In the autumn of 2016, smack dab in the middle of the U.S. election and the most distracting news cycle in modern history, I was poised to start writing a new novel. Yet I could not tear myself away from the news long enough to make a start. Finally I had to shut off the TV and toss my phone. What helped was old movies. So I popped in an Alfred Hitchcock DVD, Rebecca, my favorite.
The film premiered in 1940 and stars a winsome Joan Fontaine and an imperious Laurence Olivier. Except for one (very) critical change, Hitchcock is mostly faithful to Daphne du Maurier’s eponymous bestseller, a masterpiece published exactly eighty years ago, a book that has never gone out of print.
In case you’re one of the few unfamiliar with the plot, Rebecca, both the book and the movie, opens the same, with an unnamed narrator’s lament about the lost world of Manderley, a home to which she and her husband can never return, a world of rare opulence and severe class division, where men rule and women obey. Our unnamed narrator first meets Maxim de Winter, a wealthy widower, while vacationing in Monte Carlo. They fall in love, quickly marry and head to Manderley, where everyone, including the creepy housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, is consumed by memories of Maxim’s first wife, the beautiful dead Rebecca. The inability to live up to Rebecca’s legacy drives our narrator mad with jealousy. After a ball, and Mrs Danvers’ devious costume stunt, Rebecca’s body resurfaces, along with the truth about her life and death. Maxim reveals to the narrator that Rebecca didn’t drown, she died during an argument. He admits he never loved Rebecca; she was all façade, her beautiful, accomplished surface hiding a deep soul sickness.
Except for one (very) critical change, Hitchcock is mostly faithful to Daphne du Maurier’s eponymous bestseller
Here is where the movie diverges dramatically from the book. Due to production codes at the time, Hitchcock renders Rebecca’s death accidental; she hit her head during a fall, Maxim claims. His subsequent cover-up becomes the actions of a desperate man, a victim really. The movie goes from thriller to love story as we root for Maxim to get away with murdering his promiscuous wife, and for our unnamed narrator to have her happily ever after.
The book tells a different story. When Rebecca’s body resurfaces in du Maurier’s version, the love story turns into a chilling nightmare. Again, we discover Rebecca died during an argument, but this time Maxim admits he murdered her in a blinding rage, for the crime of insisting on sexual freedom and for possibly carrying another man’s child.
Far from being terrified, the book’s narrator is overjoyed. He loves me, not Rebecca! She deserved to be murdered! If you were anything like me, the reader still wants Maxim to get away with it. This is what makes du Maurier’s novel so deliciously subversive; she turns the narrator and the reader into accomplices, and Rebecca into an inconvenient female corpse, along with a mysterious woman whose body is passed off as hers in the cover-up. That one critical change sparked my imagination, and gave me my crucial question: What if a woman today, in a similar situation, had learned the violent truth about her man’s past? How would she behave? And what if his story conflicted with what his own daughter had to say? Who would our narrator believe?
This is what makes du Maurier’s novel so deliciously subversive; she turns the narrator and the reader into accomplices
I shut off my TV, closed Twitter and began to write The Winters. In my retelling the women have changed, but the men, especially rich, powerful ones, have not. Instead of the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, who’d be fired for her Rebecca shenanigans, we have an unstable fifteen-year-old girl named Dani who is consumed by memories of her perfect dead mother. She’s the one with a story to tell, but her youth and mental state render her unreliable. My own narrator must navigate this uneasy terrain, never certain who is telling the truth and who is lying to her, a problem made worse by social media, the distorting lens through which we tend to see ourselves and each other. It was a propulsive writing experience, perhaps because it felt as though I was writing a book that I really needed to read at the time. And I got to deliver a measure of justice to a beautiful dead woman.