About 2/3 of the way through the Redford Theatre’s screening of the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock mystery Rebecca on May 28, 2011, I started thinking about how hard it is for one artist to lay claim to a story. At that point in the movie, at the costume party, the book and movie versions of the story of Rebecca veered off in significantly different directions.
This past week, I had read the 1938 novel by Daphne Du Maurier, mainly to put myself in the place of readers of the late 1930s who had been engrossed in this romantic mystery, and then anxiously awaited the screen version, which would be produced by David O. Selznick, whose last film was the monumental Gone with the Wind.
It had been several years since I had seen the movie, and I had forgotten several parts of the plot. But for the first third of the book, I kept seeing mental pictures of Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs. De Winter, Laurence Olivier as Max De Winter, and of course, Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers.
But eventually, the book took over my mental processes, and I keenly followed the inner monologues and observations of the narrator of the book, the second Mrs. De Winter.
For the first 2/3 of the movie, it felt like a condensation of the book, with shortcuts between scenes, which were often combined or condensed. It’s a 457-page novel, so it didn’t surprise me that not everything in the book was filmed.
My familiarity with the book helped me appreciate the cinematic touches of Alfred Hitchcock. It started right away, with Joan Fontaine’s dream about the Manderley estate, which smoothly segued into a powerful image of the ocean and Laurence Olivier standing on a high cliff above it.
The camera explored the exterior and interior details of Manderley, giving impressions that would have been impossible in the book. Much was communicated in facial expressions in reaction shots and silent messages between characters.
And the inner world of the second Mrs. De Winter was skillfully replaced in the movie by the mysterious uncertainty of many of Joan Fontaine’s expressions. It was easy to identify with the discomfort she felt in this new world of society, wealth, and burdensome memories into which Laurence Olivier had pulled her.
Books and Movies
Getting back to the last third of the movie, all I can say, without giving anything away, is if you enjoyed either the book or the movie, you should experience the story of Rebecca in both ways. Stories are similar to pharmaceutical drugs, with their patent expiration dates. The novelist is the original developer and manufacturer, and the film version of the book is like a generic version, after the demand for the book has declined.
When David O. Selznick purchased the film rights to Rebecca and hired a visual stylist like Alfred Hitchcock to direct it, Selznick knew that changes would be made in the story. That has been a challenge for many movie producers, directors, and writers, according to Barrett C. Kiesling in his 1937 book, Talking Pictures: How They are Made, How to Appreciate Them.
“To have filmed David Copperfield exactly as [Charles] Dickens wrote it would have required thirty-seven reels,” wrote Kiesling. “Among the scenes of the book, there are many which, while they are written beautifully, are insufficient in forward pictorial action to be effective on the screen.”
In that same discussion, Kiesling wrote, “A shrewd screen writer preserves in his script a skeleton framework of the intent of the omitted scenes, and when one sees the picture he gets the illusion he has seen everything he has read.”
I experienced that same illusion several times while watching Rebecca, thanks to the screenwriters Robert E. Sherwood, Joan Harrison, Philip MacDonald, and Michael Hogan.
I should mention one other difference between reading the book and seeing the movie at the Redford. When Joan Fontaine assertively announced to Mrs. Danvers, “I am Mrs. De Winter,” several people burst out in applause.
Copyright © 2011 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.