An Interview with Tatiana de Rosnay about the Netflix adaptation of Rebecca
Tatiana de Rosnay and her beautiful biography about Daphne du Maurier
Tatiana de Rosnay is a Franco-British novelist who has written numerous extremely successful novels, several of which having been made into film. Probably her most famous book is Sarah's Key (2007), but recent successes include The Rain Watcher (2018) and Les fleurs de l'ombre (2020), which is to be published in the English language as Flowers of Darkness in 2021. Tatiana is also Daphne du Maurier's current biographer, having published Manderley Forever in France in 2015, and the US and UK in 2017.
It was because of Tatiana's love of Daphne du Maurier that we met. She walked into Bookends, our tiny second-hand book shop in Fowey, Cornwall, while she was researching her biography. We started talking du Maurier, and we have been friends ever since. Later we both worked on the French documentary Daphné du Maurier: sur les traces de Rebecca, which translates as Daphne du Maurier: In the Footsteps of Rebecca, directed by Elisabeth Schlumberger and produced by Patricia Houtart and Francois Duplat in (2017). So, it was an enormous pleasure for me when, earlier this month, Tatiana de Rosnay agreed to be interviewed by me about the forthcoming Netflix adaptation of Rebecca. Tatiana, as Daphne du Maurier's biographer, is one of the very few people who have been able to see the new film ahead of the rest of us.
Armie Hammer as Maxim and Lily James as his nameless wife
My first question to Tatiana was about her reaction when she first heard there was going to be a new film adaptation of Rebecca and how she felt about the concept of someone make another film of this iconic book.
As a complete Daphne du Maurier fan, Tatiana said, this was good news because she is always interested in anything that is happening around Daphne du Maurier. She was excited because it would give another opportunity for people, who perhaps don't know Daphne's work, to fall in love with it, as she had done all those years ago. Then, when Tatiana saw that the casting was so impressive and appealing, she knew there was no need to worry at all and eagerly awaited the opportunity to see the film. At first, not expecting to be one of the lucky few to see the movie before its release, she had written the date on her calendar, as a highlight to look forward to.
Now that Tatiana has seen the film, I wanted to know if she had enjoyed it, and knowing the novel so well, did it bring her many surprises. Because Tatiana has worked through the process of having her own books made into film, she can see this process from a more precise point of view than me, understanding that the role of a filmmaker is not to cut and paste a novel from page to screen, but rather to use the medium of film to create something visually thought-provoking, from the original work.
Tatiana told me that she decided to try to watch the movie as if she had not read the book or seen other adaptations, which, of course, was not easy. She didn't want to focus on the differences and spend time making comparisons. She watched this new movie, uncluttered by preconceived ideas, and yes, she did enjoy it.
She though the best way to explain her initial reaction was to compare it with F. Scott Fitzgerald's most well-known novel, The Great Gatsby (1925), another great book with film adaptations. It was published a little earlier than Rebecca, but the plots share a similar timespan, between the two World Wars. Gatsby has been adapted for film four times, but two of those were big-budget movies. Firstly the 1974 adaptation starring Mia Farrow and Robert Redford, a beautiful film, and what you would have expected of a book adapted to film at that time. Then in 2013 came the movie starring Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio, which burst onto the screen with colour, and brightness, and glitz and sparkle, which was so modern and so unexpected.
So, returning to Rebecca, as Tatiana pointed out, the story is, of course, a delight, with the plot, the characters, the locations, the sea. It is magnificent and has all the right ingredients for a movie. This adaptation, like Gatsby, has such colour and brilliance. It is a treat to the eyes in its lushness, the landscapes, the scenery, the costumes everything is spectacular, a modern and audacious vision to enjoy. But you will be taken aback. It will not be what you are expecting.
At this point and several times during our interview, Tatiana wanted to stress that for people to enjoy this movie, they need to step away from the Hitchcock film and not look for comparisons, but rather to appreciate it for itself, and be seduced by it.
Daphne du Maurier's granddaughter Grace has also seen the film in advance of its release, and both she and Tatiana told me that it was a film for a younger audience. I asked Tatiana what she meant by this and if she thought it would have appeal to Daphne's many more mature followers.
Immediately Tatiana said, that yes, of course, it is definitely for an older audience too. The point is that it is filmed in a vastly different way, she explained, it does not have a sense of decorum. From the first moments in Monte Carlo, when the young woman who is to become the second Mrs de Winter, played by Lily James, (and remember that she doesn't have a name), gets out of a car and walks into the hotel, everything is very bright and very lush, a burst of colour. The sunlight, the blue of the sea, the gorgeous hotel and the bright colours of the beautiful clothes that everyone wears is all very modern, while never losing its sense of being set in the 1930s. The filming is also fast-paced with no lengthy monologues or lingering focus on one person, and this might initially all combine to be a bit destabilising. The first time we see Maxim de Winter, played by Armie Hammer, who is blond with blue eyes, and wearing a fantastic yellow suit, we know that this is a very different Maxim from the rather grim, austere one in the book and the Hitchcock film. Right at the beginning, Maxim and his future wife fall in love, and this is portrayed in a very sensual way that you never see in the book. So, the difference is in the pace, the colour and the music. Nothing is shocking in the filming, but it takes a very modern approach. The couple formed by Maxim and his second wife is that of a modern couple.
