Review by Richard Goldman
Originally published 1938, movie by Hitchcock 1940
My goodness, who has not seen Alfred Hitchcock's haunting and beautiful version of Rebecca with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine? And let's not leave out the diabolical Judith Anderson and the scheming George Sanders. Well, if you haven't seen the movie you really should--or even see it again.
But right now I'd like to talk about the book which, remarkably, I had not read until just a few weeks ago. I got started on reading Rebecca because I'd recently read Laura by Vera Caspary which was also the basis for a well-beloved movie and that project started because Mary Alice and I are planning on teaching a course about mysteries on the silver screen. Anyway, having read Laura (which I'll write about later) and noting the interesting differences between book and movie I got interested in Rebecca which led to watching the TV version made in 1997 and then the original Hitchcock version from 1940.
A quick catchup for those not familiar with the story: The fabulously wealthy, aristocratic Maxim DeWinter is hanging about in Monte Carlo recovering from the tragic death of his beautiful, accomplished socialite wife Rebecca when he meets a rather mousy companion to a vulgar American woman (the perfectly named Mrs. VanHopper). Falling in love (he and the companion not the vulgar American) the couple marry and return to Maxim's ancestral home, the incomparable Manderly on the Cornish coast. Once there the second Mrs. de Winter (who is never given a name) quickly realizes that she is in no way prepared for her role as the mistress of a great house and begins to wonder why her moody husband, who remains obsessed by Rebecca, ever married her. Then there is Mrs. Danvers the housekeeper who worshipped Rebecca and views our heroine as a usurper unworthy of Manderley. Conflict follows, there is a murder mystery, love triumphs and there's a terrific ending.
I'm happy to report that the book was a pleasure to read. Not dated in the least it brought to life the eccentric cast of characters in strong, concise writing. The beauty of Manderley and it's surrounding gardens and coast are beautifully rendered.
The Hitchcock movie follows the book pretty closely although naturally some scenes are deleted or shortened for the sake of keeping the flow in the movie. Interestingly, the role of Max's sister who is a bit motherly in the movie as played by Gladys Cooper, is a good bit more astringent in the book.
Another interesting change which I think shows Hitchcock's thinking at work is that in the book there is a butler. Well, of course there's a butler, no house like Manderley would ever be run by the housekeeper. By making this change in the movie I think that Hitchcock sharpens the conflict between Mrs. DeWinter and Mrs. Danvers.
There are some other rather significant changes which I don't want to discuss so as not to spoil the reading or watching for those of you new to the story. Suffice it to say that nobody, not even Daphne DuMaurier, could beat Hitch for a dramatic conclusion to a story.