The major differences between Rebecca the book and the movie
Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again...
Ben Wheatley's new Netflix adaptation of Rebecca maintains this iconic opening line and many of the signature scenes from the Daphne du Maurier gothic novel. But with every adaptation comes interpretation, and Rebecca is no exception.
This new version of the tale, previously adapted to the screen by director Alfred Hitchcock in 1940, hews closer to the book in many ways — but it also diverges to allow more agency for the main character, known as the second Mrs. de Winter (Lily James) only, since both the novel and the film never name our heroine/first-person narrator.
Here’s a rundown of the other major differences between Rebecca the book and Rebecca the movie.
Warning: There are copious spoilers for both the book and film below, so read at your own risk.
Our heroine first meets Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) while working as a lady's companion to a vain gossip in a Monte Carlo hotel. They interact sparingly as Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd) strives for a connection with Max, but the romance doesn't begin until Max and the narrator first share a meal alone. In the novel, it happens because the narrator knocks over a flower vase and Max dashingly rescues her from sitting with a wet tablecloth. The film instead focuses on the class differences between them, with our heroine initially being turned away from the restaurant without her companion until Max invites her to dine with him.
Dates in Monte Carlo
Both the novel and the new film begin with a whirlwind romance between the narrator and Max in Monte Carlo. But the film amps up Max's sense of danger in new ways. In some of their earliest dates in the novel, they stand at the top of a tall precipice, creating a dangerous thrill — but here, it's even more potent with Max swerving around a car and nearly hitting oncoming traffic in the process. We also see more of their dates, where in the novel she rattles off the general nature of their days together rather quickly without delving much into details.
Early in the novel, the heroine discovers a book of love poems in Max's glove box that Rebecca once inscribed to him. Max doesn't make much of it, allowing our narrator to take the book home with her and read it. It's she who infuses it with meaning by studying Rebecca's handwriting again and again, imagining their grand love story and comparing herself to the first Mrs. de Winter. But the film makes Max's distaste for the memory far more explicit with Max ordering our heroine to leave the book behind as if the very sight of it pains him.
We never see an intimation of pre-marital sex in the novel, and the heroine even bristles at Mrs. Van Hopper's suggestion that Max is only marrying her because she was doing something she shouldn't have been. There's no such prurience in the film, as Max and the heroine share a seaside tryst that the sun-soaked images suggest gets very sexy very quickly.
From the moment the second Mrs. de Winter arrives in Manderley in the novel, she feels unsettled, out of place. This is exacerbated by Maxim's tendency to leave her to fend for herself. But this movie takes the supernatural sense of Rebecca's haunting a step further by making Max a sleepwalker. And of course, he can't help but sleepwalk to Rebecca's room, which his new wife takes as a sign of his enduring, subconscious devotion to her memory. All of this is made even creepier by Mrs. Danvers' (Kristin Scott Thomas) late-night lurking and warnings about the dangers of waking a sleepwalker.
Ben and the boathouse
In the novel, our heroine visits the mysterious boathouse and interacts with the local mentally disabled man Ben multiple times, slowly piecing together what she thinks he is referring to. But for expediency's sake, the film condenses their meeting into one crucial moment nearly halfway through.
In the novel, the second Mrs. de Winter first meets Maxim's sister Beatrice (Keeley Hawes) and her husband Giles (John Hollingworth) only one day after she comes to Manderley. Beatrice quickly warms to her and regularly invites her out to their house or pops in for visits. She also invites the second Mrs. de Winter to their grandmother's house to meet her, which goes dreadfully wrong when the doddering old woman demands to know where Rebecca is. The film combines all this into one visit from Beatrice, Giles, and the elder Mrs. de Winter where Max is present to witness his grandmother's insistence that our heroine is not his wife and asks after Rebecca. It makes the moment even more humiliating for the second Mrs. de Winter, but it also furthers her sense that everyone, including Max, feels she can't compare to Rebecca.
Jack Favell's (Sam Riley) visit is one of the strongest hints we have that Mrs. Danvers is up to something besides just lurking in an unsettling manner. She's accepting visitors that Max doesn't want anywhere near Manderley. Favell's visit happens in the film, but the second Mrs. de Winter warms to him far more onscreen. In the book, she immediately dismisses him, clearly uncomfortable with his unannounced presence. Here, he even teaches her to horseback ride, getting disturbingly cozy with her, and then he wins her over with a sob story about Rebecca. He's less menacing in the film, conning us all like the charming cad he is.
Attempting to Dismiss Mrs. Danvers
Word of Favell's visit sends Max into a jealous rage onscreen that doesn't occur in the books. He even accuses his wife of ordering lingerie to impress the man. This causes our heroine to attempt to dismiss Danvers for allowing Favell on the property against Max's wishes. It gives us a glimpse into Danvers' psyche and her unbreakable bond with Rebecca but also allows the second Mrs. de Winter to take a bit more of a stand against Danvers early on. Even if she ultimately can't hold her ground. The two even seem to form a fragile detente that is not present in the book.
