In quick succession, two Hollywood studios have announced that they are developing projects based on books previously filmed by Alfred Hitchcock. On Thursday came the news that Dreamworks and the British company Working Title had hired screenwriter Stephen Knight to adapt Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel “Rebecca.” On Monday, Paramount announced that Veena Sud was going to adapt ”Before the Fact,” the 1932 novel written by Anthony Berkeley Cox under the nom-de-plume Francis Iles.
Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” his first American film, won the Best Picture Academy Award for its producer David O. Selznick in 1940. Hitchcock’s “Suspicion,” based on “Before the Fact,” followed in 1941. Both were vehicles for Joan Fontaine, who was Oscar-nominated for both and won for her performance in “Suspicion.”
If the 94-year-old actress, who lives in California, heard that her two collaborations with Hitchcock were to be retooled, she may have smiled. Then again, she could have reacted with the same displeasure with which Kim Novak greeted the quoting in "The Artist" of Bernard Herrmann’s score for Hitchcock’s “Vertigo."
Neither film may be a remake in the technical sense since Knight (whose credits include “Dirty Pretty Things” and “Eastern Promises”) and Sud (the brains behind AMC’s “The Killing”) are reportedly going to rely on the source novels. Each presents the paranoid fears of a naïve young bride who suspects her husband may be a murderer.
Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” unrivaled as a Gothic melodrama-mystery, closely followed the narrative of du Maurier’s original, but with a few crucial differences. The novel discloses that the husband, Maxim de Winter, killed his first wife, Rebecca; in Hitchcock’s version, which starred Laurence Olivier as Maxim, it transpires her death was an accident, allowing for a happy ending. The novel ends with the de Winters living in exile haunted by their secrets and the wife’s future by no means secure. The film's ending is more optimistic.
The fate of Mrs. Danvers, Maxim’s supremely sinister housekeeper (played in the film by Judith Anderson), also differs from that of the novel. In the film, she’s burned to death; in the book, she disappears.
“Suspicion” differs from “Before the Fact” on a number of accounts. The wastrel Johnny Aysgarth (played by Cary Grant) marries the dowdy Lina McLaidlaw (Fontaine) for what he hopes will be a substantial inheritance from her father. In the book, he is a philanderer; in the film he hints, via a metaphor, that he might have a colorful sexual history, but there's no evidence that he does.
The film is famous, of course, for the scene in which Johnny brings Lina a glowing glass of milk that may or may not be poisoned and for the hazardous clifftop drive in which Johnny appears to threaten Lina’s life. Hitchcock invented the extraordinarily tense driving sequence.
Hitchcock told François Truffaut that he had wanted to end with Johnny killing Lina, as he does in the novel, the idea being to portray a drawn-out murder from the perspective of the murderee.
RKO apparently agreed to this, but once Grant had been cast in the role the studio insisted on an ambiguous ending, with Lina still alive. Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto unearthed evidence that the director and RKO concurred on the idea of depicting a woman, Lina, with an overactive fantasy life, but the issue of the ending has never been adequately resolved despite some remarkable detective work.
How Dreamworks and Paramount will handle their respective adaptations is anyone’s guess, though it’s worth bearing in mind that audiences are generally more tolerant of cynical or tragic endings now than they were in the forties. The idea of, say, George Clooney as Johnny poisoning Jessica Chastain as Lina would be less upsetting to Clooney’s fanbase that it would have been to Grant’s.
The key issue that the makers of “Rebecca” may face is in resisting the temptation to turn Manderley, Maxim’s estate, into a conventional haunted house in which the dead first wife is physically embodied as a ghost. In Hitchcock’s film, Manderley is as potent a “character” as Mrs. Danvers. Knight, whose films have been sublimely creepy, can be expected to honor that.
The directors who’ll eventually be assigned to direct these projects would be advised not to look at Hitchcock’s versions, since any attempt to replicate his unique brand of suspense cannot succeed. The proof is Gus Van Sant’s fascimile of “Psycho,” a bold experiment that only proved you can’t walk comfortably in a master’s shoes.