Film: Netflix’s Rebecca (2020)
Genre: Romantic Drama
Overall Rating: ⅗ stars
Content Warnings: Gaslighting, neglect, depression, suicidal ideation, implied domestic abuse.
Welcome to “is there a HEA?” an ongoing series where we review movies and TV shows that a streaming platform (or an audience) has tagged as romantic. The aim? To see whether the show meets romance genre standards by concluding with an HFN or a HEA.
This week on our mini-series: The 2020 Netflix adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s classic gothic novel Rebecca, which premiered during the pandemic. This film first fell onto our radar when the streaming platform tagged it as a romance, so let’s dive in.
Warning: This review will contain spoilers for Rebecca’s ending.
Netflix’s Rebecca Review
I won’t lie. This movie had some very big shoes to fill, especially on a personal level. The source material is one of my all-time favorites novels, so I’m not sure if my expectations going into this adaptation were fair.
A gothic romance of the highest order, Rebecca follows a nameless, working-class narrator who marries a wealthy widower. After their marriage, she goes to live with him on his famous countryside estate. There, the narrator discovers that it’s practically impossible to fill the shoes of her husband’s first wife, Rebecca; a seemingly perfect woman who still holds enormous sway over the estate, despite her death a year before in a tragic accident.
This is the Rebecca novel summary and one that comprises the basic beats of the film. It’s a story I instantly gravitated towards, with the idea of a young woman who is completely out of her depth. Like many other readers who discovered this novel long after its release (the book was originally published in 1938), I was fascinated by the idea of a narrator who deals with a crushing sense of anxiety on the daily. I related to her struggles and her fears of being inferior, and how that competed with a burning, feverish love that she held for a man whom she suspected did not love her back.
“I am glad it cannot happen twice, the fever of a first love,” the nameless “Mademoiselle” of du Maurier’s Rebecca opined, early into the novel. “For it is a fever, and a burden, too, whatever the poets may say. They are not brave, the days when we are twenty-one. They are full of little cowardices, little fears without foundation, and one is so easily bruised, so swiftly wounded, one falls to the first barbed word.”
Truly, this story is incredibly quotable, and it’s one that continues to rock me with its authenticity. So this was the vibe that permeated the novel, and one I was looking forward to in the Netflix adaptation. I wanted something beautiful, and gothic, and full of pathos; something that captured the voice of du Maurier’s relatable heroine.
Unfortunately, despite the star-studded accolades of Netflix’s Rebecca cast, I still feel like this movie fell short.
Netflix’s Rebecca manages to center the gaslighting that du Maurier’s protagonist goes through, both before she moves to the Manderley estate, and afterward. It captures her anxiety and the overwhelming surge of emotions that can consume a person when faced with the reality of their own incompetence. It accurately depicts how sustained stress can lead a person into taking drastic, unsafe measures. In this, I was very happy, and my eyes were glued to the screen.
When it came to the plot, however, Netflix made some significant changes. Not all of them were good.
Many events within the novel were condensed and combined in order to play to a visual medium. This process of adaptation is normal and doesn’t usually bother me. By combining certain events, however, or by changing the fallout from those events, certain character motivations and actions no longer made sense.
Maxim (Mademoiselle’s husband) no longer comes across as a distant and aloof man burdened by trauma, but one who is aggressively dismissive of his new, eager-to-please young wife. Mademoiselle’s camaraderie with her maidservant, Clarice—whom she originally bonded with over their shared economic and social background—turns from one of easy friendship into a hierarchy where Clarice is beneath her mistress. This hierarchy is justified by Clarice being drawn into a plot to undermine our heroine by the conniving Mrs. Danvers. It was an event that never happened in the book, at least in this form.
Escalating this trend of questionable changes, Rebecca’s attempts to make the narrator more “active” in her decision-making undermines a core part of her character. Namely, she is a woman who is paralyzed by her anxiety, made worse by gaslighting: if she doesn’t get a handle on that anxiety, her inner fears and her inability to confront this aggression will ruin her life.
This is an incredibly relatable character motivation, and one that sings to me. So when those flaws are minimized and repackaged into something more palatable, it feels less than great. It becomes even starker if you’re a reader who struggles with anxiety, too.
Is There a HEA?
Technically, Rebecca ends in a HEA. The characters succeed and push through their struggles, their marriage continues, and they’re more-or-less happy. I’d dare say they’re even happier than they were in the book.
Despite this, I actually wasn’t a fan of the ending, and I almost wished it had been the opposite. This is heretical to say on a series devoted to HEA endings, but major plot points were radically changed, which in turn muddied the film’s subtext.
Overall, Netflix’s Rebecca feels like a movie that wanted to adapt a book without knowing the core themes of that book. It feels like a gothic romance that didn’t know the tenants of gothic literature, at least in-depth. Instead of a gothic romance, the audience is presented with a romantic thriller that bears little resemblance to the original source material.
As such, if you’re a fan of that source material, or you want a gothic film, this adaptation will probably leave you wanting. Looking for another review? Check out our previous entry, is there a HEA? The Age of Innocence.