingerie the first wife had. She then holds up what she says was Rebecca’s favorite nightgown: all black lace and totally sheer.
The housekeeper feels the material and laments about how close she and Rebecca were when she was alive. Mrs. Danvers has long been a pivotal character within queer cinema because of this scene. She slyly hints at her love for Rebecca, which has turned into a complete obsession after her death. It’s not that there isn’t sex in the 1940 version of Rebecca; it’s just not overt.
In 2020, there is no strict code for Wheatley’s version to follow. He gets away with more tangible representations of sex that the previous version could not. The de Winters are shown sleeping together, not in separate rooms. The new Mrs. de Winter tells her husband she is sending for new underwear from London, an attempt to assume the seductress role that Rebecca had occupied before her. And after their fights, the couple makes up in bed.
As Maxim unloads his past onto his new wife, he is not shy about referring to Rebecca’s extramarital affairs and just how many there were. The taboo affair between Rebecca and her own cousin, Mr. Favell, is spoken about in dialogue in this version, whereas the 1940 film hides it a little more. Oddly enough, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) shows about the same level of sexuality that she does in the Hitchcock version. She remains a queer villain within the story, but one not afforded the same amount of on-screen sensuality that the heterosexual characters in the 2020 version have.
The greatest difference between the 1940 and 2020 adaptations, though, is in how each film frames Rebecca’s death. In the 1940 version, Maxim confesses to his new wife that what occurred on the boat the night Rebecca died was an accident. He found out about her affairs, and when he confronted her, he hit her. That wasn’t the cause of her death, though. Rebecca then came after Maxim like she was going to hurt him, but she tripped and fell to the lower level of the boat. She died from a head injury.
Maxim panicked and made it look even more like an accident by damaging the ship and sinking it. He feared he would look culpable because of their rocky relationship, even if Rebecca’s death wasn’t his fault. The new Mrs. de Winter can only sit idly by while everyone proves that Rebecca was not pregnant but had cancer. The court believes that this is enough of a reason for her to commit suicide, and Maxim is free of blame for Rebecca’s death.
In the 2020 version, Maxim confesses to his new wife that what happened to Rebecca was no accident. This explanation is closer to the novel’s version. Maxim murdered her by shooting her point-blank. He then covered up the evidence to avoid arrest, but it didn’t work for long. While in the Hitchcock version Maxim’s wife sticks by him because she knows he is actually innocent, this new version has the new Mrs. de Winter actively help her husband evade arrest when she knows he’s guilty.
Rebecca’s promiscuity and Maxim’s hatred for her are enough reason for the second Mrs. de Winter to believe that Maxim isn’t so bad. Either that or her love is strong enough to bypass any sense. She even goes so far as to tamper with evidence of Rebecca’s visit to her doctor in London in order to keep Maxim out of jail. In this version, the new Mrs. de Winter accepts her husband’s past mistakes and is willing to do whatever is necessary to help him cover them up.
When an investigator finds out that Rebecca had cancer and that could be the cause of her suicide, the new Mrs. de Winter cements this falsehood by telling the doctor she killed herself by scuttling her boat and drowning herself. No one contests the idea, and Maxim is set free. The 2020 film makes the second Mrs. de Winter a key player in her husband’s freedom, a woman who can overlook the fact that her new husband murdered the wife that came before her.
Hitchcock’s version of Rebecca holds more suspense than Wheatley’s. The earlier adaptation classifies as a thriller more than as a romantic ghost story by focusing on how the characters are feeling with every shot of the film. Hitchcock’s direction adds a stylistic frame for Daphne Du Maurier’s story, even if it does veer from the material. However, those choices that result in a slightly different plot have made for a lasting reputation within cinema as the definitive version of Rebecca.
Wheatley has very obviously tried to distance his new adaptation from its most famous predecessor. The 2020 version is closer to the story laid out in Du Maurier’s novel, but it does not have the style that audiences still love about Hitchcock’s take. If anything, though the newer adaptation will satisfy Netflix’s audiences looking for a period romance with stars they know and love today.