The costume ball that the second Mrs. de Winter revives drives the novel to its harrowing climax and the turning point in her relationship with Max. It plays an equal role in the film with a few tweaks. On the page, the gown in the portrait is white, but here it's converted to red velvet. Most likely because it's both more visually striking and also because it appears more seductive than the virginal white of the costume in the novel. Additionally, on the page, it is Mrs. Danvers herself who suggests the costume idea to the second Mrs. de Winter, making her betrayal absolutely clear when Max reacts in horror to the costume and it is revealed it was the same one Rebecca wore to the last ball. Here, lady's maid Clarice makes the suggestion, only later admitting it came at Danvers' urging, destroying the fragile peace they found in the film version.
Additionally, in the novel, the second Mrs. de Winter cannot stomach returning to the party after her humiliation. She waits for Maxim to come to her, but he never does. Here, she does return to the party in one of her own frocks, though it does transition rather quickly into a nightmare about Rebecca and her memory, blurring the lines between her dreams and reality.
The Truth About Rebecca
The climactic scene in which Max reveals that he murdered Rebecca before orchestrating what he hoped would look like an accidental drowning remains very similar to what's on the page in spirit if not in exact dialogue (certainly more so in the Hitchcock film, which had no choice but to change key details because of censorship codes of the error). But there are some minor changes. First off, the setting is different — in the novel, Max tells the story back at the house. Here, the second Mrs. de Winter goes to find him drinking in Rebecca's boathouse.
In this adaptation, Rebecca pays a much more direct role in provoking Max. He recounts that after taunting him about the possibility of a baby, she explicitly egged him into shooting her. In the novel, he does it out of pure blind rage. Also here, we get the brief suggestion that the second Mrs. de Winter might shoot Max for his admission. In the novel, she moves immediately to professing her love and wanting to help Max cover up his crimes. The film gives her a bit more time to think about things, allowing Max to give her an out in their late-night seaside heart-to-heart before she surprises him by standing by him.
The film allows the second Mrs. de Winter a more direct role in the inquest. In the novel, she tiptoes around it, slipping into the back of the room for only pieces of it. Here, she is by Maxim's side, squeezing his hand nearly throughout. On breaks, she counsels him on his testimony.
This adaptation stretches the inquest over several days with Favell coming to the house to blackmail Max before a verdict is reached. Here, they actually attempt to pay off Favell, falling for the blackmail, but the check is then used as evidence against Max at the inquest. Additionally, Mrs. Danvers is called to testify at the inquest, while in the novel, she is merely questioned by local overseer of justice and Manderley neighbor, Colonel Julyan, in the midst of Favell's wild visit. In the novel, the inquest determines Rebecca died by suicide, but Favell and Danvers precipitate further investigation even after the case is seemingly closed.
Rebecca's Real Fate
To discover the truth about Rebecca, the de Winters must travel to London and track down the doctor who saw Rebecca the day she died. In the book, they all travel in two cars together, the second Mrs. de Winter, Max, Favell, and Colonel Julyan. It's a bit of a wild goose chase, trying to decipher Rebecca's note about her appointment and ultimately having to find the doctor at his house. The hunt and its accompanying suspense effectively convey the exhaustion and weariness of this experience.
The film opts for a more straightforward approach where the second Mrs. de Winter easily tracks down the doctor's address and gallivants off to London on her own, determined to make things right and protect her murderous husband. She even drives the car herself! She lies to the man who manages the building about leaving her purse so that she can steal Rebecca's file, which, like in the novel, is under the name of Danvers. It becomes a suspenseful action piece as she attempts to hide from the detectives who have come searching for the file. It's absolutely a cinematic choice to enhance drama and tension, as well as to allow our heroine to play a more direct role in hers and Max's fate.
She does, eventually, get caught and the doctor's reveal is the same: Rebecca was not pregnant, as they all assumed. She had terminal cancer, thus justifying the ruling of suicide. But this is the second Mrs. de Winter's discovery on her own, as Max is actually imprisoned for a brief time while they seek out the truth. This allows for their romantic reunion at the jail when he is freed.
Mrs. Danvers' Demise
The novel ends on a stark, ambiguous note. Max has been cleared but worn out from the entire experience, he returns to Manderley, only to find it engulfed in flames. And that's it. In the film, they come upon the house suffering the same fiery fate, but it's more prolonged. We see Mrs. Danvers start the fire, something that's never confirmed in the novel, pouring gasoline in Rebecca's room.
Additionally, we never learn of Danvers' fate on the page. But here, while Max and servants attempt to put out the fire, our heroine follows the housekeeper down to the boathouse, also set on fire, only to watch Mrs. Danvers cast herself into the sea, following in her beloved Rebecca's footsteps.
Though the novel opens on a memory, describing the de Winters nomadic lifestyle as they move from hotel to hotel, we never return to that. It simply ends with the sight of the burning Manderley. The film chooses to return to this framing, situating the couple in a smoky boudoir in Cairo. We get a monologue about our heroine's new confidence, as she and Max kiss, and it champions her commitment to their love — sort of questionable when du Maurier purposefully chooses to be more ambiguous about the degree of the de Winter's happiness, but it's a choice anyway.