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1940’s “Rebecca” from Alfred Hitchcock is widely considered a masterpiece, but how does the 2020 remake stack up to the now 80-year-old adaptation?

Author's NoteWhile the 1938 novel is acknowledged as the source material for both films, this article only compares the films to each other and does not include the novel as part of that analysis.

Adapted from the 1938 Daphne du Maurier novel of the same name, Rebecca (1940) marked the first American film production for legendary director Alfred Hitchcock. The story centers around Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine), and her struggles adjusting to her new role as the wife of aristocrat Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) and the new lady of his estate, Manderley. Mrs. de Winter must contend with Maxim’s ever changing mood, his intimidating housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), and the lingering presence of his deceased wife, Rebecca. The film would go on to earn 11 Academy Award nominations, winning Best Cinematography and Best Picture.

Revisiting a masterpiece like Rebecca for an updated adaptation could be considered a risky undertaking at best. But filmmaker Ben Wheatley took directing duties on a new adaptation of the 1938 source material, and the new film was recently released on Netflix. Early signs of the 2020 version were promising, with the cast including Lily James in the lead role of Mrs. de Winter, Armie Hammer as her husband Maxim, and Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers.

While Rebecca 2020 won’t see 11 Academy Award nominations (production and set design nominations are real possibilities, however), the latest adaptation, if not as effective as the 1940 version, is a decent and worthwhile film.

It’s fascinating how similar but different the beginnings of each film are.

Rebecca (2020)

Wheatley’s version shows how the future Mrs. de Winter is kept in her place more by Mrs. Van Hopper (the always excellent Ann Dowd), the woman who pays for her company. “You’ll meet someone in your own class,” Mrs. Van Hopper says to Mrs. de Winter about the two moving to New York, lacking awareness of her hurtful words. She belittles James’ Mrs. de Winter, shaming her for believing Maxim would actually be interested in her.

James comes across as more naive but curious in the 2020 film, whereas Fontaine in 1940 is more demure and unsure of herself. Hitchcock presents Mrs. de Winter as more aloof, someone who should feel lucky to be where they are in life, even if they aren’t what they want to be. Put another way, Fontaine’s Mrs. de Winter has no right to question or attempt to better herself. Wheatley gives the character a little gumption, a sign of a more modern woman.

James sells this characterization with a strong delivery of a single line: “I can learn,” she says, struggling both not to cry and to convince herself when Mrs. Van Hopper implies she won’t be able to manage the upkeep of Manderley, Maxim’s sprawling estate by the sea. It’s a great early moment for James in what is ultimately a remarkable performance.

The 1940 version has the future Mrs. de Winter meeting Maxim as he stands on the cliffs of the ocean, staring down at the waves below, seemingly contemplating jumping. “No, don’t,” Fontaine yells in alarm. Olivier’s Maxim is surprised and annoyed to be caught in such a compromising moment, quickly acting as if jumping was the furthest thing from his mind. In the new version, the future Mrs. de Winter meets Maxim at the dining room of the hotel while attempting to tip the waiter in order to get Mrs. Van Hopper to sit with Maxim for lunch. Worried she didn’t offer enough, James clumsily drops change on the floor and it’s Maxim who helps her pick it up. The next day, when Mrs. Van Hopper is ill, Maxim insists that the future Mrs. de Winter sit with him.

So, Hitchcock decides to lay the groundwork early for Maxim’s deep troubles, while Wheatley holds them to develop later on. Although vastly different, both meetings play equally well.

Both films take the time necessary to develop the relationships between characters, specifically that of Mrs. de Winter and Mrs. Danvers.

1940-fontaine-and-anderson

Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson in Rebecca (1940)

One major difference between the two adaptations, with a few scenes proving to be exceptions, is that Wheatley doesn’t rely so much on atmosphere like Hitchcock did. Wheatley instead focuses on moments that serve as constant reminders of Rebecca, like finding her hair in one of her brushes as Mrs. de Winter uses it. Wheatley also has a few ambiguous, watery dream sequences from Mrs. de Winter and Maxim sleepwalking at night into Rebecca’s old room, fine moments for the film.

Dreams and sleepwalking aren’t found in Hitchcock’s version, but he does utilize the same type of discovery moments of Rebecca. The 1940 version also plays dramatically with shadows and light, building a persistent, unsettling presence of the deceased Rebecca.

Perhaps this effect is simply a byproduct of the black and white cinematography, but there are a number of moments that make it appear as though a shadow is cast on people in the scene. This technique is mostly in scenes involving Maxim and Mrs. de Winter or Ms. Danvers, giving the impression of Rebecca being in the room. Later in the film, Olivier’s Maxim gives credence to this observation by saying, “her shadow has been between us all the time.”

This layered addition to the film is undeniable, and the extra complexity it adds to numerous scenes towers above even the best moments of Wheatley’s 2020 adaptation.

Another strong, stylistic choice that elevates the 1940 Rebecca above the 2020 version is the use of music.

Rebecca (1940)

Hitchcock’s version takes on a spectral quality at times, specifically at the mention of Rebecca. The original spends more time with Mrs. de Winter getting to know the house. These moments are just as vital to the story as the relationship between her and Ms. Danvers as they are really one in the same, both serving as outlets for the overwhelming presence of Rebecca.

One scene in particular shows Fontaine entering Rebecca’s old room, the much ballyhooed west wing where no one goes. Upon entering the room, Fontaine closes the door behind her, and a swirling, hollow wind is added to the music, bringing a ghostly, tomb like sound to the scene. The 2020 score is more subdued and creates a secretive tension, like something boiling just under the surface. It’s an effective score, but Wheatley’s version lacks the ghostly sound that offers the kind of chilling punch like that scene in Hitchcock’s version.

Fontaine is achingly beautiful as Mrs. de Winter. With every close up neither the camera or the viewer wants to leave her face. Fontaine possesses the uncanny ability to become more beautiful the more you look at her, a trait that Lily James shares. Like Geoffrey Macnad observed in a 2013 Independent article about Fontaine, “no one else suffered so glamorously on screen,” and boy does Fontaine suffer. Her performance in Hitchcock’s film is a towering achievement, one that successfully conveys conflicting emotions in every frame. Her efforts rightfully earned her an Academy Award nomination (she’d win a couple years later in another Hitchcock film, Suspicion.)

With these impossible shoes to fill, Lily James gives the role everything she’s got and achieves wonderful results.