Rebecca was Daphne du Maurier’s fifth novel, and likely it remains her best-known. She began writing the book in 1937 and, after what is said to have been a fairly excruciating process, turned the manuscript in and watched as it immediately became one of the most successful novels ever written. Although du Maurier had been an increasingly prominent fiction writer leading up to the publication of Rebecca, it was the book that would eventually fully cement her status as a literary legend.
Meanwhile, Alfred Hitchcock had been directing in England since the late ‘20s, but Rebecca would prove to be his first Hollywood film in 1940, likewise an award-winning smash success. Described by its author as “a study in jealousy,” both du Maurier and Hitchcock seemed surprised that the story was interpreted by audiences as a romance.
The book begins with the now infamous first line “Last night, I dreamed I went to Manderley again.” We are introduced to our narrator, who never receives a name other than Mrs. De Winter, referred to by her own inner monologue as “the second Mrs. De Winter.” She describes her dream, and the rest of the tale is told via flashback. She is married to Max De Winter, who she meets in a whirlwind romance that ends with a sudden wedding. Before she knows it, she’s quit her job and joined him at his ominous home, Manderlay, a massive mansion that requires a great deal more training to run efficiently than the painfully shy and clumsy second Mrs. De Winter seems to have. We are privy to her intense insecurity as she interacts with people who knew Rebecca, the deceased first wife of Max. Worse, Max becomes distant. While little is said aloud, the second Mrs. De Winter projects her worst fears on others and assumes that everyone wishes she had never come. This fear is reinforced by Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper who seems obsessed with Rebecca.
The conclusion of the story is somewhat complex and in any version requires the suspension of judgment against the woman-hating Max, who is supposed to be redeemed for the purposes of the story by the love of the second Mrs. De Winter. In the movie, the romance is played up more heavily, while in the book Max’s affections come across as shallow and unperceptive at best, callous at worst. While the film version does feature them riding off into the sunset, so to speak, the book begins with the end of the story, leaving the reader in a sort of malaise even from the start.
Although it is as ever impossible to fully discern the entire motivations of creators, the queer overtones of Mrs. Danvers have been under discussion by queer scholars and film critics at least as far back as Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet. The portrayal is not favorable and carries with it distinct homophobic tropes of the time period, although one must remember that du Maurier herself was queer and had relationships with women as well as men. Looking back, her commentary on her feelings about gender are fascinating, but it was a dark time for queer people, and societal pressure has always added many extra layers to the experience. As such, Mrs. Danvers can be both a negative trope and also an important part of queer literary as well as cinematic history. Regardless of the intention and complexity behind her creation, she has been centralized in a great deal of queer film theory. Not specific to Rebecca, Hitchcock’s consistent alienation and othering of queer character traits have been the subject of some discussion.
The era in which Rebecca was written, filmed, and released is known for turning out an awful lot of amazing films, but it did so under the infamous Hayes Code, a censorship board that was enforced throughout the 1930s-1950s, notorious for many things but specific to the subject at hand that included an absolute ban of queer subject matter in films. Thus, for years, films danced around the subject and villainized queer traits in characters, but even that requires ample knowledge of subtext to deduce for the most part. The code enforcer Joseph Breen explicitly threatened to call for them to cease all production on Rebecca if Hitchcock implied a sexual relationship between Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers, but it didn’t stop the infamous scene of Danvers sensually picking through Rebecca’s lingerie and taunting the second Mrs. De Winter for failing to live up to her predecessor.
While queer storytelling has evolved significantly over the years, it is important to remember that censorship in Hollywood and of queer themes did not even remotely cease with the lack of enforcement of the Hayes Code. The history on how censorship in U.S. film has morphed and changed in the years since is the subject of the award-winning documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated.
As for the performances, it is true that Joan Fontaine is a far cry from the timid second Mrs. De Winter described in the novel, and her casting gives the film a significantly different tone than the book had. The sister and lifelong verbal sparring partner of fellow Oscar winner Olivia de Havilland, Fontaine was born in Japan and lived in several countries by the time of her adolescence. She is generally best known for playing mature, worldly women even in her younger years, and her turn as the intentionally anxious second Mrs. De Winter made for a strange casting choice. Fontaine is great in the movie, and it won her an Oscar, but with a glamorous, stylish second Mrs. De Winter at the helm, the movie was necessarily no longer the same story as the book. Likewise, Hitchcock’s tendency leaned toward ethereal beauties and away from definitively nervous young brides.
Du Maurier’s written theme is that of heartfelt isolation even within one’s own relationships and intense attention to detail, which interlocked well with Hitchcock’s fetishization of a very specific image of high-society women. His films don’t necessarily glorify obsession, but they do tend to make obsession quantifiably more beautiful that it generally appears to us in the real world. The dreamy aspect of the book does translate and grow even stronger in the film, but much of the strength of the book is in its interest in the smallness of the second Mrs. De Winter, which is very much absent in the film. Many of the more subtle and organic character beats of the novel are removed, so the script comes off somewhat disjointed in comparison, and Max’s revelation of his role in Rebecca’s death becomes somewhat tedious once you realize that he is absolutely not going to be held accountable for killing his first wife. Still, the scenes of Mrs. Danvers as Manderlay burns down all around her are chilling and iconic. What the film version lost in subtlety it gained in sheer stylism.
Rebecca is far from the first or last Hollywood adaptation of a film that inserted a plot-changing level of glitz and glamour onto what was otherwise an intentionally understated story, and your level of interest in Hitchcock’s take will reflect how intently you follow du Maurier and her overall writing career. If you’re an avid du Maurier fan, you’ll no doubt prefer the book, and it certainly gives a lot more characterization to chew on. Still, the film did play an important part in more than one career, du Maurier’s included, and its status as an important cinematic work is inarguable. Both book and film are interesting and enjoyable for different reasons, but Rebecca the novel is a unique glimpse at the inner workings of a type of character very seldom seen in literature, and its bizarre take on interpersonal relationships makes it required reading.