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Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938)

‘We bought Rebecca and we intend to make Rebecca’. These are the words of producer David O Selznick to director Alfred Hitchcock in June 1939 after he received Hitchcock’s first treatment of Daphne du Maurier’s bestselling novel Rebecca. Selznick and Hitchcock famously clashed over Rebecca, from the nature of the adaptation to the casting, but Selznick stood his ground and defended the integrity of the novel which had already captured the imagination of British and American readers alike. Hitchcock’s initial treatment was, according to Selznick, ‘a distorted and vulgarised version of a provenly successful work’ in which ‘old-fashioned movie scenes have been substituted for the captivatingly charming du Maurier scenes’. Hitchcock, much to his chagrin, was sent back to the drawing board and fans of du Maurier will be glad that he was, because despite the tension between director and producer, and the changes that were made to the story as a result of the censors, together Hitchcock and Selznick produced one of the most beloved adaptations of du Maurier’s work to date.

The winner of the Academy Awards for best picture and best cinematography, and nominated for nine further awards, Rebecca was an immediate success with cinema audiences in 1940 and it remains a Hollywood classic to this day. In 2018, the 80th anniversary of publication of du Maurier’s novel, Hitchcock’s film has been shown at Picturehouse Cinemas across the country and on 12th August there will be an outdoor screening at Somerset House in London with a pre-film talk. Both novel and adaptation remain as popular as ever and here at the du Maurier website we are launching our series of du Maurier adaptation articles with the film that we believe to be the most atmospheric and successful du Maurier adaptation to date: Hitchcock’s 1940 Rebecca.

The Cast

Hitchcock’s Rebecca brought together a brilliant cast to retell du Maurier’s gripping tale of Manderley and its former mistress. Dark and brooding, Laurence Olivier played Maxim de Winter opposite a nervous but beautiful Joan Fontaine, in a film that was to be career-changing for the young actress. Judith Anderson’s intense and chilling Mrs Danvers set the bar for interpretations of Manderley’s cadaverous housekeeper and Florence Bates captured the brash and vulgar Mrs Van Hopper to perfection. Du Maurier family friend Gladys Cooper played Maxim’s no-nonsense sister Beatrice and Nigel Bruce, famous for playing Dr Watson to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes, was her comical husband Giles Lacy. George Sanders completed the main cast as Rebecca’s cousin, the ultimate cad and conman, Jack Favell.

Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine

Casting Maxim and du Maurier’s nameless narrator was a complex affair, however. Selznick had initially wanted Ronald Colman for Maxim but Colman was worried about the effect on his reputation, firstly of playing a murderer and secondly appearing in what he considered to be a ‘woman’s picture’. Melvyn Douglas, Walter Pidgeon, Leslie Howard, and William Powell were considered and rejected, and in the end Laurence Olivier was cast. Olivier had played Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights the previous year and he had hoped that Vivien Leigh, with whom he was having an affair, would land the part of Mrs de Winter. Leigh had just starred in Gone with the Wind (1939) but the character of the second Mrs de Winter could not have been more opposed to the strong and feisty Scarlett O’Hara. (Had Hitchcock decided to cast an actress to play Rebecca herself, Leigh perhaps would have been perfect).

A large number of actresses were tested for the part of the second Mrs de Winter and a lengthy process ensued before Joan Fontaine was finally given the part. As Selznick commented, ‘sometimes you can miscast a picture and get away with it; but there are certain stories, such as Rebecca, where miscasting of the girl will mean not simply that the role is badly played but that the whole story doesn’t come off.’ The role of Mrs de Winter is indeed fundamental to Rebecca and eventually, Hitchcock and Selznick had a shortlist of Fontaine, Margaret Sullavan, and Anne Baxter. Baxter, at only 16, was ultimately considered too young for the part and Selznick felt that Sullavan was perhaps too strong for the role (‘Imagine Margaret Sullavan being pushed around by Mrs Danvers, right up to the point of suicide!’, he quipped).

