“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again... it seemed to me I stood by the iron gates leading to the drive and for a while I could not enter, the way was barred to me.” These iconic words from the 1938 Gothic novel Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, are what usher in the reader. They’re also the words spoken by the protagonist in the 2020 adaptation of the film by Ben Wheatley.
The story, for the most part, is a retelling or reflection on events that transpired behind the confining walls of the imposing Manderley. Those words, undoubtedly, denote the protagonist’s state of mind and set the tone for what we can expect as the story progresses. The newly-married, and far more importantly, the unnamed Mrs Maxim de Winter is taken to her marital home, and attempts to become the new mistress of the manor. Soon, she realises that she has some big shoes to fill—those of her husband’s late wife, Rebecca. What adds to the feeling of defeat, even as the newly married couple begin their life together, is the fact that the new mistress is not once mentioned by name throughout the story, further intensifying that feeling of insignificance and unbelonging.
If you have a penchant for the macabre, you’re no stranger to Alfred Hitchcock’s influential cinematic genius; you’re also aware that in 1940, Hitchcock was tasked with adapting Rebecca—the hottest new novel on shelves—into a film that to this day, seems to cast a long shadow on any remakes. How else can you explain the negative reviews that Wheatley’s film is garnering?
Tale as old as timeBefore we get into the nitty gritty, let’s first establish that Rebecca 2020 is not a remake; it’s a new retelling of du Maurier’s classic, and it does so with the modern flair of movie making. Through Wheatley’s adaptation, we’re introduced to the naïve young woman (Lily James) who falls head over heels for the charming and wealthy widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), and after a whirlwind romance (in some picturesque, and cleverly chosen spots in France) and a quick wedding, the new Mrs de Winter is whisked away to Manderley, her husband’s family estate.
If you’re watching the film as a frame-by-frame comparison to Hitchcock’s masterpiece, you’re bound to find a few shortcomings with the 2020 adaptation. Hitchcock, after all, was a mastermind and took the story to whole new heights of intrigue and sinister. Wheatley’s 2020 screen adaptation is, despite what critics have to say, equally rife with jealousy, manipulation, and menace—as witnessed by James’ Mrs De Winter who is seen crumbling under the pressure of having to live up to lingering presence of the late mistress of Manderley, further reiterated by the scrutinising gaze of Mrs Danvers (Kristen Scott Thomas).
Updating the fairy taleAdaptations allow for a few creative liberties and the writers (Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse) chose to bring the protagonist into the 21st century, making her more relatable while also intrinsically exploring the dynamics between women. If that’s not all, James’ Mrs de Winter, while naïve and inexperienced, is far more assertive than Joan Fontain’s portrayal. That’s, perhaps, where the departure from the novel and the 1940 adaptation, lies. But can we blame the writers for wanting to update their protagonist, even by a fraction? While James’ Mrs de Winter may have some fight, her portrayal doesn’t take away from the fact that she is riddled with self-doubt and fear, and constantly finds herself alone, a shell of the girl she once was—much like you’ll feel as you navigate the sinister, hollow corridors of Manderley.
What works in favour of the 2020 version is the fact that Wheatley craftily highlights the LGBTQIA angle that’s been completely underplayed in Hitchcock’s adaptation, despite being a dominant theme in du Maurier’s novel. Wheatley also manages to tell a love story, not just between Maxim and his new bride, but that unspoken longing that Mrs Danvers has for Rebecca. After all, du Maurier’s Gothic novel is classified as a tale of romantic suspense, and from that, there’s no cinematic departure.
The takeawayThere’s no denying that artistic prose can get in the way of storytelling; the same can be said for cinematic adaptations—a lot of details tend to be overlooked. But ultimately, what matters is whether a director’s vision has had an impact on the overall storyline. In my opinion, Wheatley’s film only served to enhance the superior plot twists, and the sense of power and foreboding that du Maurier cleverly wove into her tale. If you’ve stayed away from the film because of the negative press, I’d recommend giving it a watch before you make up your mind.