"'Rebecca': Hitchcock's First American Film, but Is It Really Hitchcock?"
Editor's Note: Here's a journal I wrote nearly three years ago about Alfred Hitchcock's film Rebecca. Like most articles here, this hasn't been edited so I present it as written (hence irregularities in MLA format).
Although Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation of Daphne Du Marier’s Rebecca is a close adaptation, the director omits some scenes from the book, adds some scenes, and compresses some others. I believe that these modifications were artistic changes to make a good film adaptation of an excellent book.
Ironically, Hitchcock’s plans for the film would have been a large departure from the novel:
Indeed, it appears Hitchcock took the film thinking that he would have the full control he was used to in Britain, that he could adapt the novel as he pleased, and that he could insert his usual touches of British humor. Hitchcock was immediately disappointed. Selznick insisted on the strictest fidelity to du Maurier that censorship laws would permit, and he oversaw the entire production, most notably asserting his contractual right to final cut (Greenhill 44).
In Adaption: Studying Film and Literature, Desmond and Hawkes comment, “Not every sentence can be filmed; there is no such thing as a one-to-one correspondence between a novel and a film; and therefore, dropping some narrative elements is essential (86)”. As we shall see, Hitchcock moved scenes around, deleted scenes, compressed scenes, and even added scenes in order to maintain narrative flow, keep the film’s length manageable, and arguably improve the novel.
A familiar face in the background.
Hitchcock’s modifications begin at the start of the film. There, he deletes the novel’s first chapter and part of the second chapter. These chapters show the second Mrs. de Winter (hereinafter referred to as Mrs. de Winter) in the present dreaming about Manderley. While these chapters only hint that Manderley is a thing of the past, Hitchcock’s decision to delete them take away the element of suspense that the novel starts out with.
Instead, the film has a different beginning. It opens with our protagonist (the future Mrs. de Winter) looking for something to sketch when she spies Maxim contemplating suicide. This scene does not take place in the book. In the book, the future Mrs. de Winter first meets him in the hotel but this meeting, and their subsequent courtship, is shown in the film after their first encounter.
Hitchcock’s revision to the film’s beginning is stronger than the novel’s. Hitchcock immediately establishes that Maxim is extremely upset about something. This creates an air of mystery to the character which Hitchcock will sustain throughout the film. The future Mrs. de Winter saves him. This foreshadows later events in which Mrs. de Winter saves Maxim from the ghosts of his past, both emotional and legal.
Another spectacularly cast film.
Rebecca makes a slight detour from the novel with a scene featuring Mr. and Mrs. de Winter’s wedding. Although this scene wasn’t in the novel, it was brief enough that it didn’t slow down the scene. I felt that it was a nice transition from Maxim’s proposal to Mr. and Mrs. de Winter arriving at Manderley. More importantly, the scene shows that Mr. and Mrs. de Winter are happy when they are away from Manderley. From there, the film proceeds fairly faithfully to the novel with Mrs. de Winter meeting Manderley’s staff, dealing with the cruel Mrs. Danvers, and meeting Maxim’s sister Beatrice. These scenes establish Mrs. de Winter’s awkwardness in adjusting in life at Manderley, an awkwardness which builds up throughout the film, just as it did in the novel.
After this, Hitchcock adds another scene. This addition sees Maxim and his new bride watching film from their honeymoon. While this scene is not in the novel, it is used to combine this new scene with a scene from the novel where Rebecca confesses that she broke the cupid figurine.
This new scene foreshadows a later scene where we discover that Rebecca has been unfaithful to Maxim. When Mrs. de Winter bemoans her situation at Manderley and implies that Maxim married a plain, innocent girl so that no one would gossip, Maxim is enraged. We do not know why he would get so upset at the implication of gossip but this scene becomes clear later on when we learn that Rebecca’s endless dalliances threatened to become common knowledge and humiliate Maxim.
Director Hitchcock cuts out a portion of the novel in which Beatrice and Mrs. de Winter visit Maxim’s aged grandmother. When the grandmother confuses Mrs. de Winter with Rebecca, then asks where Rebecca is, the reader is reminded that Mrs. de Winter keeps being compared to Rebecca. While this reinforces the novel’s theme that Mrs. de Winter cannot escape Rebecca’s shadow, it is not important to the film.
