If you’ve ever seen Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), the only film out of the 53 he directed in his long career to win an Oscar for Best Picture, you might not know that it was based off of a book by the same name, written in 1938 by Daphne du Maurier.
It’s safe to say Alfred Hitchcock found his literary muse in du Maurier, since her work inspired three of his films: Jamaica Inn (1939), Rebecca (1940), and The Birds (1963).
When Daphne du Maurier first pitched the novel to her publisher, she described it as a “sinister tale about a woman who marries a widower…Psychological and macabre.” It is certainly both of those things. But her vibrant words and intense imagery are what have kept it in my heart and in my mind in the thirteen years since I first read it. In spite of it being a massive success when it was first published in 1938, and in reprint consistently since then, the novel is really only known in literary circles. What people tend to remember is Alfred Hitchcock’s award winning masterpiece—Joan Fontaine’s traumatized wide-eyed looks, Judith Anderson’s terrifyingly severe face and chilling voice, and Laurence Olivier’s unfairly handsome brooding.
Granted, there are plenty of people who think the film should be burned for not following du Maurier’s literary masterpiece down to the last detail, but honestly, it’s incredibly harsh when you think about what Hitchcock had to work around when he made the film; namely, the Hays Code.
The Hays Code was a strictly enforced set of guidelines Hollywood filmmakers had to follow, proposed by William Hays a wealthy and powerful Presbyterian elder who was sickened by the off screen scandals of the Hollywood stars of the 1910s and 20s. This meant no nudity, no cursing, no ridicule of the clergy (of course), no white slavery (but black slavery was toootally fair game obviously), no sex scenes, and there was even a time limit on how long a kiss could last on screen. And the treatment of criminals/do-badders by the filmmaker was also a huge part of the Code. It wasn’t strictly enforced until the mid-1930s, and it lasted all the way until 1968. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) got its roots in the Hays Code, and formally replaced it once it had run its course.
Since Rebecca was being filmed in 1939, this may have played a massive part in the plot differences between the film and the book. If that was the case, Hitchcock really had no choice in the matter if he wanted his film to even be seen.
Heralded as one of the greatest ghost stories of all time (even though it isn’t actually about a ghost), Rebecca is the story of an unnamed narrator who meets a much older Widower during holiday in Monte Carlo. She’s quickly bewitched by the handsome widower, and entranced by the melancholy and broody air about him. They fall in love, marry, and he brings her home with him to Manderley, his mansion in Cornwall. She quickly finds however, that the remnants of Maxim’s life with his first wife Rebecca before she died in a boating accident are everywhere in the home. The naïve and timid narrator is plagued by Mrs. Danvers, the sinister housekeeper who has an obsessive devotion to Rebecca even after her death. Between her own immaturity and feelings of inferiority, Mrs. Danvers constant praise of Rebecca, and Maxim’s depressive and snappish mood, the narrator thinks that Maxim still loves Rebecca and regrets marrying her.
When the remains of Rebecca’s boat are discovered by accident, authorities raise it and find that it was sunk deliberately. Maxim admits to his new wife that his marriage with Rebecca was plagued with hatred right from the beginning, and that she was constantly unfaithful. Rebecca told him she was pregnant with another man’s baby and threatened to raise it as Maxim’s. He snapped and shot her, putting her on her boat and sinking it to make it look like an accident. After the inquest in which Rebecca’s death is deemed suicide, her cousin (and lover, which…ew) insists she never would have done such a thing. They discover that she had a secret appointment with a doctor just before her death. They all drive out together to the doctor’s home to question him and discover that Rebecca was not pregnant, and she was told by the doctor that she was suffering from inoperable cancer. The novel ends with Maxim driving them back to Manderley. The last few sentences of the novel suggest that someone has set Manderley ablaze.
Maxim and the narrator’s fate is left to the imagination of the reader. Nor do we really know what happened to Manderley, except that we can assume someone purposely set it on fire.
But we do know that de Winter gets away with murdering Rebecca. In every single Hollywood movie during the decades-long reign of the Hays Code, a character who committed a crime, whether it was murder or something as arguably harmless as adultery, needed to be punished. It was feared that the average simpleton who went to the pictures might think they could get away with a crime if they saw it happen in a film.
Daphne du Maurier’s version allows a murderer to go free, and whether she meant for the ending to be a happy one or not, this is something that would never have gotten past the Hays Code approval board. If you’ve seen the film, you know that while Maxim momentarily had thoughts of murdering Rebecca, he didn’t go through with it, and her death was purely accidental. If Hitchcock kept him as Rebecca’s murderer, Maxim would have had to have either gone to prison or been killed for the film to be approved under the Code.
Unfortunately, Rebecca does suffer from this change in particular, as wonderful of a film as it is.
We never meet Rebecca in either the film or book. We’re forced to build her up in our minds based on other characters’ descriptions and stories, much like the narrator is. But having Rebecca die from a boating accident rather than being murdered by Maxim takes away from her characterization. Her death in the book is just as much about her intent as it is about Maxim’s. She lies to him about the pregnancy and plays on his anger and hatred to make him shoot her so that she doesn’t have to wait for the cancer to kill her. And of course he would be accused of her murder. She went out on her own terms and meant to take Maxim down with her. It’s so much more interesting than an accidental boating accident, and the moment in the book when Maxim realizes she played him is positively delicious. Granted, he escapes being accused in both the book and film version, so she is foiled there. It is disappointing that Rebecca shrinks from a three-dimensional, clever woman to become a two-dimensional woman in Hitchcock’s version.
Even so, the film is brilliant on its own. This was a Hitchcock film, after all, and it didn’t get 1940’s Best Picture Oscar for nothing. The cinematography and the performances are chilling and beautiful. Joan Fontaine is brilliantly subtle in balancing naivety and horror. Judith Anderson portrays Mrs. Danvers with an unsettling amount of obsession and quiet bitterness. And, of course, Laurence Olivier is stupidly beautiful to look at, it has to be said.
Without the Code, who knows whether Hitchcock might have followed the book more closely. Perhaps the film’s critics might have appreciated it more. But the Code does hover over the film like a dark cloud of censorship in a lot of ways, as it does for many Hollywood films of that era.