By Maureen Lee Lenker
October 23, 2020 at 09:00 AM EDT
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Credit: KERRY BROWN/NETFLIX

Warning: This article contains spoilers about Rebecca.

Rebecca always has some surprises in store.

The gothic romance, based on Daphne du Maurier's novel of the same name, hit Netflix on Wednesday — and it comes with some new twists and turns. Namely, it radically changes Mrs. Danvers'(Kristin Scott Thomas) demise and bookends the opening memory-fueled monologue with a romantic conclusion. But director Ben Wheatley had strong reasons for both major shifts.

On the page, Danvers' fate is ambiguous. The novel ends with Manderley on fire, but we never learn whether the sinister housekeeper makes it out alive. The beloved 1940 adaptation directed by Alfred Hitchcock crafted a version of the story where Danvers is responsible for setting the fire and then goes down in flames, like a captain with her ship.

Wheatley's vision, from a script by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse, instead delivers a more watery end for Mrs. Danvers, one that continues to link her to her beloved Rebecca in death. "Her understanding of what happened to Rebecca is that she drowns. So, she joins her in the sea. And that made sense to me," Wheatley tells EW.

Partly this change was motivated by his desire to tone down the character's explicit villainy. "What I wanted to do with Danvers is to bring her back away from that kind of pantomime-y, villain-y character and bring her back more into someone who's more sympathetic," he says. "She never says anything that's particularly wrong. She goes over the top sometimes, but her actual instinct is right. She's the conscience of the film. We should be siding with Rebecca and with the law."

Because the fiery version of her demise was Hitchcock's invention, Wheatley wanted to avoid repeating that. But he also felt the book's ambiguous ending was unsatisfactory for a character who looms so large. "Because Danvers was so indelible in the film, and in the script, you need to say goodbye to her," he reflects. " [It] gave us an opportunity for her to put the cap on the whole film and just go, 'Come on, these are the facts. Who's with me? And if you're not with me, I'm going to say goodbye to you and leave the movie under my own steam.'"

Wheatley even hints that her plunge into the sea might not be as fatal as it looks. "There's a possibility she's not dead either," he adds. "She's obviously not dead for the second Mrs. de Winter, because she haunts her in her dreams forever. That thing of her disappearing into the murk, it's like, 'Is it real or is it not?'"

Then there's the newly romantic conclusion to the film, which finds the second Mrs. de Winter (Lily James) and a shirtless Maxim (Armie Hammer) loving it up in their Cairo hotel room as she offers closing narration on the power of love. It's a decidedly happy ending in comparison to the novel and the 1940 film. But Wheatley pushes back against reading it as a happily-ever-after.

"There's one reading of it, which is, 'Oh, it's so romantic,'" he says. "But it's not romantic in many ways because she knows his nature. She knows what he's done. And they've both decided to cover that up. It's bittersweet really."

For him, the nuance lives in the final look she gives to the camera as Max leans to kiss her. "The camera's like, 'What is that? Is she worried, or does she not care?'" he explains, noting that the ending is also meant to be a reflection of her growing confidence, misguided as it may be. "The film needed closing down and to see the final bit of her development. It's part of that story of growth that she's had of confidence, but then confidence too far into a world where she's profited from the death of another woman."

Rebecca is now available on Netflix.

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