This article contains spoilers for Wheatley’s 2020 Rebecca film, the 1940 Hitchcock film, and the original 1938 Daphne Du Maurier gothic novel.
Ben Wheatley’s Rebecca, showing on Netflix, was always going to be haunted by Hitchcock’s 1940 film. Wheatley and screenwriter Goldman were right to try and create a new film adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel, rather than a remake of the Oscar-winning classic. They tried to give us a more explicitly feminist Rebecca, but sadly do not pull it off.
Rebecca, in all her incarnations, is in many ways a feminist hero. She refused to let marriage crush her right to an identity, her omnipresent first name standing in contrast to our nameless protagonist. She has a doctor kept secret from her husband, which thirties readers could quickly identify with contraception.
She wasn’t “normal”, and intimidates male ancestral power with her threats of bastard children, her husband lamenting “She wanted to take my name, my home, everything.” She laughs at male power and the concept of owning her. She is sexually free, taking many lovers, is loved by men and women. Rebecca defies social norms and dies for it at the hands of her husband.
Wheatley has Maxim de Winter shoot Rebecca, as he does in the novel. Hay censorship codes prevented Hitchcock from showing this. Instead, we had an unconvincing “accidental” death scene. In all three we are invited to consider if Rebecca “asked for it” — driving her husband to kill her.
Maxim de Winter replaces Rebecca with a childlike, less assured second wife. Wheatley gives us a second Mrs de Winter with greater agency. From the visual, she wears trousers; to the script, she entices Maxim into the water despite his refusal and attempts to dismiss Mrs Danvers. In contrast, Hitchcock’s film highlights her vulnerability, dwarfed by halls, framed so she rarely takes up even half the screen. Hitchcock’s Mrs de Winter feels like a victim, Wheatley’s feels like an accomplice.
Changes he makes to Mrs Danvers are even starker, he explains, “She’s the conscience of the film. We should be siding with Rebecca and with the law.” Wheatley has her explain that Rebecca was killed because her husband could not control her, and accuses the protagonist of standing by a murderer.
By taking the novel’s themes of a woman killed for defying social norms into explicit dialogue, we are left with a jarring shift when the central couple get away with it and get their happy ending, with none of the banality of the novel or mystery of Hitchcock. The film ends in a softly lit, intimate Cairo hotel room where the second Mrs de Winter gets the last word, with a closing narration on the power of love.
If Wheatley intended us to see through the romantic words to the horror, he should have shown us. Film is a visual medium, if there is danger and horror rather than soft-focus romance, we need to see it to feel it. Neither film perfectly captures Du Maurier’s theme of female hostility toward men and marriage, and both have tonal inconsistencies, but in the end Hitchcock not only makes a better film, he makes a better feminist film.