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Rebecca Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca (2020): Not to Perpetuate a Stereotype but the Book was Better

I had very high hopes from Rebecca. I wanted to like it, I really tried to like it but I just couldn’t. For a movie to alter a book is always a bit of a gamble, and this time the movie did not win.

I suppose to a person who has not actually read the book, the movie would seem alright. Hardly a masterpiece, but not bad. However, as a person who has read and enjoyed the book, to me it came as a huge disappointment.

Rebecca tells the story of a young woman, thrown into an unfamiliar world after marrying a rich, aristocratic man. She is forced to deal with all her insecurities as the specter of her husband’s first wife, Rebecca, hangs over her new home.

Daphne Du Maurier’s classic is the perfect blend of the bland elegance of early 20th century English society, mixed with sprinklings of the sinister. Rebecca’s presence is hinted at by the very air of Manderly, always aided by Mrs. Danvers, the formidable housekeeper of Manderly, tormenting the new Mrs. De Winter as she fights her own insecurities. ‘Hinted’ being the keyword here.

By contrast the movie lacks all subtlety, and the sinisterness of the story is ladled on with heavy-handed omens and over-the-top dream sequences. A stranger to the story would spend the first half believing that Manderly is literally haunted by Rebecca’s ghost.

The casting is dodgy. Neither Lily James, playing Mrs. De Winter, nor Armie Hammer, playing Maxime are able to carry off their roles. Mrs. De Winter’s passivity and insecurity does not come through in Lily James’ performance at all. She’s far from meek, which is what the performance calls for. Armie Hammer cannot pull off the mysterious brooding that is supposed to mark Maxime De Winter. It just seems like he’s trying too hard. The secondary and tertiary characters, so well fleshed out in the book, made no impact at all, and I’d forgotten what they looked like within minutes of having finished watching the film.

As shoddy as the execution was, that was not the main problem with the film. The real issue was that it changed the plot. Now I know that some films do a very good job of that. Rebecca is just not one of them. 

I should warn you now, that spoilers lie ahead.

The characterization of Mrs. De Winter, which the plot hinges almost entirely upon, has been changed drastically. In the book she is a naturally passive and under confident person, who grows to acquire self-worth through the course of the book. The film has her do a complete one eighty on her personality, and go from being the sort of person who can barely look another in the eye, to the kind who will gladly drive across a country in the middle of the night, break into a doctor’s office, and destroy crucial evidence of an ongoing investigation. As cool as that may sound, it really doesn’t work, and her characterisation, as it is portrayed in the film just seems forced. 

Where the plot of the book moves seamlessly from one act to the next, the movie appears to switch genres halfway through, turning from a horror to a courtroom drama. In some ways it felt like the first and the second half belonged to two separate films, haphazardly glued together to make a whole plot.

The film compresses the book and cuts short crucial scenes to make way for meaningless additions that wreck the plot. The film sacrifices subtlety for drama at every turn. One of my favourite scenes in the book is the confrontation towards the end between Maxime and Jack Favell. The air is thick with tension, but still cloaked by a thin veneer of the civility that coats the whole story. The suspense creates understated but intense drama, as every character holds their breath, waiting for the end. The movie however, cuts the scene short and does away with the sense of suspense that makes the book what it is, replacing it with an overdramatized and unnecessary court-room scene that takes away plenty, and adds nothing to the story.

The book has an open ending that the filmmakers just couldn’t let go. They had to close it off. Unfortunately, that closing is clumsy and, like most, if not all, of the changes made to the book, serves no real purpose.

There are a few pros to the film. The biggest one is Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers. Unlike with the other major characters, this casting is perfect. Contemptuous, manipulative, and deliciously sinister, she is everything that you would expect Mrs. Danvers to be. The other big pro is Manderly itself. The imposing grandeur of the house, the beauty of the gardens, and the creepiness of the beach are all perfectly captured. The great house that is almost as important as several of the characters (and considerably more important than some) is exactly as it is described in the book.

All in all, however, Rebecca just does not work. It is a lesson for all writers, directors and producers everywhere- when you adapt a book, be very careful because the possibilities for making a mess are endless.

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