"Rebecca" Reboot: Time to Dream of Manderley Again

"Rebecca" Reboot: Time to Dream of Manderley Again
Housekeeper from Hell: Joan Fontaine, Judith Anderson, and Laurence Olivier (photo) in Hitchcock's 1940 "Rebecca"
(© 1940 - 20th Century Fox. All rights reserved.)

Steven Spielberg is to oversee a new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel “Rebecca” for DreamWorks. It will be directed by the Danish filmmaker Nikolaj Arcel, whose “A Royal Affair” was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year.

The movie is not intended to be a retread of the 1940 “Rebecca,” Alfred Hitchcock’s Gothic melodrama (and his first American picture) that won David O. Selznick the Best Picture Oscar. As reported on Cineuropa, Arcel told the Danish film magazine Ekko that “it will be a radically new interpretation of the novel, not a remake. Think epic drama.”


Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” starred Joan Fontaine as the unnamed new wife of Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), the wealthy owner of the isolated Manderley estate in the south-western English county of Cornwall. Rebecca, his previous wife, had died mysteriously. Her memory is obsessively guarded by the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), who was almost certainly in love with her former mistress and threatens Mrs. de Winter with her very presence.  

Hitchcock was not satisfied with the film. “It’s not a Hitchcock picture; it’s a novelette really,” he told François Truffaut. “The story is old-fashioned; there was a whole school of feminine literature at the period, and though I’m not against it, the fact is that the story is lacking in humor.”

That “Rebecca” was scripted by Robert E. Sherwood (“The Petrified Forest,” later “The Best Years of Our Lives”) and Joan Harrison. Hitchcock’s secretary-turned-screenwriter, Harrison had adapted du Maurier’s “Jamaica Inn” for the last British picture Hitchcock made before leaving for Hollywood. Since Hitchcock, Harrison, Fontaine, Olivier, and co-star George Sanders – and the story – were all from the old country, Hitchcock considered it “a completely English picture.”

He told Truffaut, with a hint of snobbishness: “I’ve sometimes wondered what that picture would have been like had it been made in England with the same cast. I’m not sure I would have handled it the same way. The American influence on it is obvious. First, because of Selznick, and then because the screenplay was written by the playwright Robert Sherwood, who gave it a broader viewpoint than it would have had it been made in Britain.” Hitchcock reportedly banned Selznick from the set.

There is a strong British presence on Arcel’s “Rebecca,” too. It is being written by Steven Knight (“Dirty Pretty Things,” “Eastern Promises”) and produced by Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan of Working Title. This may indicate that the film will be shot in du Maurier’s Cornwall. Hitchcock’s version was filmed in Hollywood and Northern California – Manderley being created mostly with miniatures.

Arcel’s film will eventually be compared with Hitchcock’s, of course, as the 1959, 1978, and 2008 remakes of “The 39 Steps” were compared with Hitch’s 1935 original, and Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot-for-shot remake of “Psycho” was with the 1960 version. (The 1962, 1980, and 1997 television versions of “Rebecca” are not regarded as classics, though as the 1962 production starred James Mason as Maxim, it can scarcely have been without merit.)

Trespassing on Hitchcock’s territory has invariably proved a fool’s errand. Last week’s reviews of “The Lady Vanishes,” which was directed by Diarmuid Lawrence for the BBC and aired in the UK on March 17, were not generally enthusiastic.

Although the film was based more closely on Ethel Lina White’s novel “The Wheel Spins” than was Hitchcock’s great 1938 comedy-thriller and was praised for its impeccable design and costumes, several reviewers could see little point in it. “There wasn’t much drama, nor any particular reason to care whether the lady had vanished or not,” wrote Adam Sweeting at theartsdesk.com. Maybe the upcoming “Rebecca” will have more compelling reasons for justifying its existence.