Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic and famous film Rebecca truly is a faithful adaption of Daphne du Maurier’s novel. In many instances, the dialogue within the film is completely recycled verbatim from the novel. Additionally, the acting from Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and especially Judith Anderson capture the representation of the characters they portray from the novel. Rebecca is a true achievement of cinema, while also being an example of proper novel-to-film adaption. While the film is its own entity, Hitchcock’s version never imposes upon the integrity of the novel it is based upon, and in fact, seemingly celebrates the novel for its originality and dense plot. However, when comparing the novel to the film, there is some variation in form and content. While the changes within Hitchcock’s Rebecca are minimal, they are glaring when identified.
- Mrs. Danvers is more emotional in the novel
In various occasions in the novel, Mrs. Danvers displays an array of emotions, even going so far as openly crying in front of others, whenever she discusses Rebecca. This is quite the opposite Judith Anderson gave to the character, maintaining a cold demeanor throughout her entire performance. The novel crafts Mrs. Danvers as suppressing her emotional devastation of losing someone she highly respected and vindictively harming the new Mrs. DeWinter because she is threatened by her presence. In contrast, the film represents Mrs. Danvers as someone who is obsessed with Rebecca, even after her death, and is determined to keep her image alive. Her efforts to inflict harm on the new Mrs. DeWinter is out of pure spite, not acting out against any internalized vulnerabilities.
- Mrs. DeWinter is not emotionally alone in the novel
While Maxim DeWinter’s best friend and manager of the estate, Frank Crawley, is both in the novel and the film, he is treated differently in how he interacts with Mrs. DeWinter. In the novel, Frank Crawley is Mrs. DeWinter’s confidant and someone she repeatedly comes to for comfort and companionship. It is the only true friendship she has in the novel and genuine interaction she has with someone, even though she suspects he is not telling her everything regarding Maxim and Rebecca. In the film, Frank Crawley is merely a secondary character who Mrs. DeWinter converses with on a more passive surface-level than they did in the novel. Perhaps Hitchcock felt that establishing this friendship in the film would detract from Mrs. DeWinter’s relationship with her husband.
- Maxim DeWinter never considers suicide
In an effort to establish that Maxim DeWinter is not altogether normal, he is introduced in the film standing at the edge of a cliff overlooking a ravine with the insinuation he is about to commit suicide. This action is prevented when Mrs. DeWinter, who is observing him from the distance, shouts “Stop!” and hinders him from doing so. In the novel, Mrs. DeWinter first sees and interacts nonchalantly with Maxim when he is seated at a nearby table to her in their hotel restaurant. Perhaps Hitchcock also added this introduction to Maxim in an effort to express guilt with the character over his past with Rebecca.
- Rebecca’s death is much more graphic in the novel
Upon confessing to the murder of Rebecca, Maxim admits that he confronted Rebecca about her sexual dalliances, and when her attitude provoked him, he shot her with a pistol. He further describes that upon being shot, blood began to spill everywhere and Rebecca laughed before she died. In the film version, Maxim confesses that Rebecca’s death was a result of him pushing her when they had a confrontation and she died when she fell and bumped her head. This variation of how Rebecca died makes her death accidental, thereby Maxim isn’t a murderer. This variation may have been done to get approval from the MPAA censors of the 1940s.
- Mrs. Danvers’ fate is left ambiguous
In the novel, the last reference to Mrs. Danvers is that she has packed her possessions and has abruptly left Manderley. Maxim speculates she has left through the woods since nobody had seen her leave the estate. Yet it can be deduced that Mrs. Danvers played some role in the burning and destruction of Manderley when Maxim and Mrs. DeWinter arrive back in time to see the remains of Manderley fall victim to the fire, which is where the novel abruptly concludes. In the film version, Mrs. Danvers blatantly is the antagonist who burns down Manderley. In an effort to show finality to both Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca within the film, Hitchcock uses the final scenes of Rebecca showing Mrs. Danvers deliberately perishing in Rebecca’s old room with the final subsequent shot being of a pillow showing the emblem “R” being engulfed in flames. By concocting such an ending, it functions both as macabre but also functions as a “happy ending” for the two main characters.