Book v Film: Rebecca (1940)

“I am glad it cannot happen twice, the fever of first love. For it is a fever, and a burden, too, whatever the poets may say. They are not brave, the days when we are twenty-one. They are full of little cowardices, little fears without foundation, and one is so easily bruised, so swiftly wounded, one falls to the first barbed word.”


Based on Daphne du Maurier‘s 1938 book and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Rebecca follows an unnamed protagonist (Joan Fontaine) who, whilst working as the companion to a rich American woman vacationing in Monte Carlo, meets a wealthy widowed Englishman named Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). When he suddenly proposes her hand in marriage, she agrees to accompany him to his mansion, the beautiful West Country estate Manderley, but soon finds that the memory of his first wife, Rebecca, still maintains a grip on her husband and the servants, especially on the housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson). Haunted by her memory, a mystery that lives on even after Rebecca’s death begins to unravel.

The following post is a review of the film adaptation in comparison to the book. You can read my review of the book on its own here.

Film Review:

Du Maurier’s Rebecca is my number one favourite book of all time, and as a huge fan of Hitchcock’s masterful work, this adaptation should have been the perfect film for me. But whilst the book’s mysterious and gripping story is the perfect kind of script for Hitchcock to work from, I don’t think an adaptation of my favourite book will ever live up to my expectations, and with many – albeit small – changes from the book, there are many flaws that prevent me from loving this film.

Both the book and the film open in the same way, with the famous opening line:

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

From that point on, we join a nameless narrator in a nail-biting journey full of suspense, as she retells her story in the form of a flashback of overcoming personal insecurities, discovering your identity amid social pressures and expectations, and what the meaning of true love really entails.

As much as it is a classic romance, Rebecca is also a gothic tale full of secrets and human flaws. Both the book and film are immensely haunting, yet they each capture this in different ways. The book is haunting in the sense that you are made to believe that Rebecca’s ghost could appear at any minute as, through Du Maurier’s poetic narrative, you can constantly feel the strong presence that Rebecca still has over the household and everybody that still resides there. The film, however, creates a fearful presence in its bleak imagery, with visuals of the forest around the estate shadowing over Manderley, and with Mrs Danvers’ dead stare coming to life vividly on-screen.

Whilst much of the dialogue is the same as it is in the book, there are many differences throughout the film. Most notably, the change from the book’s first person narrative means that we don’t get to know the struggles in Mrs De Winter’s mind. In the book, we constantly know what she’s thinking, as she often wonders about what Maxim would be doing if she wasn’t there and how Rebecca would be doing certain things differently. It is this narrative that makes Rebecca’s presence in the book so strong, with the added focus of knowing what’s going on inside Mrs De Winter’s mind allowing us to see the massive effect that Rebecca is having on her.

On top of this, there is not enough emphasis put on the rest of the characters comparing Mrs de Winter to Rebecca, which discourages the audience from feeling any sympathy towards Fontaine’s character on-screen, especially in her relationship with Maxim whose feelings, in the book, you would begin to doubt yourself. Du Maurier’s writing style throughout her book is so engrossing that you become captivated in Mrs de Winter’s character and you can feel the pressures from those around her. In the film, these emotions are too played down to have the same effect and, because of this, the huge twist of revelations at the end don’t come as much of a shock.

There are also many key scenes that are unnecessarily altered or missed out together. It’s a point that can always be made when analysing most book adaptations, but it is nonetheless the biggest reason that a film adaptation can lose its impact. With Rebecca, even small details such as the guests costumes at the grand ball are altered, which may not mean much to the typical viewer, but it’s scenes like these that Du Maurier describes so well in the book, already painting the picture for you, that make these alterations seem somewhat careless.

To better suit Hitchcock’s style of film-making, there should have also been a bigger focus on the investigation and trial at the end of the book, as well. It is these final chapters of the book that are filled with the most suspense, as the story could have easily gone in many different directions, and the lead up to the closing lines have your heart beating ten times faster than the climatic revelations that occur before. Sadly, these final few chapters are also altered in the film (I will go into more detail below), so this tension is quickly lost.

But not all can be criticised, as the characters are all played extremely well, with most of the actors fitting their roles incredibly well. Giles and Beatrice appear much older than they are described, but it is only the three central characters who needed to make an impact. Fontaine plays her role as Mrs De Winter with the perfect amount of naivety, and Olivier does the same with Maxim’s subtle arrogance, although these are both characteristics that need to be read to fully understand the motives of.

