The first line of the 2020 Netflix original film “Rebecca” is the same as the original 1935 gothic romance novel the movie is based on: “Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
The classic novel, written by Dame Daphne Du Maurier tells the story of a young woman (Lily James) who falls in love and marries the rich and handsome Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). She then moves into his beautiful mansion Manderley, passed down through his family for generations, where she learns of the dark secrets about her husband’s late wife Rebecca. She is then not only haunted by the idea of her, but also haunted by Rebecca’s still-living servant, Mrs. Danvers (Kristen Scott Thomas).
Your spoiler alert starts here! Our narrator (who is not named Rebecca and does not have a first name – well, she does have one I assume, but the audience never finds out what it is. Sort of like the little boy protagonist in “The Polar Express.” Can you believe I found a parallel between “Rebecca” and “The Polar Express?”) starts off as a poor young woman who has no family and works as a “lady’s companion” for a very wealthy, very evil woman named Mrs. Van Hopper. While staying with Mrs. Van Hopper at a hotel in Monte Carlo, the narrator catches the eye of the extremely wealthy Maxim de Winter, a man staying in the same hotel.
Mrs. Van Hopper does eventually find out about the narrator and Maxim and declares to the narrator that they must leave Europe immediately and go to the United States. The narrator frantically runs to Maxim’s room to say goodbye and he asks her to quit her job, marry him and go back to Manderley with him. She does, and thus begins her new life as Mrs. de Winter.
When Mrs. de Winter arrives at Manderley after her wedding, she is shocked at not only the beauty and size of the house but the attentive staff that works around the clock for maxim. The head of the staff, Mrs. Danvers, introduces herself to the new Mrs. de Winter, revealing her cold, stoney attitude and she learns that Mrs. Danvers was the servant to Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife who died a year prior when her sailboat sank in the ocean and she drowned. Mrs. Danvers goes on to make Mrs. de Winter feel like she is less than Rebecca was and Mrs. de Winter becomes self-conscious, thinking Maxim’s love for her is sprouting from a place of grief.
To make her husband believe she is just as great as everyone makes Rebecca out to be, Mrs. de Winter decides to throw the annual costume ball at Manderley that Rebecca used to throw. Mrs. Danvers suggests Mrs. de Winter dresses up as Caroline de Winter, a family member of Maxim who is featured in a large painting in Manderley and offers her a replica of the dress in the painting. Mrs. de Winter complies, thinking Mrs. Danvers has finally come around to accepting her, but when she arrives in her costume at the ball, she is appalled to find all the party-goers shocked and disgusted due to the fact that Rebecca dressed in the same costume to the last costume ball she held before her death.
After the party ends, Mrs. de Winter confronts Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca’s dressing room, which Mrs. Danvers has kept immaculate since Rebecca’s death. Mrs. Danvers continues to insult and taunt Mrs. de Winter about how inferior she is to Rebecca and tries to get her to throw herself off Rebecca’s balcony.
This scene is the climax of the plot within the book and it was delivered perfectly in the film. There are even mirrors surrounding Mrs. de Winter, which was not a part of Rebecca’s dressing room in the book, but creates the effect that Mrs. Danvers is surrounding every aspect of the narrator’s life, and so I appreciated the change in the film.
Mrs. de Winter almost throws herself off the balcony, until a flare is shot off from the beach where Rebecca’s old boat house was. When all the members of Manderley rush to the beach they are told that Rebecca’s ship was found and that her body was found on it. Everyone is shocked because Maxim identified Rebecca’s body on the beach two months after her ship went missing and had her buried.
That night, Mrs. de Winter confronts Maxim alone in the boat house and asks him if he knows who the woman he had buried a year before was. He says that he does not, but he does know that Rebecca was murdered because he shot her himself. As it turns out, everyone did adore Rebecca except for her husband who she cheated on with many men including her cousin Jack Favell who got her pregnant. She told Maxim that he would have to raise the child as his own knowing that a divorce would ruin their reputation and so he shot her (come on, Maxim. Divorce can’t be worse for your name than murder. Just ask Ross from “Friends!”). He proceeded to take her dead body out on her ship and sink it by shooting it below the waterline multiple times. When Maxim claims Rebecca has won, Mrs. de Winter tells him that she will fight for him and keep his secret.