Having read several interviews from the director Ben Wheatley, it was apparent that he wanted to be clear that he worked from the book and not from any other film or television adaptations. He also said that he had focused on the love between Maxim and the second Mrs de Winter.
Tatiana agreed, there are many different things, concerning the book, where the director makes changes, but he is definitely influenced by Daphne's text and not by other adaptations. People who know the book well will hear lines taken straight from the pages of Daphne's novel, on many occasions. As for Maxim and his wife, Tatiana explains, once they arrive at Manderley, the story shows how they as a couple are going to face the ghost of Rebecca. The second Mrs de Winter knows that Maxim is holding something back from her, and she is less meek, definitely braver, always asking Maxim what is wrong, wanting to know. She is bolder. She wants to be included.
In the novel, there is a feeling of Rebecca in the corridors of Manderley. Tatiana told me that, in the new adaptation, you repeatedly see, in dream-like sequences, an image of a woman with long black hair and a beautiful figure, wearing a red dress, filmed from the back, walking the corridors. You are not sure if these are Maxim's dreams or those of his new wife or even Mrs Danvers. Again, in the ball scene, in a dream or even nightmare-like sequence, you are aware of Rebecca in her red dress weaving her way through the guests. Another dream-like moment happens when the second Mrs de Winter, wanting to see Rebecca's bedroom, walks towards the west wing and suddenly there is an illusion of plants, and ferns, and vines creep up to suffocate her. This sequence is reminiscent of the narrator's dream in the opening pages of the book, where the long winding drive to Manderley has become entangled with the abnormal growth of the plants and trees and roots. Interestingly that scene is not in the new adaptation. The driveway is not long and winding, and the house is much more grandiose than the Manderley of the book and takes on proportions more reminiscent of Downton Abbey.
We continued the discussion about Maxim and his new wife, and I asked about the age difference because there has been quite a lot of comment about this. In the book, Maxim is twice the age of his young bride and has much more experience of life, something which, as you read, feels as if it is integral to the plot. In this film, Armie Hammer and Lily James are of similar ages. I asked Tatiana how the movie deals with this.
Tatiana reminded me that the Maxim, in this movie, is quite different from the Maxim in the book. He is younger, gentler, with a sense of humour. Clearly, the director intended to make the couple less contrasting in age and more obviously a couple. In this era of Me Too, it seems this will have been a deliberate choice. So, Maxim does not treat his new wife as a child, and there is no attempt to create a scenario of the older man and the younger girl. It works in this modern approach to the story.
Thinking about Maxim, in the novel, we know extraordinarily little about him. It is as if as he holds in his deadly secret, he also keeps in any information about himself. I wondered if this adaptation expands on what we know about Maxim.
Tatiana explained that this Maxim is portrayed as a rather solar, extremely attractive, very sexy man. He has his own demons that his new wife tries to get him to explain, but he is much less dark than in both the novel and the Hitchcock film.
I moved on to talk about some of the other characters that fascinate us. There are some great actors in this new version, for example, Ann Dowd who plays Mrs Van Hopper and Keeley Hawes, a hugely loved British actress, who takes the role of Maxim's sister Beatrice. I asked Tatiana what she could tell us about these and other characters who make the story complete.
Yes, Tatiana told me, there are some superb performances from the rest of the cast. Ann Dowd plays Mrs Van Hopper brilliantly, she is extraordinary, insufferable, obnoxious and ghastly, and of course, she wants Maxim to sit next to her, and she tells her young companion about Manderley and the tragedy of Maxim's beautiful wife dying, Ann Dowd playing her to perfection. Then there is Jack Favell, played by Sam Riley, who has a scene involving the second Mrs de Winter and a horse, which is not in the book but is superb and surprising. Tatiana could say no more about that scene because that would be a spoiler! Beatrice, played by Keeley Hawes, comes out beautifully and is always extremely sweet, kind, and nice to her sister-in-law. There is that awful scene when Beatrice takes her sister-in-law to see Maxim's grandmother, played by Jane Lapotaire, and the grandmother wants to know who the girl is and where Rebecca is.
Many of the scenes, thought of as integral parts of the novel are there, like the broken ornament and the moment when the second Mrs de Winter asks Frank Crawley, played by Tim Goodman-Hill, about Rebecca, and he says "I suppose she was the most beautiful creature I saw in my life". The dogs are there, at Manderley, and come rushing into the room looking for the mistress they can't find any more. Favourites like Frith and Robert are there and Clarice, and Ben. Of course, there are those crucial scenes relating to the rescue of Rebecca's boat with her body inside, and you are aware of Rebecca in a body bag, and, again, that long black hair. Then later, come the scenes involving Dr Baker, but these moments are much quicker and not lingered over.
