Analyse the differences between the text and the Hitchcock movie of Rebecca

The film Rebecca (1940), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is an adaptation of a book by the same title published in 1938 by author Daphne Demurer. To analyse the differences between these two pieces of work it is perhaps necessary to first point out the obvious; film adaptations of novels are never completely true to the original book. It is often a criticism that when novels are turned into screenplays that the author of the screening play has left chunks of the book out.

This usually because their just is not time to cover every single detail on screen – could you have sat through more than three hours of Peter Jackson’s epic Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel, for instance? (I don’t think any cinemagoer’s bladder could have coped with more!) Or there are elements of the original story that would distract the viewer from the crux of the plot for too long, hence Fran Walsh cut out the character Tom Bombadil out of The Fellowship’sscript, much to the dismay of some Tolkien purists.

However, sometimes a scriptwriter will assert his/her autonomy to the point where the novel that has been turned into a film does not even have the same ending as its original source. In Louis De Bernieres much loved book Captain Corelli’s Mandolin the main characters, and two lovers Captain Corelli and Pelagia, part for several years and Pelagia believes Corelli is dead until he’s in his senior years and directly approaches Pelagia again and their love rekindles.

However, in the movie (2001) one of the many contrasts to the original text is that Pelagia and Corelli live happily ever after together in their younger years. With regards Hitchcock’s Rebecca and DuMaurier’s Rebecca the storyline remains largely unchanged, yet the implications of its sexual contexts have been treated differently.

Throughout history women have been subjected to the patriarchal order; the model female being chaste and submissive and essentially what Simone De Bouviour calls man’s other: [Woman] is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute -she is the OtherWhereas a sexually confident woman and assertive woman is depicted as impure, bad and on occasions mad”.

Before World War II, women were particularly vulnerable to the former categorisation. But during the war, women participated in the work force as never before and thus asserting greater independence and autonomy. DuMaurier’s novel Rebecca, examines female sexuality, and its repercussions, in a society, which condemns its existence. Although both the novel and film reveals society’s wish to keep the sexuality of women under control some of DuMaurier’s message lost in the translation of novel to film.

However, the film was produced and directed by men so it was inevitable that their sex would affect the way they choose to interpret DuMaurier’s work on screen. As Helene Cixous says in her essay, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, it is impossible to produce a work of art that does not implicate your sex: I write woman: woman must write woman. And man, man.

In both the novel and film, Rebecca is dead (she supposedly drowned the previous year) and is depicted as a threat due to her overt sexuality. Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca’s devoted housekeeper, says, “… I’ve seen them here, staying in the house, men she’d meet in London … They made love to her of course …” (p.245). Regardless of Rebecca’s infidelities, her reputation remains intact; she is regarded as pleasant, beautiful and confident. Yet the double life she leads of wife and mistress is comparable to the duality of existence in which only men are allowed to indulge and thus threatens the structure of patriarchy. As Rebecca’s housekeeper Mrs Danvers aptly states “[Rebecca] ought to have been a boy” (p.243).

Rebecca’s sexuality even threatens to destroy patriarchal dynasty. As Simone de Beauvoir writes in her essay The Second Sex:

Marital infidelity … where patriarchal traditions survive, still seems much more heinous for the wife than for the husband … Woman’s adultery risks bringing the son of a stranger into the family, and thus defrauding legitimate heirs.

Indeed the prospect of an illegitimate heir is the crux of Rebecca’s death in both novel and film. In the novel Max, Rebecca’s husband kills her when she boasts that she is pregnant by another man, however the coroner rules death by suicide. In the film, Rebecca’s death is attributed to an accidental fall after Max has physically struck her after she reveals her unfaithfulness to him. The reason for this important difference is that the censors demanded that Max could not kill his wife without paying the penalty for his crime. Suicide was also frowned upon.

However, Rebecca’s death suggests that both novel and film are in agreement that patriarchal society views Rebecca actions as immoral and that her death is the only way to keep the structure of patriarchy in tact.

Although, in novel and film, Rebecca is highly regarded within society, Demurer understood she needed to justify Max’s crime to make it plausible, so she takes steps to dehumanise Rebecca. Aside from Max’s derogatory words about Rebecca, other characters assist in creating a negative view of Rebecca’s character. The village simpleton, Ben, calls her “a snake” (p.154); the biblical connotations of this image suggest irreparable female sin. Damning language such as this pave the way for Max’s confession and provides justification for Max’s wish to kill her in the film, and his actually doing so in the novel.

Prior to Rebecca’s death, both novel and film reveal that a doctor had diagnosed her with terminal cancer and that her pregnancy is in fact a malformation of her uterus that would have prevented her from having children. From the perspective of the patriarchal society, Rebecca’s cancer, her infertility, and her death are all attributable to her sexually deviant conduct. The message to women is that female sexuality must be confined to their husbands and that any deviation will be punished because it undermines the superiority of men.

Lesbianism in the novel also seeks to shake the foundations of patriarchy. The relationship between the spinster/housekeeper Mrs Danvers and Rebecca has homoerotic overtones. Mrs. Danvers tends to speak of Rebecca in sexual terms, especially in the novel. An example of this is when she recalls an incident involving Rebecca at sixteen:

I remember her … getting up on one of her father’s horses, a big brute of an animal too, that the groom said was too hot for her to ride. She stuck to him all right. I can see her now, with her hair flying out behind her, slashing at him, drawing blood, digging the spurs into his side, and when she got off his back he was trembling all over, full of froth and blood.

The film, however, tends to diminish or soften lesbian overtones, because the film industry prohibited sexual perversion or any inference to it; images depicting Mrs Danvers’ stroking Rebecca’s nightgown, as well as references to Rebecca’s nude body were cut out of the film. Instead the film chooses to paint Danvers as being obsessed with her dead mistress. This was also arguably because Hitchcock et al did not want their patriarchal authority over Du Maurier’s text of screen to be diluted by the presence of masculine women

Both novel and film strip Mrs. Danvers of humanity in the same way Rebecca is. She is described in the text as “… someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheek-bones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face, parchment-white, set on a skeleton’s frame” (p. 66). Furthermore, Mrs Danvers is also punished by death for moving outside the confines of patriarchy.

Yet although novel and film are in agreement concerning society’s condemnation of Mrs. Danvers, however, they do not necessarily agree upon her punishment. In the film, Mrs. Danvers defies the patriarchal establishment a final time by burning down Manderley, yet is burnt to death as a result. In the novel, the there is no evidence to suggest that the fire has killed Mrs Danvers; all we know is that she cannot be found.

In conclusion both novel and film explore the implications inherent for women who do not follow the doctrines of patriarchy as well as the differences between works of art produced by men and women. DuMauries emphasises the injustice of a man committing murder, by shooting his wife in the heart, and emerging unpunished, unblemished. The dispensability and devaluation of women is illustrated by the fact that Max remains free, and remarries just ten months after committing the murder. Even when he confesses to the murder he manages to horrifyingly convince his unnamed wife that Rebecca deserved to be killed due to his inability to control her sexuality.

Whereas Hitchcock preserves the reputation and authority of Max by changing Rebecca’s murder to a death by accidental fall, of which Max is innocent. This major alteration serves to dilute DuMaurier’s progressive thoughts regarding female sexuality and her condemnation of men and patriarchy. Thus it appears that Hitchcock smearing his own artistic authority all over DuMaurier’s work mirrors the male dominance over women’s sexuality within the society of the novel.


Walder, Dennis, Literature in the Modern World, De Beauvoir, Simone, ‘Woman and the Other’, p.307 (Oxford University Press, 1990)

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