Selznick first met Fontaine at a dinner party where, fortuitously, the actress ventured that she had just that very day finished reading the most wonderful novel, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Selznick was enchanted with her and declared that he had just bought the rights to that very novel and would she like to screen test for Mrs de Winter. Hitchcock declared her a ‘possibility’ after the screen test but said that she ‘has to show a fair amount of nervousness in order to get any effect.’ Selznick had hoped to test Fontaine’s sister, Olivia de Havilland, who was later to go on to star in the 1952 adaptation of du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel, but de Havilland reportedly refused because her sister was up for the role. Playing Mrs de Winter was to be a turning point in Joan Fontaine’s career. She was nominated for best actress for the role, only losing out to Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle. Fontaine went on to play Lina McLaidlaw in Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941), a film with clear echoes of Rebecca; the title role in Jane Eyre (1943), an adaptation of the Brontë novel that influenced du Maurier’s Rebecca; and in 1944, she played her second du Maurier heroine, Dona St Columb in a glorious technicolour version of Daphne’s 1941 novel Frenchman’s Creek.

For Fontaine, the experience of playing Mrs de Winter was, like the character, rather fraught and anxious. She was not as experienced as the rest of the cast and she described the atmosphere on set as isolating and undermining. In her autobiography, No Bed of Roses (1978), she recalls that Hitchcock’s strategy was to ‘divide and conquer’ and that in her first week of filming, he told her that Olivier had wanted Vivian Leigh instead of her (and indeed Olivier’s cold treatment of her backed up this claim). Such tactics, often employed by Hitchcock who was famously controlling when it came to his leading ladies, contributed to Fontaine feeling ill at ease on the set which, admittedly, did increase the effectiveness of her portrayal of Mrs de Winter’s nervousness and discomfort. In a strange coincidence, Fontaine herself was just married, to her first husband Brian Aherne, and her biographer reports that she found a number of keepsakes of Aherne’s former girlfriend who had died several years before. Aherne’s butler, who was kept on staff, was also reportedly difficult.
Depicting a newly married woman overwhelmed by her surroundings, both material and social, must have felt hauntingly familiar to Fontaine.

Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson

The supporting cast for the film were equally well chosen, in particular Judith Anderson whose compelling interpretation of Mrs Danvers earned her a nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Hitchcock’s direction of Anderson was masterful. ‘Mrs Danvers was almost never seen walking and was rarely show in motion’, Hitchcock explained in an interview with the director, producer, and critic François Truffaut.

‘If she entered a room in which the heroine was, what happened is that the girl suddenly heard a sound and there was the ever-present Mrs Danvers, standing perfectly still by her side. In this way the whole situation was projected from the heroine’s point of view; she never knew when Mrs Danvers might turn up, and this, in itself, was terrifying. To have shown Mrs Danvers walking would have been to humanize her.’

Anderson’s Mrs Danvers often glides into shot and disappears before Mrs de Winter even realises that she has gone. Frequently impassive and expressionless, Mrs Danvers’ intense, wide-eyed, and hypnotic descriptions of her former mistress in the bedroom scenes are even more haunting. When she urges Fontaine to ‘listen, listen to the sea’ before gazing off into the middle distance, it is no wonder Mrs de Winter backs away out of the room in fear.

Anderson and Fontaine in Rebecca’s bedroom

Hitchcock recognised that in du Maurier’s novel, Manderley- the ‘house of secrets’- was a character in its own right. ‘In a sense the picture is the story of a house’, he said, and his methods of demonstrating Mrs de Winter’s sense of alienation and discomfort in the house were brilliant. Much of the furniture was oversized, the flower arrangements were enormous, and the doorknobs were often positioned at shoulder or head-height so that when Fontaine entered a room, she appeared like a child, an Alice-in-Wonderland out of her depth in a grown up world. Joan Fontaine recalled that Hitchcock would often make sketches of the visual mood that he was trying to depict in a film: ‘one such drawing was of “I” de Winter, the character I played, cringing in an oversized wing chair, light just crossing her fact so only the terrified eyes peered out. The rest was in darkness.’ Like du Maurier, Hitchcock was adept at using physical setting and objects to create atmosphere and character.

