Rebecca on film: 1940 vs 2020

Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is an iconic modern novel, so it’s not surprising it’s been adapted for the big screen multiple times. Netflix has recently given it a go with a new 2020 version of Rebecca directed by Ben Wheatley and starring Lily James and Armie Hammer – but how does it measure up to Hitchcock’s original Rebecca from 1940? Our telly experts watched them back-to-back to help you decide which version is more up your alley.

Plus, with Hitchcock’s Rebecca is airing on Talking Pictures TV (Freesat channel 306) on Sunday 11th April at 2:55pm, this is the perfect time to find out a little more about the iconic movie. So, without further ado, let’s break them down... 

What’s Rebecca all about?  

lily james and kristen scott thomas in Rebecca


We won’t give too much away, you’ll have to watch for yourself to get the full story...but to give you a quick overview: 

Rebecca is set in the 1930s and follows Mrs. de Winter, a young, shy and awkward woman who meets the brooding, rich and much older Maxim de Winter while on holiday in Monte Carlo. She quickly falls in love, but right from the beginning she knows that Maxim is a widower, mourning the loss of his remarkable wife Rebecca. Even so, they’re quickly married and Mrs. de Winter suddenly finds herself the lady of a grand estate in Cornwall called Manderley.  

Immediately the new Mrs. de Winter feels herself in the shadow of the beautiful and talented Rebecca, the memory of her haunting her every move. The gothic novel follows her battle with the memory of Rebecca as the truth behind her death slowly comes to reveal itself... 

Who's in the cast of Rebecca? 

rebecca 1940


Here’s the key cast for Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and our thoughts: 

  • Joan Fontaine (Ivanhoe, Jane Eyre) as Mrs. de Winter 

Mrs. de Winter is the central character of Rebecca - although some might say the absent Rebecca is arguably the main character, the novel and film taking her name, whereas Mrs. de Winter is intentionally only known by her married name. While in the book Mrs. de Winter is described as mousy, Joan Fontaine is an absolutely stunning actress and a frequent star during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Despite her less than mousy good looks, Fontaine gives a strong performance as Mrs. de Winter, coming across as extremely shy, demure and suitably awkward. 

  • Laurence Olivier (Wuthering Heights, Hamlet) as Maxim de Winter 

One of the all-time greats of the British stage, Olivier was the perfect choice for Maxim. Not only does he have the timeless and sombre good looks the original novel describes, but he also shows the moments of anger and sharpness right from the beginning. He also seems fittingly older than the new Mrs. de Winter, and treats her with the hot-and-cold temperament the character needs, veering from warm to scolding her like a little girl. Handsome, brooding and reserved, he is the perfect embodiment of the Maxim which du Maurier described, and even today his performance holds up fantastically well.  

  • Judith Anderson (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Salome) as Mrs. Danvers 

Judith Anderson plays the cold and frightening head housekeeper of Manderley with an excellently gothic feel. Dark, seemingly emotionless and buttoned up in a black Victorian-style dress, she’s intimidating and truly frightening. As Rebecca’s most loyal companion, she acts as a conduit for Rebecca, reminding the new Mrs. de Winter that she doesn’t belong, including one scene where she tries to convince her to commit suicide by jumping out the window because she’d never live up to her former mistress. In fact, the only time Mrs. Danvers does show real emotion is when showing Mrs. de Winter around Rebecca’s room, holding up Rebecca’s sheer lingerie in a strange, sexually-charged scene.  

The cast of Rebecca (1940) also features:  

  • George Sanders as Jack Favell 

  • Gladys Cooper as Beatrice Lacy 

  • Florence Bates as Mrs. Van Hopper 

And how about the cast of the 2020 Rebecca remake? 

lily james in sunhat in rebecca


  • Lily James (Downton Abbey, Cinderella) as Mrs. de Winter 

Like Jane Fontaine, Lily James is far from mousey, but even so, she does come across as very young and awkward, albeit a slightly more confident and fiesty version of Mrs. de Winter. Whereas Fontaine was unassertive throughout, James tries to dismiss Mrs. Danvers halfway through the film, something the other versions of Mrs. de Winter would never dare do. She also takes a more active role as the film goes on, likely to keep the action going and to suit a more modern audience.  

  • Armie Hammer (Call Me By Your Name, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) as Maxim de Winter 

While Olivier showed a dark, brooding version of Maxim which is more loyal to the novel, Hammer’s portrayal is distinctly genial in a way which doesn't fit the character or the story. Overall we feel Hammer's portrayal falls flat compared to his co-stars Lily James and Kristen Scott Thomas who capture the essence of their character. Hammer's performance is underwhelming and almost forgettable, leaving us feeling you never quite get to the heart of Maxim's persona.

  • Kristen Scott Thomas (The English Patient, Four Weddings and a Funeral) as Mrs. Danvers 

We loved Kristen Scott Thomas’ portrayal of Mrs. Danvers. While she still showed hints of Anderson’s truly gothic, Victorian style Danvers – cold, austere and steely – she also gives Danvers a strange, manic energy which is also seen in the novel. While she is a largely unemotional figure, when discussing Rebecca she shows an unnerving animation which shows Mrs. Danvers’ madness and obsession for Rebecca hidden beneath her severe exterior. While Anderson also showed hints of this, Kristen Scott Thomas really brings it to life in a way which is almost uncomfortable as she shows Mrs. de Winter around Rebecca’s bedroom.  

