by Claire Jones
The pandemic hit every industry hard, due to the global shutdown that lasted for months, but one of the industries that has had the hardest time recovering is the movie industry. Since filming requires a large number of people being in close proximity and watching a movie in a theater requires the same, the movie industry had never reopened in the same way that the rest of the world has. 2020 ended up being a long string of postponements after postponements after postponements, until movies that were originally scheduled to come out in March still haven’t seen the light of day and may not for several months still. However, a select few movies have been sent on a different route. Among them is the new adaptation of Rebecca, which premiered on Netflix on October 21. The question arises of why the director and producers were willing to sacrifice theater time in order to make sure the movie aired in 2020.
Rebecca is an adaptation of a novel by Daphne du Maurier from the late 1930s. The novel has remained immensely popular ever since, but an adaptation for film has already been made. In 1940, Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Rebecca was released and was critically acclaimed, going on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. So why try to redo what Hitchcock had already done so successfully? What makes the 2020 Rebecca worth watching?
An argument can quickly be made that it was well past time for Hitchcock’s movie to be remade. In a time where remakes seem to come along every ten years or so, eighty years is plenty of time to justify making a new and shinier version. But at the same time, the film was directed by Hitchcock, and anything he touches becomes iconic by association. Luckily for the new movie, director Ben Wheatley doesn’t try to remake Hitchcock. Instead, he returns to the original source material. He goes back to the book and starts from there.
Hitchcock’s Rebecca is a psychological thriller. It is about the thrill and mystery of the upper-class world that the unnamed protagonist finds herself in. It is insidious and suspenseful and very, very typical of a Hitchcock film. However, there are many movies like that. What was the best movie in 1940 is not necessarily the best movie eighty years later. Wheatley’s Rebecca focuses much less on the mystery and more on the effects that the events of the plot have on the emotions of the protagonists.
In essence, Wheatley directs a movie about a young girl who dreams of romance and adventure with no real hope of ever having it—until it falls into her lap and sweeps her off her feet. She meets newly widowed Maxim de Winter, he falls for her innocence, they get married in a shockingly short amount of time (within a month of knowing each other), and they ride off to his ancestral home for their happily ever after. All seems well and good, except for the nagging little fact that happily ever after doesn’t happen. The new Mrs. de Winter is utterly unprepared for her role, surrounded by unsupportive staff, and her new husband quickly becomes cold and distant. She feels haunted by the ghost of his previous life, and she is convinced that he still loves Rebecca. Soon enough, Mrs. de Winter starts to feel invisible in her own life. She feels that her only role is to be a faint shadow of Rebecca, a placeholder of sorts. The emotional weight of the unspoken expectations from everyone around her is crushing. Compounding the mental toll of her situation, everyone refuses to speak plainly of Rebecca. Instead, she hovers over everything, like the proverbial elephant in the room.
The 2020 adaptation centers around an easily fixed problem. If Maxim de Winter would simply open his mouth and talk to his wife, everything would be okay. However, for a variety of reasons, he simply doesn’t. And so, his young bride suffocates under the weight of his past relationship. Is the blame all Maxim’s? No. Mrs. de Winter bears some of the guilt as well, for she could speak up about the pressure and disapproval from the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who adored Rebecca and revered her at the same time. Nevertheless, as someone more than twenty years her senior and the one who dragged her into a life that she was unprepared for, the lion’s share of the blame does lie with Maxim. It is his responsibility as the husband, as the elder, as the insider to help his young wife navigate the world she finds herself in. He fails this responsibility spectacularly.
Failure to communicate on both sides almost destroys this marriage before it can even really begin. And this is the crux of why this movie is worth watching rather than dismissing as something that can never live up to Hitchcock’s original. Rebecca 2020 showcases one of the major problems in our world today, where divorce is all too common. Refusal to communicate in our relationships will lead to the same problems that the characters in Rebecca suffer from. While we may not have unexplained deaths looming over our relationships, the ghosts of past relationships do haunt us, especially since we shy away from discussing these past relationships as if speaking of them will cause them to resurrect then and there.
Communication in general is something that we struggle with on every level in our current culture. However, like the characters in Rebecca, if we can learn to communicate, we can solve our problems. The consequences of Maxim’s actions do catch up to him eventually, although through no fault of his admittedly. However, he is not the one who solves them. It is his young wife’s quick thinking, steel nerves, and steadfast determination that carry him through safe to their happily ever after. Once they finally learn to communicate, once all the secrets are confessed and shared—only then can the guilt be assuaged, and a happy ending won. Rebecca explores the consequences of keeping secrets, but the film also shows the rewards that come with honesty.