Scene it: The only mystery in Netflix’s ‘Rebecca’ is why it exists

A man and woman leap out of an old car whose large headlights shine yellow.
Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” is a romantic mystery that follows a young newlywed couple in England. (Courtesy: Kerry Brown via Netflix)

If you’ve ever stalked your partner’s ex on social media, you’d probably enjoy the book “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier, in which an unnamed protagonist marries the mysterious Maxim de Winter, whose leftover baggage from his marriage to his late wife Rebecca haunts every facet of the new Mrs. de Winter’s life.

Since it’s 1938 and Mrs. de Winter can’t exactly look Rebecca up on Facebook, she resorts to poking around Rebecca’s old bedroom, obsessing over her signature and torturing herself by asking others about Rebecca’s oft-repeated physical perfection. Sounds like a healthy three-person marriage, no?

“Rebecca” has got to be in my top five favorite books of all time. A slow-burning thriller featuring a creepily manipulative housekeeper, an all-consuming secret and the twisted quasi-romance of the de Winters: truly, a work of art. 

Furthermore, I found the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock version of “Rebecca” utterly enthralling, standing as a testament to the irresistible original du Maurier plot and the storytelling skills of Hitchcock alike. Therefore, I simply had to watch the new 2020 film adaptation of “Rebecca” when I saw it on Netflix.  

By now, we all know it’s not even worth entertaining a hope that the movie version of a book can match up to the book’s standards. To do so would be foolish, so we must consider the two works as being distinct from each other in order to actually enjoy the movie without spewing a constant stream of criticism directed at the mismatch between the nuanced scenes of the book and their corresponding mutilations onscreen. Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” (1940) is a welcome exception.

As it would be a cheap shot to attack “Rebecca” (2020) based on a comparison to the 1938 novel, I will discuss why it is a bad movie in its own right

This thriller is lacking in thrill; the scariest part of the movie is a jump-scare shot of a drawer opening. I wish I was kidding — that one sudden drawer opening contains more emotional stimulation than the remaining two hours of the movie. 

With Mrs. de Winter constantly living under Rebecca’s shadow, you would expect this mentality to get under her skin. In turn, this should get lodged in the viewer’s mind, as if we are also Mrs. de Winter, being eaten away by a bitter insecurity. Instead, “Rebecca” sidesteps any psychological component that would have added some needed depth to the movie, choosing to display Mrs. de Winter’s darkest inner thoughts through a series of obvious, tacky visuals. 

For example, Mrs. de Winter’s obsession with Rebecca manifests itself as a murder of crows transmuting into one offensively large “R” looping across the sky. This scene loses all the clever subtlety of showing what makes someone tick in favor of a glaringly straightforward symbol, eradicating what remains of the movie’s sophistication. Needless to say, this cringeworthy crow incident does not happen in the book. 

A blonde woman wearing a flowerly dress sits with a man in a striped button-up shirt on a large, velvet arm chair.
Lily James and Armie Hammer star in Netflix’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca.” (Courtesy: Kerry Brown via Netflix)

Later, Mrs. de Winter is surrounded by party guests all chanting Rebecca’s name at her as the camera pans in a dizzying circle at their faces, illuminated by flashing lights. This is all in Mrs. de Winter’s head, but the melodrama is much too real. The viewer does not feel the intricacies of a paranoid jealousy but rather the haphazard reduction of the human psyche to only the most transparent of emotions. This leaves the heavy lifting of any substance that “Rebecca” might have to the admittedly stunning costumes and backdrops. Depth it may lack, but extravagance it does not, much in the way of “The Great Gatsby” (2013) — yet somehow worse. 

My largest point of contention admittedly draws on the novel: The movie’s interpretation of the de Winters’ “romance” is inexcusable. In the book, it is left up to the reader whether they can eke out the semblance of a romantic relationship or not.

But the film leaves no such doubt; the ending is meant to be romantic. However, it includes certain contradictory elements of the book, including the proposal scene, which is as follows: “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool,” Maxim says condescendingly, and then we flash forward to the de Winters, married and traveling to the Manderley estate. Adding such a patronizing scene proves confusing to the viewer — they are clearly not equals, yet we are supposed to cheer on their union. 

This muddled message, combined with not attempting to develop the de Winters’ relationship onscreen beyond what explicitly transpires in the book, makes the romantic shaping of the film’s ending too hard to accept. 

If you have an absolute abundance of time to kill and appreciate the WWII-era aesthetic, normally I’d tell you to go for it; waste your time and watch “Rebecca” (2020). However, “Rebecca” (1940) accomplishes what the 2020 version could only dream of, so do yourself a favor and watch the Hitchcock version. Even better — and I cannot stress this enough — read the book. 

Rorye Jones PO ’23 is TSL’s TV and film columnist. She relishes in dressing from the waist up for Zoom classes and often wishes she could watch “Breaking Bad” for the first time again. 

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