Everything You Need to Know About ‘Rebecca’ Before Watching Netflix’s New Adaptation
If you’ve ever felt that particular level of anxiety that comes with stalking your ex’s new partner on the internet, you’ll know what it’s like to be the lead character in Netflix’s Rebecca. Take that paranoia and dial it up to 10, add in death, intrigue, obsession, and a spooky housekeeper who is obsessed with reminding you how your romantic predecessor was totally better than you. Welcome to the most anxiety-inducing movie ever.
Netflix’s spooky new adaptation of the classic 20th-century novel, out for streaming on Netflix now, stars Lily James as the unnamed second Mrs. de Winter alongside everyone’s second-favorite-Call Me By Your Name actor Armie Hammer. Hammer plays her husband, the mysterious widower Maxim.
Cue the dark secrets, sexy beach makeouts, and real estate porn—think dark academia meets Wuthering Heights. And did I mention the spooky, severe housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, played by Kristin Scott Thomas (and giving some terrifying side-eye in the trailer)? There’s a lot to like about this movie. But where did this story come from? Let’s get into it.
Alright, what’s the origin of this movie?
Great question! Rebecca is based on a book, and the story has been a pop-cultural fixture since the novel’s publication in 1938. The author, Daphne du Maurier, was a literary celebrity of the 20th century. The book is particularly well-known for its opening line: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” It’s one of the most famous kickoffs in literary history—and it’s in perfect iambic hexameter—think a Shakespeare sonnet with two extra syllables (thanks to my one college poetry class for that one).
Okay, what’s it about?
Without spoiling the plot, the book centers around a pair of newlyweds. The unnamed narrator meets a mysterious widower in the French Riviera. He’s suspiciously eager to marry her, and she soon figures out why. It has to do with his glamorous wife, Rebecca, who’s very much dead and still manages to haunt the pages of the novel—and slink through the trailer in a red silk gown.
Rebecca as a spectre is what makes this movie so perfect for *spooky season*. Rebecca may or may not be swanning around the big old house, haunting it with her perfect hair and slinky dresses. But that’s a moot point: what matters is the obsession.
The book was billed as a romance, but it’s pure psychological horror, filled with moments that will literally make you gasp. And what made the book even more famous was that it was the subject of Alfred Hitchcock’s first U.S. film.
So there was another movie before this?
Yes! The 1940 adaptation by Hitchcock and legendary Old Hollywood producer David O. Selznick won Best Picture at the 13th Academy Awards (not too shabby!). It starred the great Laurence Olivier as Maxim and Joan Fontaine, the first iteration of Grace Kelly’s Hitchcock blonde, as Mrs. de Winter. Fun fact about Joan Fontaine: she and her sister Olivia de Havilland had one of the biggest—and best—sibling rivalries in Hollywood history.
The 1940 adaptation deviated from the novel, though, in a big, spoiler-filled way. If you want to preserve the mystery, skip the next paragraph, because we’re gonna talk spoilers.
How do all the different versions differ?
Here’s the deal: Hollywood codes in the 1940s were strict by modern standards. Any bad character had to get their comeuppance, and there was absolutely no way to reference same-sex relationships and still get a studio release. So the queerness of the Mrs. Danvers’ character, whose obsession with Rebecca definitely veers into the sexual, was tamped down, though Hitchcock did get his way in one scene featuring a dead woman’s lingerie. And the novel’s biggest twist—the murder of the titular Rebecca—was replaced with an accidental death. In the new Netflix adaptation, Maxim does actually kill Rebecca, like he does in the book. Ok, spoilers over.
Whatever Netflix and director Ben Wheatley do with this adaptation, it’s got big shoes to fill from Hollywood’s golden age. It might require some suspension of disbelief to buy the drop-dead gorgeous Lily James as a plain, timid protagonist, and it’ll be interesting to see Armie Hammer try to play mysterious rather than, well, himbo. But the spooky subject matter and escapist set dressing makes it a perfect binge-watch for a quarantine night in. And the plot twists are sure to keep you just as haunted as any ghost story.
I don’t know about you, but I am beyond ready to go to Manderley again.
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