Mrs. Danvers and Jack refuse to believe Rebecca committed suicide, which is what the police claim happened. Because of this, Mrs. Danvers, Jack, Mrs. de Winter, Maxim and the police travel to London the next day to meet with Rebecca’s doctor, J. Baker, as she wrote in her diary she had an appointment on the day of her death. Maxim is ready to face his defeat, knowing that Rebecca’s pregnancy will be a motive for him murdering her, only to find out that Rebecca had an aggressive and advanced form of fatal cancer and only had a few months to live. This gives the police motive for Rebecca commiting suicide once again, and Maxim and Mrs. de Winter are in the clear! Right? Wrong. Our love birds make their way back to Manderley to begin their “totally innocent” lives, only to find that Manderley has been turned into Dante’s Inferno by Mrs. Danvers and that it is burning to the ground. Maxim and Mrs. de Winter never see Mrs. Danvers again.
So now you know the story! Here’s how the movie holds up to the classic novel (in my humble opinion).
First of all, the cast was exquisite (*chef’s kiss*). I might be biased because Lily James is my favorite actress of all time, but one really cool aspect of the movie that I read about that I seriously appreciated was that Lily James was put in wigs throughout the movie to make her hair look lighter and lighter, as if Rebeca’s memory was draining the life out of her.
Kristen Scott Thomas plays the perfect stone cold Mrs. Danvers and Armie Hammer plays Maxim de Winter. When I first started reading the novel, I immediately knew that Maxim was kind of a creep (condescending but charming, sort of like a serial killer) so I was pretty excited to see Armie Hammer in the role since Armie Hammer just so happens to creep me out. Don’t ask me why, but nevertheless, that creepiness worked out perfectly for the role and I must admit, while he may be creepy, the guy can act.
The movie did a great job staying true to the original plot and made all of the scenes that seemed to be filler in the book come to life. For example, in the book, Mrs. de Winter describes the arrival to Manderley in so much detail I found it almost boring, however, knowing the information about the house is obviously important to the rest of the plot and watching Maxim’s fancy vintage car pull in front of the monstrous mansion gave me a new appreciation for the scene in the book.
I think for anyone who hasn’t read the book, the movie will give them a clear understanding of what happens and it will be easy to understand. It’s creepy and suspenseful and all around a perfect film for a dreary fall day.
There were only two big differences between the book and the movie. First, in the book, Rebecca has cancer but is also pregnant with Jack Favell’s child. In the 2020 movie adaptation, it turns out Rebecca wasn’t pregnant at all, but only had uterine cancer, causing her to have similar symptoms to pregnancy, such as her abdomen growing, nausea, and fatigue. This change didn’t bother me that much, although I’m not sure why the change was necessary.
The second difference which did bother me a lot (and I mean a lot) was that in the novel, as previously mentioned, when Mrs. de Winter and Maxim return to Manderley to find it on fire, they never see Mrs. Danvers again, leaving the ending up to the reader to decide what happened to her. Personally, I like to believe that Mrs. Danvers stayed inside the house, which was apparently showcased in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film adaptation, as you can see Mrs. Danvers standing in the window of Rebecca’s dressing room as the house goes up in flames. In the 2020 movie, however, Mrs. de Winter finds Mrs. Danvers at the boat house where Mrs. Danvers ends up drowning herself in the same sea where Rebecca’s body was found. I understand the symbolism, but it’s a no from me.
For me, that part was the biggest letdown because I was so set on my idea that Mrs. Danvers stayed inside Manderley, and I understand that I can still think of the end of the novel that way, but the idea that Mrs. de Winter and Maxim escaped all their ghosts in the end of the 2020 film strays so far from the idea presented to readers at the end of the novel that, for me, that ending was too happy (call me crazy).
But other than that, I’d give the movie a solid four out of five stars (the same rating I’d give the book) and would recommend it, especially to people who haven’t and are not planning on reading the book. It would certainly be a thrill to watch this Halloween.