The film also compresses scenes from the novel and occasionally moves locations around. One example is when Mrs. de Winter looks for Maxim after the nautical disaster.In the novel, she reunites with Maxim in their home. In the film, they reunite at Rebecca’s cottage.This works better because you have Maxim confessing to accidentally killing Rebecca in the very location where it happened. Mrs. de Winter’s transformation from girl to woman occurs here which is ironic because this is the same location that Maxim’s life changed dramatically after he killed Rebecca.
While this is not a scene that has been cut from the novel, it should be noted that Maxim’s murder of Rebecca was changed to an accidental killing in order to comply with the production code. If Maxim had intentionally killed her in the film (as he did in the novel), Maxim would have had to be seen facing some type of justice. This modification lessens the effect that Rebecca’s death had on Maxim but it is a necessary evil of the production code.
The film compresses the inquest. In the novel, Mrs. de Winter walks in part way through the inquest then begins to get faint when Maxim is in trouble during his questioning. In the novel, Mrs. de Winter is sent home and later learns what happened at the inquest. In the film, she remains with Maxim and the inquest is postponed. This ties in with the next scene.
The following scene is an amalgamation of the novel’s blackmail scene. In the novel, Rebecca’s cousin Jack Favell comes to Manderley to blackmail Maxim. In the film, this takes place right after the inquest is postponed. Favell confronts Mrs.de Winter and Maxim while they are dining in Maxim’s car. Maxim calls Favell’s bluff and takes him to a pub where Favell can make his allegations in the presence of magistrate Colonel Julyan.
Hitchcock modifies a lengthy portion of the novel which deals with the search for the doctor that treated Rebecca immediately before her death. In the novel, there is a somewhat tedious search at Manderley to track down the doctor via telephone. Hitchcock wisely skips this search and has Mrs. Danvers reveal the location of the doctor. I believe that this change moves the film along.
In the novel, Mrs. DeWinter joins Maxim in visiting Rebecca’s doctor while in the film, she remains at Manderley. This creates suspense as we see Mrs. Danvers hovering ominously over a sleeping Mrs. DeWinter. The audience wonders if something sinister will happen to Mrs. de Winter, what exactly Danvers is up to, and whether or not Maxim will reach Manderley in time.
Another addition is the death scene of Mrs. Danvers. In the novel, Mrs. Danvers gets no comeuppance. I am sure that I wasn’t the only reader who wished that we would have seen her get what she deserved. In the film, Danvers dies in the fire she started, giving the audience some satisfaction.
Hitchcock’s choices of what to add and delete from the film seems mainly done to maintain narrative flow. These additions, deletions, and compressions keep the film moving without appearing rushed, build up suspense, and add a couple elements that improve the film (the change in the beginning of the film and the death of Mrs. Danvers). Hitchcock’s decision to delete the first two chapters of the novel is a misstep on his part but nothing that ruins the film.
Rebecca was Hitchcock’s first American film and he was under tight control by the producer. “Rebecca was made under the guidance of producer David O. Selznick. While respectful of the adroit editing and tight plotting of Hitchcock's British work, the literary-minded Selznick was keen to remind Hitchcock of the verities of strong characterization and narrative complexity” (Armstrong 131). The combination of Hitchcock’s directing and Selznick’s appreciation for American filmgoers led to the film winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, the only Hitchcock film to win this coveted prize.
In the end, Rebecca is a terrific gothic thriller. Despite the novel’s length, Hitchcock squeezes the film into a roughly 130 minute running time, maintaining essential moments but moving scenes around to keep the story from bogging down. I believe that his modifications from the novel make for a memorable film.
Armstrong, Richard. “The Wandering Woman in Rebecca.” Screen Education. 49 (2008): 131-36. Ebsco. Web. 14 Mar. 2015.
Desmond, John M. & Peter Hawkes. Adaptation: Studying Film & Literature. McGraw Hill, 2005.
Greenhill, Duke. “Rebecca: How a Lesbian-Inflected Movie Got Made.” Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide 14.4 (2007): 44-4. Ebsco/ Web. 14 Mar. 2015.