The one character that we have not discusses yet is Mrs Danvers, played by Kristin Scott Thomas. Tatiana is immensely impressed by her performance. It is pivotal to this adaptation, even more so than in the book and the Hitchcock film. It is here that talking about the new movie gets difficult because to say too much about Mrs Danvers is to give away major spoilers.
Tatiana could say that, despite her manner and the clothes she wears, Mrs Danvers is very beautiful and almost steals the show, but when she isn't smiling, she still looks terrifying to significant effect. The scene where she shows the second Mrs de Winter Rebecca's room and her clothes is beautifully done, as is the moment when she tries to make her jump from the window. But everything is faster, and again moments are not dwelt upon. Because of Mrs Danvers, the story develops differently. Everything that we know about her from the novel is included in the film but expanded upon so that it creates a much more significant impact on the narrative. It affects the ending and so prevents Tatiana from giving away anything more. That would be far too big a spoiler!
Most importantly, though, she asked me to stress to our readers that, she did not feel any frustration because of the changes to the story. Tatiana has had four of her books made into film, and she can understand how screenwriters adapt books and make them different, and this doesn't trouble her at all. But people hoping for a faithful representation may be disappointed because, in this film, the ending is not loyal to the book. However, if you can be open-minded and appreciate that although there is some tension, shocks and, yes, sadness, this is a fresh, more audacious, different approach with a more positive ending. It is a new way of entering Daphne du Maurier's world. If you can think like that, you will be more prepared for the end when it comes. Maxim and his new wife choose light, they choose love, and they choose a future. Tatiana feels that this is the right direction for this film to take, at this time. The real world is dark enough right now, and in creating this new adaptation of Rebecca in a way that gives us positivity, it is a good thing.
I have yet to see the film, but at this point, I am inclined to agree with Tatiana, and I really can't wait to see how this modern adaptation unfolds.
Before we reached my last question, I asked Tatiana about the music in the film. The soundtrack was composed by Clint Mansell, who is best known for the score of Black Swan. We know from the beautiful music that Charles Schlumberger composed for the documentary In Rebecca's Footsteps, that music can contribute a great deal to a film.
Tatiana said that the music is always there, leaving extraordinarily little silence in this movie, which you could, of course, also say about the Hitchcock film. Some people might find it a little unsettling. But after a while, Tatiana got used to it, and it did not bother her at all. The music is different, and perhaps more commercial.
We expect the music to be released at the same time as the film, so it will soon become familiar to us, and we will recognise it as the music we associate with Rebecca.
And finally, I asked Tatiana, as you worked on your research and wrote your biography about Daphne du Maurier, I think I'm right in saying, that she pretty much filed you headspace and dominated your thoughts so that you were able to identify very closely with her. Bearing that in mind, what do you think Daphne would have felt about this new adaptation of her story.
This is a difficult question to answer, and Tatiana said that this is something about which she had really given a lot of thought. She said that she would begin her answer by saying that authors are never really happy with adaptations of their work, she has never known a happy author in these circumstances. Looking back at the adaptations for her books, Tatiana has learned to understand and accept that the films are going to be different. Daphne du Maurier was never particularly happy with the adaptations of her books. But, she was 30 years old when she wrote Rebecca, and, perhaps young Daphne would have been amused by the colourful, incredibly modern adaptation of her book, which is so pleasant to look at and has a cast who are so extraordinary. Older Daphne would possibly not have been so happy with it.
On the subject of the film industry in general, Tatiana became serious. Cinema today is so fragile. Look at our industry, what it has become with the pandemic, with so many movies being pushed back. I just think we have to learn, nowadays, to be less critical and to try to embrace change. The Hitchcock movie was released in 1940, in the middle of a war. Now we are in a different kind of war. My final message would be to say, instead of criticising the movie and saying oh, this is not, or that is not in it. It isn't black enough. It isn't dark enough, enjoy it and remember, for those who don't know Daphne du Maurier's work, this is a terrific way of getting the key to Manderley. And once you get the key to Manderley, you will want to read all her books.
Tatiana and I found the key to Manderley many years ago. We pass it to you!
My last word is to say that when you have enjoyed the film, you will want to know much more about Daphne du Maurier, the writer whose magnificent story has been made into this movie, and who wrote many, many more wonderful novels and short stories. Then, of course, you should turn to Tatiana de Rosnay's beautiful and thought-provoking biography Manderley Forever, published in France by Albin Michel (2015), in the US by St Martin's Press (2017) and in the UK by Allen and Unwin (2017).
The new Netflix adaptation, of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, will be streamed on 21st October 2020.
Tatiana de Rosnay was talking to Ann Willmore on 8th October 2020.
© Tatiana de Rosnay and Ann Willmore.