Manderley itself was a miniature rather than a real house, indeed Hitchcock built two large miniatures as well as interior room sets. The morning room with its multiple exits was intended to be confusing to Mrs de Winter and while the library was to be the only welcoming and warm room in the house, the huge fireplace easily overwhelms the slight Mrs de Winter. The filming of Mrs de Winter walking through the house was deliberately disjointed in order to mirror the narrator’s sense of dislocation and in shots of the house from the exterior, it appears similarly mystifying as it is made up of multiple, disparate elements. Looking like a rambling, exaggerated Gothic mansion, the Manderley of the film may not reflect the ‘perfect symmetry of those walls’ that du Maurier describes in the opening of Rebecca but it does capture the atmosphere of the ‘house of secrets’ whose mystery Mrs de Winter never quite seems to penetrate.

The Adaptation and The Hays Code

Selznick was determined to make a faithful adaptation of Du Maurier’s novel and he rejected Hitchcock’s first treatment immediately, expressing shock and disappointment at how heavy-handed he had been, particularly in a misguided attempt to bring humour to the story. Nevertheless, despite Selznick’s intentions, Du Maurier fans will immediately recognise two key changes to the plot of Rebecca: how Rebecca died and the ending of the film. The first of these was due to the restrictions placed upon filmmakers by the Motion Picture Production Code. Commonly known as the Hays Code (after Will Hays, the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America), the code comprised a series of moral guidelines which governed what could be shown in a motion picture in the USA. Hitchcock’s adaptation of Rebecca was critically shaped by the determination of the Hays Code whose administrator Joseph Breen ruled that Maxim de Winter could not go unpunished for the murder of Rebecca.

When Breen wrote to Selznick after having read the script, he informed him ‘that the material, in our judgement, is definitely and specifically in violation of the Production Code’, in particular because, ‘as now written, it is a story of a murderer who is permitted to go off “scot free”’ (Breen, quoted in Berenstein).  In the novel this is of course the case. Maxim de Winter admits uncategorically to killing Rebecca:

‘There was never an accident. Rebecca was not drowned at all. I killed her. I shot Rebecca in the cottage in the cove and I carried her body to the cabin, and took the boat out that night and sunk it there, where they found it today.’ (Chapter 19)

Maxim shot her through the heart and, moreover, he has no remorse for the deed: ‘I’m glad I killed Rebecca. I shall never have any remorse for that, never, never’ (Chapter 21). The novel enables Maxim to get away with murder when Dr Baker provides a motive for suicide- Rebecca’s illness. Unfortunately, this contravened the Hays Code and as a result, the adaptation had to stage Rebecca’s death as an accident. Maxim strikes Rebecca but she then trips and falls in the boathouse as she starts towards him, hitting her head on a piece of ship’s tackle.

Laurence Olivier at the scene of the ‘crime’

Selznick was, unsurprisingly, annoyed by this development and he declared that ‘the whole story of Rebecca is the story of a man who has murdered his wife and now it becomes the story of a man who buried a wife who was killed accidentally!’ When you scrutinise the plot of the film in this way, it does undermine Maxim’s decision to hide Rebecca’s body but, as Richard Allen points out, it also has the unintended effect of making the audience suspicious of Maxim’s narration of what happened. A reader of du Maurier’s novel will know that Maxim did murder Rebecca and they will therefore doubt his explanation of her death as accidental. In the film, he barely even admits to hitting her (‘I suppose I went mad for a moment, I must have struck her’). In the book, Maxim’s confession takes place in the library but in the film, Hitchcock moves it to the boathouse, where the ‘accident’ took place, and accompanies Olivier’s narration with a camera shot that begins with the ashtray of Rebecca’s cigarette stubs on the sofa and gradually pans across the room towards Maxim as he reports Rebecca’s final speech and how she fell, before dramatically revealing the ship’s tackle behind the door. Rebecca’s absent presence dominates the scene which, despite the absurdity of the ‘accident’ scenario, does retain a palpable sense of menace.