It is Anderson, however, who makes her mark on the film, almost turning her scenes into ones straight out of a horror film, with her terrifying performance as the closest character the film has to an antagonist casting her own dark shadows on the mysterious story. She is, however, a much younger actress than the mother-figure described in the book, but she certainly leaves you trembling in fear of her, nonetheless.

Whilst I don’t think any film adaptation will come close to the pristine standard of the book (in my eyes, at least), if another adaptation were to be made then I hope it would give a better look at Cornwall, put more emphasis on the surroundings of the estate, especially on the Happy Valley and the driveway leading up to the building, and, most importantly, put more focus on what Mrs de Winter is thinking, as it is rarely the same as what she is acting out.

Differences From The Book:

Aside from some of the unavoidable changes noted above, there are many minor alterations throughout the film and a certain big change regarding the film’s climatic twist. Here are all of the changes from book to film in chronological order:

  • The film starts with Maxim hovering over the edge of a cliff, as Mrs De Winter, who does not know him at this point, calls him to step back. It appears that he is about to commit suicide, but this is not the case. In the book, Mrs De Winter meets Maxim for the first time in the restaurant of the hotel, and Mrs Van Hopper informs her who he is. Maxim and Mrs De Winter then visit this cliff edge together on one of their later drives, when Maxim scares her by stepping too close to the edge.
  • Whilst having tea during their first encounter with Maxim, he talks quite openly about Manderley in the film, whereas, in the book, he goes quiet whenever it is mentioned. He is also a lot flirtier and happier in the film, whereas he’s much harder to read in the book, and Mrs De Winter is a lot more confident in the film, too, whereas she keeps to herself in the book.
  • In the book, Maxim sends Mrs De Winter a letter after their first meeting, apologising for his rudeness to her/Mrs Van Hopper. Mrs De Winter then falls asleep wondering what the purpose of the letter was. In the film, Maxim apologises to her in person the next morning, before asking her to sit with him for breakfast.
  • In the book, Mrs De Winter finds a book of poems in Maxim’s car, which has a message from Rebecca inside. As a result, she often thinks about who Rebecca is, and about her bold, confident handwriting. There is no book in the film, and Mrs De Winter, instead, has nightmares about things that have been said about Rebecca in conversation.
  • Maxim and Mrs De Winter dance in the film, but this does not happen in the book. In the book, there are very few signs of romance and attraction between the couple, and their only encounters are a few awkward drives.
  • In the film, Mrs De Winter goes up to Maxim’s room on her final morning in the hotel, after being told he has just ordered breakfast, and the following scenes all happen in there. In the book, she goes to his room on her own accord and they go downstairs to eat breakfast, although the proposal is just as abrupt.
  • We don’t read about the wedding in the book so Maxim, therefore, doesn’t give her any flowers. We merely know that they went to Venice.
  • In the book, Maxim has two dogs, and one of them is friendly with Mrs De Winter. There is only one dog in the film and he keeps his distance.
  • When Mrs De Winter arrives at Manderley, she goes straight to her new bedroom in the film. In the book, she and Maxim have dinner, they both talk to Mrs Danvers about the room changes, and then Maxim asks Danvers to show her to her bedroom.
  • In the book, Mrs De Winter gets lost the next morning when trying to hide from the arrival of Beatrice and Giles. It is at this point that she finds Rebecca’s room, although she does not go in, and Danvers redirects her to meet Giles and Beatrice. In the film, Danvers follows Mrs De Winter out of her bedroom on the first evening, as she attempts to find her way back downstairs, informing her about Rebecca’s room on the way. Mrs De Winter then introduces herself to Giles and Beatrice and doesn’t attempt to hide, although she does look nervous.
  • In the film, Mrs De Winter meets Crawley when she is finding her way around the next morning. In the book, she meets Crawley when Beatrice and Giles arrive, with Maxim.
  • In the book, they all comment about Maxim’s appearance to his face, joking about how better he looks but what a bad place he was in before. In the film, Beatrice says this to Mrs De Winter only.
  • In the film, there’s a horribly awkward moment between everybody when Giles makes a comment about sailing. This doesn’t happen in the book, although Mrs De Winter does make a comment about sailing to him during their time in Monte which has a similar effect.
