Why has no one remade Rebecca? The last major film was in 1940, directed by Hitchcock and starring Laurence Olivier as a memorable Maxim and Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs. de Winter. There was a 1997 TV movie that didn’t get much buzz, and wasn’t very well cast (Charles Dance, better known as Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones, was not quite right for the part of Maxim de Winter, and at 51, just a hair too old). Other than these adaptations, however, Rebecca has received surprisingly little play on the silver screen. Compare this to Jane Eyre, the classic — Gothic/haunted mansion/madwoman in the attic/mysterious and attractive bachelor with a former wife — novel that started it all, and that many have described as a forerunner of Rebecca. Charlotte Brontë’s novel has been made into eight silent films, multiple motion pictures and television movies, and even a few musicals.
For anyone unfamiliar, I highly recommend Daphne du Maurier’s chilling, enigmatic, and riveting portrait of a marriage, from inception to proposal to — in some aspects — conclusion. This is not a typical description of Rebecca, which usually gets billed as a mystery. In reality, though, it is a Bildungsroman, a psychological study, a series of fantastic character sketches, and a stunning examination of paranoia. In brief, it tells the story of an unnamed heroine (her namelessness is so famous, in fact, that it inspired a sequel called Mrs. de Winter) who meets and falls in love with a rich and aristocratic widower, Maximillian de Winter, who has recently lost his wife in a sailing accident. After marriage, they return to his country estate, Manderley, where she learns much more about her predecessor, Rebecca, seemingly a paragon of beauty, grace, breeding, and brilliance. The housekeeper and Rebecca’s former companion, Mrs. Danvers, takes an instant dislike to the new Mrs. de Winter, and what follows is an exercise in psychological torment and self-doubt, as the second Mrs. de Winter begins to believe her husband is still in love with his first wife. No spoilers here, but if you haven’t read it, read it, and you’ve read it already, reread it.
Why do we have so many more versions of Jane Eyre than of Rebecca? Is the former more adaptable? Is it simply more widely read? Or perhaps (and I strongly feel this might be the reason) is there something much more compelling about Jane Eyre’s heroine? Even though another woman is the protagonist of Rebecca, the book’s title, and the book itself — belong to Rebecca. Her ghost and shadowy presence own the novel in a way that Bertha Mason never does, for Jane herself is such a unique and captivating voice. Nonetheless, I’d like to recommend a film remake of Rebecca, something edgy and dark, and here is my ideal cast:
Carey Mulligan as Mrs. De Winter: The second Mrs. De Winter is described as “pretty,” but timid and diffident, with “lank hair” and a lack of panache, style, and social graces that she feels acutely in comparison to Rebecca’s poise. Over the course of the novel, she develops, tested by circumstances and the crucible of her marriage. Mulligan is a fantastic actress, and one of the few people I can think of who could pull off this transformation, conveying youth and gaucheness with sweetness and, ultimately, steely strength. This choice would also do much to flesh out the second Mrs. de Winter, who is often depicted as faded and colorless (even by Joan Fontaine in the Hitchchock film).
Ralph Fiennes as Maxim de Winter: He’s handsome, he’s stately, his aquiline nose is the definition of patrician. De Winter is a man of passionate intensity, veiled in secrecy, reserve, and aloofness. The son of an ancient line, his family pride and — to a certain extent — arrogance are compelling and tragic, hubristic. His quiet forcefulness is a difficult thing to play, and Fiennes is one of the few actors I can think of who could follow Olivier and bring a different edge and gut to the role.
Tilda Swinton as Mrs. Danvers: The housekeeper of Manderley, who holds the keys in an iron grasp, runs the estate with precision and military order, and whose mask-like expression hides murky secrets, lies, and the shadowy history of Mr. de Winter and his first wife. Described as “skeletal,” with a “skull-like” face and severe hair, she is a sort of crypt-keeper. One of the most complex characters in the novel, she cherishes a deep loyalty and passionate attachment to her former mistress, Rebecca, and feels nothing but scorn for the second wife, her replacement. Imagine running into a black-haired Tilda Swinton creeping around an ancient house — scary!
Jude Law as Jack Favell: Rebecca’s dissolute cousin, who comes around the house when Maxim is away, visiting Mrs. Danvers and reminiscing over old times. He drinks heavily, drives a fast car, and is described as a formerly handsome man who has run to seed. So really, who better than Jude Law?
Stephen Dillane as Frank Crawley: Okay, maybe I’m just a huge Game of Thrones fan, but I think Dillane would be an excellent choice for Crawley, Manderley’s overseer, Maxim’s business partner and — as Mrs. de Winter eventually discovers — secret-keeper. Frank is depicted as sort of a fool for much of the book, but at the crux, he turns out to have the sort of steely reserve and discreetness that one can’t help but admire.
Fiona Shaw as Beatrice Lacy: Maxim’s tweedy, equestrian, sporting and dog-breeding sister. Beatrice is always putting her foot in her mouth. Well-meaning and hearty, she is more preoccupied with hunting season than with the unfolding mystery of her brother’s life.
If you’re wondering why I didn’t cast Rebecca, I imagine any film that shows her in flashbacks or as a ghost wandering the corridors of Manderley loses something. Rebecca is more beautiful and more terrifying than any phantom because she inhabits Mrs de Winter’s mind.
And so to close as the book opens, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”