Another target of the Hays Code was the presence of ‘sex perversion’ in any motion picture. As Rhona Berenstein has argued, this was a coded reference to potentially illicit desires in the Mrs Danvers’ relationship with Rebecca, and yet Hitchcock and Selznick did not make the same changes to the adaptation as they did regarding Maxim’s status as a murderer. Breen asserted that:

‘It will be essential that there be no suggestion whatever of a perverted relationship between Mrs Danvers and Rebecca. If any possible hint of this creeps into this scene, we will of course not be able to approve the picture. Specifically, we have in mind Mrs Danvers’ description of Rebecca’s physical attributes, her handling of the various garments, particularly the nightgown’ (quoted in Berenstein).

Judith Anderson’s portrayal of Mrs Danvers caressing Rebecca’s nightgown- so delicate that ‘you can see my hand through it’- replicates the erotically charged scene in the novel. When Mrs de Winter enters Rebecca’s room in the book, du Maurier’s narrator describes Mrs Danvers as ‘triumphant, gloating, excited in a strange unhealthy way’ (Chapter 14) and despite Breen’s concerns, this remains one of the most powerful and unsettling scenes in the film.

Two further changes were made to du Maurier’s novel in its transformation from page to screen. A notable addition is the typically Hitchcockian scene in which Maxim and Mrs de Winter watch their honeymoon cine film, the charming footage of the picnic and Mrs de Winter with the geese overshadowed by the revelation of the broken china cupid and Maxim’s criticism of Mrs de Winter’s Rebecca-esque black satin dress. This is, of course, not the only time in the film that Mrs de Winter’s choice of outfit backfires. When she falls for Mrs Danvers’ trick and decides to dress as Caroline de Winter for the Manderley ball, we cannot help but fear a similar reaction from Maxim. Hitchcock’s shooting of the cine film scene- with the light from the projector flickering across Mrs de Winter’s tear-stained face and Maxim brooding in the shadows- leaves us in no doubt where our sympathy should lie.

Hitchcock’s other major addition to the film was the change in the ending. In the novel, du Maurier famously leaves it ambiguous as to precisely how Manderley became the ‘sepulchre’ and ‘desolate shell’ that Mrs de Winter visits in her dream in Chapter 1. At the end of the novel, as Maxim and Mrs de Winter drive back towards Manderley, they see a light appear in the sky, ‘like the first red streak of sunrise’:

‘It’s in winter you can see the northern lights, isn’t it?’ I said. ‘Not in summer?’ ‘That’s not the northern lights,’ he said. ‘That’s Manderley’.

The sky is ‘inky black’ but the horizon is ‘shot through with crimson, like a splash of blood. And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea’ (Chapter 27). It is often assumed that Mrs Danvers is responsible for burning down Manderley although when Maxim rings Frank Crawley before they leave London, Frank tells him that Mrs Danvers ‘has cleared out. She’s gone, disappeared.’ She packed all her possessions and Frank surmises that ‘she must have gone straight out of the house and through the woods. She never passed the lodge gates.’ In Chapter 2 of the novel Mrs de Winter wonders what Mrs Danvers ‘is doing now. She and Favell’. This ambiguity, a hallmark of du Maurier’s work, allows suspicion to fall upon Mrs Danvers but the final image of the crimson sky reminds us of Rebecca, associated with the colour red throughout the novel, and this raises the tantalising possibility that Rebecca herself has had her revenge by destroying Manderley… In du Maurier’s work we will never know for certain but in Hitchcock’s film, it is made abundantly clear that Mrs Danvers in responsible.

Manderley in flames

In the film, Maxim and Frank drive back towards Manderley and the house is completely aflame. When he finds Mrs de Winter, she declares ‘Mrs Danvers, she’s gone mad, she’d rather destroy Manderley than see us happy here’ and we then cut to the west wing where Mrs Danvers is inside Rebecca’s bedroom, surrounded by flames, as the ceiling then falls in upon her. The flames then make their way up the counterpane on Rebecca’s bed, finally consuming the letter ‘R’ on Rebecca’s nightgown case.