  • In the book, Beatrice and Mrs De Winter spend time alone in the garden together, getting to know each other after dinner. Beatrice then buys her a set of art books for an engagement present. In the film, they don’t have this quality time or relationship; they only have dinner as a group before Beatrice and Giles leave.
  • In the film, when Maxim and Mrs De Winter visit the beach, Ben is inside the cottage. In the book, nobody has been inside, as it remains untouched and covered in a sheet of dust. She does, however, return to the cottage, when she finds Ben inside.
  • In the book, Maxim isn’t as mad about Mrs De Winter going over the rocks to the cottage as he is in the film, and he tells her about Ben before getting mad by Mrs De Winter trying to figure out his expression. In the film, he is furious straight away, and it is Crawley that tells Mrs De Winter about Ben.
  • In the book, Mrs De Winter calls on the Bishop and his wife where they talk about Rebecca and the costume ball. This doesn’t happen in the film. She then meets Crawley on her way back down the drive and walks with him to the house. This is when she asks him about Rebecca but, in the film, she does this whilst helping Crawley lick some stamps.
  • In the book, Mrs De Winter asks “What was Rebecca really like?”. In the film, she asks “Was Rebecca beautiful?”, which is a much more closed question, and therefore the answer isn’t as much of a surprise.
  • In the book, Mrs De Winter then goes back to the Happy Valley on her own which is when she sees Ben again. It is on her return that she sees Favell’s car in the drive. In the film, she sees a light on in the East Wing and goes to investigate.
  • In the book, Mrs De Winter does not know who Favell is until later on when she asks Crawley. In the film, Favell openly tells her who is he.
  • In the book, when Mrs De Winter goes to Rebecca’s room after meeting Favell, Danvers grabs her arm tightly so she cannot leave, but eventually lets her go. In the film, Mrs De Winter runs out of the room behind Danvers’ back.
  • In the film, Mrs De Winter then stands up to Danvers and asks her to get rid of some of Rebecca’s things. This confrontation does not happen in the book. Mrs De Winter doesn’t gain this confidence until Maxim’s revelations in the book.
  • In the film, Mrs De Winter requests that Maxim hosts a costume ball at this point. In the book, Maxim and Mrs De Winter have a few guests over for dinner, and they persuade Maxim to have another ball. In the film, Mrs De Winter says that she’ll organise it all herself but, in the book, Favell sets it all up with all the same old plans.
  • There is a scene missing in the film at this point when Mrs De Winter visits Maxim’s grandmother with Beatrice. It all goes well at first, but then she starts shouting for Rebecca.
  • In the book, Giles and Beatrice meet with Maxim, Crawley, and Mrs De Winter before the ball. Their costumes are also different. Crawley is a pirate in the book, but a scholar in the film, Beatrice is an Eastern goddess in the book and something similar in the film, and Giles is an Arab in the book, but a Strong Man in the film.
  • In the book, Mrs De Winter returns to the ball after some persuasion and then sleeps all of the next day, before going into Rebecca’s room. In the film, she goes to Rebecca’s room to confront Danvers straight away.
  • In the book, Mrs De Winter waits for Maxim at the house but, in the film, she finds him in the cottage. The revelations, therefore, happen in different places.
  • In order to comply with the Hollywood Production Code, which said that the murder of a spouse had to be punished, Maxim only thinks about killing Rebecca in the film and, instead, she dies from banging her head as she falls down. In the book, Maxim shoots Rebecca on purpose, and the details of her death are a lot more gruesome.
  • In the book, Favell turns up to Manderley after the trial. In the film, he approaches Maxim in the car, and they go to a private room in a nearby pub to talk.
  • In the book, Favell requests that Ben talks to the police when they are at Manderley later. In the film, Ben talks at the hearing.
  • In the book, Mrs De Winter goes with everybody to the doctor’s house. In the film, she waits at Manderley.
  • Since they have all travelled together, in the book, Mrs De Winter and Maxim see Manderley burning from afar on their way home, and the book ends there. In the film, Maxim is driving back with Crawley, and they go to get Rebecca from Manderley as they watch the building burn down.
  • In the film, it is obvious that the fire is Mrs Danvers doing, whereas this is only implied in the book.


As Alfred Hitchcock‘s first Hollywood film, Rebecca shows some real directorial talent, but Hitchcock did pick a piece of literature to work from that had a lot to live up to. The book will always be one of my favourites, which is the only reason I can pick so many faults with this adaptation. If I hadn’t read the book beforehand, then I probably would have regarded this as another Hitchcock classic, but nobody call tell the story of Rebecca as well as Daphne Du Maurier.

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