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Why the time is right for a feminist adaptation of Rebecca

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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Lily James will star opposite Armie Hammer and Kristen Scott Thomas in a Netflix adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s classic and we couldn’t be more excited.      

Ever since the 1938 publication of Daphne du Maurier’s bestseller Rebecca, about a young woman struggling in her position as the second wife of a wealthy, distant Cornish widower, the world has dreamt of Manderley. Again and again and again.

The book has never been out of print, selling more than 45,000 copies in its first month of publication alone and today, 80 years after its publication, still sells about 4,000 copies every single month. In 2017, it was named the UK’s favourite book of the past 225 years by WH Smith. 

The Alfred Hitchcock adaptation of the novel, released in 1940 and starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won two, including Best Picture. In 1979 and in 1997 Rebecca was adapted for television, with Joanna David first starring as the unnamed protagonist and, in 1997, her daughter Emilia Fox taking on the role.

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Next up will be a Netflix movie adaptation, starring Lily James as the young second wife of the gorgeous but enigmatic Maxim de Winter, with Armie Hammer stepping into Laurence Olivier’s neatly-polished shoes. Kristen Scott Thomas will play the terrifying Mrs Danvers, Manderley’s imperious housekeeper slavishly devoted to her first mistress. Ben Wheatley, the modern-gothic British filmmaker behind movies including Kill List and High-Rise will direct and Jane Goldman, the writer behind the Kingsman movies, Kick-Ass and the forthcoming Game of Thrones prequel The Long Night is penning a script.

Armie Hammer is your new Maxim de Winter

Rebecca is a masterclass in gothic melodrama, a story in which a creeping, slow-burning dread is baked into its very bones. The young second wife whose voice tells the story is never named, and she arrives on the scene at Manderley, Max’s creaky old estate in Cornwall, to find that the reputation of Max’s first wife Rebecca quite literally precedes her. Mrs Danvers, the imperious, steely-eyed housekeeper pines for her former mistress who died in a tragic sailing accident. (Allegedly.) Max is still in love with Rebecca. And everywhere the second Mrs de Winter turns in this draughty, empty mansion she feels the presence of her glamorous, sophisticated, impeccably turned-out predecessor. Rebecca, Rebecca, Rebecca.

Though Rebecca is, technically speaking, a female-led story centred around three very different, very complicated women, it’s not exactly an iconic feminist text. This has partly to do with the fact that none of the three female characters are particularly empowered, and lack agency over critical areas of their lives.

Granted, some of this is a byproduct of the era in which the book was written, but it’s also largely a result of the extreme moral ambiguity at the heart of Rebecca. This is not a story in which anyone, including the protagonist, comes off looking like a hero (or a heroine). Over the course of the story – no spoilers, we’ll just give you the broadstrokes – our protagonist makes a series of questionable decisions, her husband Max is exposed as controlling, cruel and violent, Mrs Danvers is an absolute nightmare and Rebecca, well, let’s put the dead woman in a class all of her own.

Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine in Rebecca

But it’s exactly this sticky ambiguity, this unsettling immorality, that makes Rebecca so immensely readable and watchable. And it’s why, in this era where we demand nuance and complexity in all of our entertainment and relish the chance to watch unlikeable characters – especially female ones – onscreen, that the time is right for a feminist adaptation of Rebecca.

Having Goldman behind the scenes writing the script and realigning the gaze through female eyes is a serious boon for this adaptation. Goldman is an old hand at this kind of gothic malarkey, having written the screenplay for horror film The Woman In Black back in 2012. 

Of note, though, is the smart, quietly subversive work she has been doing in the action genre. It’s there that you’ll find the clever skewering of masculinity going on in those riotous Kingsman movies, or the inclusivity on display in the X-Men: First Class and Days of Future Past prequels, widely held by many to be the best of the entire X-Men franchise.

According to journalist Rebecca Keegan from The Hollywood Reporter, Hitchcock’s adaptation of Rebecca had to pare back its provocations and immorality in order to adhere to the prescriptive Hays Code, Hollywood’s list of guidelines for what could and couldn’t be shown onscreen between 1930 and 1968. This included profanity – including God, Lord, Jesus, Christ, hell and damn – nudity, drug use, interracial relationships, scenes of childbirth and basically anything too sexy or suggestive.

Hitchcock’s Rebecca did have its memorable, sexually-heightened moments, like the scene when Mrs Danvers paws her way through Rebecca’s lingerie collection with barely-disguised relish. Anyone who has seen James in her acclaimed turn in All About Eve opposite Gillian Anderson knows how brilliant it will be to watch her and Scott Thomas square off against one another onscreen. 

As Mrs Danvers shows her young new mistress what Rebecca was like underneath her ladylike exterior – all that lace! All that sheer, diaphanous chiffon! – the scene crackles with sensual intensity and a hint of queer energy. All this floats just beneath the surface of the source material, too, given du Maurier’s own identity as a bisexual woman. 

The new Mrs de Winter and Mrs Danvers in a scene from Hitchcock’s Rebecca

Despite Maxim’s matinee idol good looks, it’s Rebecca that everyone in Rebecca is in love with. Mrs Danvers is in love with her, that’s for sure, and the second Mrs de Winter is in love with her, too. She spends most of the novel fantasising about her predecessor, rifling through her wardrobe and smelling her fragrance, thinking about the curl of her hair, the shape of her body, the way she moved.

The Hays Code likely prevented Hitchcock from tapping into the deep reserves of queer energy at play in Rebecca, but Goldman and the rest of the cast and crew in this Netflix adaptation will have no such difficulty. Particularly with Scott Thomas locked in for the role of Mrs Danvers, someone who can really hold her own onscreen. And what about Rebecca herself? Well, she’s a bit too young, but isn’t it possible that Jodie Comer could not only pull it off, but sink her teeth right into the middle of it?

Getting to see these three women (and one feckless man) trapped in this sensational love rhombus is exactly what we need right now. Bring on 2019! 

Images: Getty

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.

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