‘Rebecca’ Summary & Review – Is It Worth Walking Through the Flames?


Literature has been the source of a great many stories on Screen. Through numerous books and plays, it has given Cinema an abundance of fiction filled with human misery and victory. Combined with the excellence of a writer who writes through the camera, these stories have marvellously created memories in viewers. One such piece of literature is Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. When released, it became an instant seller and was quickly adapted into various stage plays and movies. Even film auteur Alfred Hitchcock made a movie of the same name in 1940, which went on to win an Oscar for the best picture.

The latest addition to the lot is an adaptation attempt by filmmaker Ben Wheatley who has made a Netflix Rebecca that is released mostly digitally. Before talking about it, let’s talk about what the film is about.

‘Rebecca’ Summary

The film begins with a voice over a haunted house, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” It suggests a female narrator, conversing about a haunting memory in her past. The narrative jumps back to bygone days in Monte Carlo where a young woman (Lily James) is working for an authoritatively insensible woman, Mrs Van Hopper (Ann Dowd). On her trip to this new town, the young girl meets a charismatic young man named Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) with whom she falls in love with. All her social indifferences quickly fade away, as De Winters is quite a rich man and a respected part of the English Community.

But there is a dark past attached to Maxim, that is the main underlying theme of the film. He was married earlier to a girl named Rebecca, who drowned herself in the sea. Lily James’s character is well informed about the past, what she learns out of the box is that the presence of Rebecca still haunts Maxim’s castle in Manderley.

Entering Maxim’s world, as the New Mrs. De Winters, she faces all the secrets hiding beneath the cold castle that is all, in a way, related to Rebecca. Through Lily Adams, we discover the truth as well, who at the end becomes an instrumental weapon to save Maxim from spats and rumours of the world.

Relevance of Literature

A good piece of fiction can pass the test of time and still be relevant to the readers. Books such as Orwell’s 1984, The Great Gatsby, Beauty and the Beast and Moby Dick and classics like such centres around themes that are still much relevant in the 21st century. It hits a millennial like it impacted the people in the period it first came out. The quality supporting that virtue is their focus on human psychics which can never change entirely, they are going love, cheat and lie, no matter how evolved they become.

 Daphne du Maurier’s gothic novel Rebecca underlines many such recurring themes through its web of words. As we are talking about the ones used in the film, the 2020 adaptation of the book, highlighted human inclination towards lie and deceit.

The film is haunted by Rebecca’s death. Why she was murdered and by whom is investigated further. What leads to her murder is kept mysterious for good, but the investigation highlights some points that cry the ply of a modern woman and a possessive man in some conversation. Maxim tells his new wife that Rebecca was always fun-loving and liked the attention of males around him. A thing that disturbed him. Common virtues of human jealousy and possessiveness. For Rebecca, she could never become a mother as she had cancer in her reproductive system, which could be because of her lifestyle, surgeries or nature. The reason remains unknown, but the prominent thing is, she felt the need to become a mother at some point in her life, which after the discovery of her illness, is impossible.

Maxim and Rebecca are sharply carved characters, that are deeply flawed as all human beings are. They have their own shades of grey that lead to complications in their life, such gloom and despair are still relevant to human beings because we can’t entirely change, isn’t it. New Mrs. De Winters tries to save Maxim in the eyes of law because she is in love and believes in his innocence, another feeling of guarding our loved ones, that is and will be common to us, no matter how cynical we become in life. These emotions and virtues are such that it could anytime be put on screen and a great film could come out of it, but Rebecca (2020) failed to deliver it. Why?

Adaptation to Screen

Film auteur Jean Luc-Godard once said, “It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.” Godard and Truffaut, in their lives, have adapted numerous french and English novels and they have done it marvellously. Their approach is mentioned above. They took the on-screen adoptions to new heights, while the fiction was already celebrated.

When Rebecca, the book came out, it quickly became the talk of the town, giving it a bestseller status instantly. It was the brilliance of it’s writing that inspired Orson Welles to adapt it for the radio play and numerous other makers took the adaptation to the television screen. The most remarkable of all, was Alfred Hitchcock’s version, the master of suspense, adding his flavour turned the material into one of the best films of the year.

For Hitchcock, when he made the film in the 1940s, the sourcebook had much relevance of its own to the reality, as the period depicted in the book and film was the period in real. The characters are the viewers, both were going through the age of the Great Depression and everything was much resonating. It was just a supplementary factor, to Hitchcock’s already known vision, who with his Midas touch, transformed the fiction into something classic. Every inch of the frame and every second on-screen was filled with suspense and had some really chilling scenes throughout.

The 2020 adaptation isn’t much relevant to the viewers today. The relevant themes are quite intriguing but the characters don’t look much real. It isn’t about the performances but the written part, that hasn’t brought anything new to their persona.

As Dario Fo said, “a theatre, a literature, an artistic expression that does not speak for it’s own time has no relevance.” Though this statement could turn into a heated argument for all the period films made in the cinematic history, the important point to notice in Dario Fo’s line is that it means that if you make a film in 2020 and it doesn’t portray the period or generation, it is released in, then the artistic expression holds no relevance. People from history aren’t going to come back to see the piece, isn’t it? Either it should have a message or a notion or implied preaching that provokes or leads to some thought in the mind of the present audience. Rebecca by Ben Wheatley, speaks none of it.

For an audience who just wants to see what’s new on-screen, Rebecca is an easy watch. It will be easily forgotten too as it lacks any substantiality or re-watch value. It doesn’t give you much, except for a thought “ how great Hitchock’s version was”, even if it was made some 80 years ago. If a piece of art creates such conversations after the movie, then it’s a flaw that could have been avoided by the makers by actually putting much more into it, than just adapting the pages to screen. We needed a Ben Wheatley version of Rebecca but there was none.

If you are looking for simple gothic drama that could be binged then Rebecca is streaming on Netflix.

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Shikhar Agrawal
Shikhar Agrawal
I am an Onstage Dramatist and a Screenwriter. I have been working in the Indian Film Industry for the past 12 years, writing dialogues for various films and television shows.

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