Selznick initially had other ideas about this final scene. He agreed with Hitchcock that the letter ‘R’ should be the film’s final image but his suggestion was that it appear in the sky made of smoke from the Manderley fire. Hitchcock dismissed this rather sensational idea and instead returned to the concrete items in Rebecca’s bedroom, focusing on the destruction of her nightgown case instead. The motif of the burning ‘R’ is in fact borrowed from an episode earlier in the novel that did not make it into the film in which Mrs de Winter- in a bold and defiant mood- tears out the dedication page in a book that Maxim has lent her and sets fire to Rebecca’s signature. ‘The letter R was the last to go, it twisted in the flame, it curled outwards for a moment, becoming larger than ever. Then it crumpled too; the flame destroyed it. It was not ashes even, it was feathery dust…’ (Chapter 6). In the film, the ‘R’ is engulfed in flames but rather than disappearing altogether, it remains to remind us of the most powerful figure in the entire film, Rebecca herself.

Hitchcock and Du Maurier

In his interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock was famously dismissive of Rebecca, both the novel and his own adaptation.

‘Well, it’s not a Hitchcock picture; it’s a novelette, really. The story is old-fashioned; there was a whole school of feminine literature at the period, and though I’m not against it, the fact is that the story is lacking in humour’.

A number of critics, including Nina Auerbach (Daphne du Maurier: Haunted Heiress), have pointed out that the director protests too much here. It is striking that Hitchcock continued to return to du Maurier’s work for inspiration throughout his career, adapting three of her stories for film (Jamaica Inn, 1939; Rebecca, 1940; The Birds, 1963) and his later films, such as Suspicion (1941) and Vertigo (1958), bear clear traces of the influence of Rebecca. Du Maurier taught Hitchcock much about suspense and psychology, although he would have been loath to admit it. Indeed, Hitchcock’s attitude to du Maurier’s Rebecca here- diminishing the work as novelette-ish and ‘feminine’- is indicative of his attitude towards women more generally. By trivialising du Maurier’s work he asserts his own superiority and by claiming that Rebecca is ‘not a Hitchcock picture’ he sidesteps the crucial role that the film played in his development as a director.

Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, and Alfred Hitchcock

Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is one of the world’s best-loved novels and Hitchcock’s adaptation remains a firm favourite among du Maurier fans. Daphne herself liked the film and even Hitchcock admitted that it ‘has stood up quite well over the years’, although he concluded rather curtly, ‘I don’t know why.’ But from Joan Fontaine’s enchanting voiceover- ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’ - to Judith Anderson’s deliciously disturbing Mrs Danvers, Hitchcock’s Rebecca succeeds because, despite the changes it made, the film does an excellent job of recreating the atmosphere, psychology, and power of du Maurier’s novel. No film adaptation can ever live up to the brilliance of the book but Hitchcock and Selznick’s Rebecca certainly comes close.

© Dr Laura Varnam, August 2018.


I would like to thank Daphne du Maurier’s son Kits Browning for kindly discussing the adaptation with me.

Further reading:

Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca (1938)
Nina Auerbach, Daphne du Maurier: Haunted Heiress (2000)
The Daphne du Maurier Companion, ed. Helen Taylor (2007)

Memo from David O. Selznick, selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer (1972)
Hitchcock’s Secret Notebooks, edited by Dan Auiler (1999)
Leonard J. Leff, Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood (1988)
François Truffaut, Hitchcock (1978)

Joan Fontaine, No Bed of Roses (1978)
Charles Higham, Olivia and Joan: A Biography of Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine (1984)

Richard Allen, ‘Daphne du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock’, in A Companion to Literature and Film, edited by Robert Stam and Alessandra Raengo (2004), chapter 18.
Rhona J. Berenstein, ‘Adaptation, Censorship, and Audiences of Questionable Type: Lesbian Sightings in Rebecca (1940) and The Uninvited (1944)’, Cinema Journal, 37.3 (1998), 16-37.

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