The cast of Rebecca (2020) also features:  

  • Sam Riley as Jack Favell 

  • Keeley Hawes as Beatrice Lacy 

  • Ann Dowd as Mrs. Van Hopper 

How’s the atmosphere? 

Rebecca (1940)   

mrs danvers and mrs de winter in rebecca 1940


Rebecca is a tense gothic thriller, so pacing and atmosphere is essential. And really, who does suspense better than Hitchcock? Described by the Library of Congress as a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” film and selected for preservation, Rebecca (1940) remains one of his finest works. Filmed in 1940, Hitchcock’s Rebecca is in black and white, but this only adds to the spooky, gothic feel of the film. Right from the beginning it sets the film up as a tense thriller, showing Maxim standing on the edge of a cliff above the sea, Mrs. de Winter believing he’s about to jump. While the couple’s romance in Monte Carlo is shown, it feels intentionally false and rushed, taking them quickly back to Manderley in England, whatever romance they shared on their honeymoon is quickly over.  

From here the tension continues to build as Mrs. de Winter hears more about Rebecca and pieces together the story of what happened before she arrives at Manderley. Throughout the film you feel as though you are walking in Rebecca’s footsteps, and in one fantastic scene the camera pans around an empty room, following where Rebecca was in her final moments, literally following her ghost although there is nothing on screen. It's a haunting and excellent piece of film. 

Hitchcock also expertly skips some slower scenes to keep the pace up, cutting the ball which features in the novel and 2020 version to jump ahead to the disturbing exchange where Mrs. Danvers tries to convince Mrs. de Winter to commit suicide, then jumping immediately to the discovery of Rebecca’s boat. This is arguably the climax of the tension in the film, but just as you think everything is settled, Hitchcock ends with a dramatic ending which is both haunting and loyal to the novel. Big thumbs up for atmosphere from us 👍 

Rebecca (2020) 

maxim and mrs de winter in rebecca 2020


In comparison, Ben Wheatley’s Rebecca (2020) emphasises the romantic side of the Gothic Romance genre, giving more weight to the romance in Monte Carlo with a far more sexualised portrayal of their early love. This is a change from the novel and 1940’s version which shows the couple as notably sexless. You could argue this is due to the different time period the 1940's film was made, but there are definitely sexual undertones through the rest of the film with the scene where Mrs. Danvers talks about Rebecca's night-clothes, but this sexuality is conspicuously absent from the married couple. While the proposal in both the novel and 1940’s adaptation is brisk, sudden and unromantic, the 2020 adaptation makes it seem spontaneous and passionate. However, although this is very different from the originals, it does set Mrs. de Winter up for a great fall when she arrives at Manderley and reality hits.  

With the arrival at Manderley comes the feel of the ghost story in sharp contrast to sunny Monte Carlo, Mrs. de Winter now finds herself in a huge mansion on the Cornwall coast, which is covered with signs of Rebecca, from monogrammed handkerchiefs to her belongings left in situ and lingerie catalogues left in her desk. This haunting is exaggerated with images of a ghostly figure in red satin running down the halls and Maxim eerily sleepwalking to Rebecca’s bedroom.  

Despite the ghost story elements, something about the pacing just feels 'off' in the 2020 adaptation. While Hitchcock’s 1940 version slowly builds the tension throughout the film, the 2020 version builds as a great ghost story once they arrive in England, but then lulls halfway through as Mrs. de Winter briefly befriends Mrs. Danvers. Arguably this is to create a calm before the storm, but instead, it slows down the whole film and something of the tension is lost. It’s doubtful anyone watching was surprised when Mrs. Danvers turns again on the new Mrs. de Winter, so this lull seems unnecessary.  

kristen scott thomas as mrs danvers in Rebecca 2020


Wheatley’s Rebecca also opts to include the ball scenes which Hitchcock chose to cut, and in our opinion, this doesn’t help the story. Mrs. de Winter sees the ghostly figure of Rebecca wandering through the ball and tries to follow her, but while these scenes worked well earlier in the film, they now feel heavy-handed. This is made worse by the attendants of the ball chanting ‘Rebecca’ over and over again in a scene that feels out of place with the style of the rest of the movie. Presumably this is to emphasise Mrs. de Winter’s feeling of defeat and inadequacy compared to Rebecca, but the subtlety of the tension is lost.  

The result of this is that the end of the film feels rushed and, at times, clumsy. That said, you could argue the pace continues at a good speed, and so much happens at the end of the film (in any version) that this is hard to avoid. The deviation from the book to make Mrs. de Winter a more active character towards the end is a great idea and holds her at the centre of the narrative compared to the novel and original where she passively lets Maxim and the men go off and solve the mystery (the original Mrs. de Winter is intentionally a very passive character throughout, holding her in sharper contrast to Rebecca). However, it’s the final scene that really throws us off. 

After the final surprise at the end, you think it’s all over, but then there’s an additional scene that shows Mrs. de Winter and Maxim in a hotel room in some faraway country. Mrs. de Winter then says it’s all worth it for love. This could be to hint at Mrs. de Winter’s romanticised idea of their toxic relationship, but we can’t help but think the film would’ve had a stronger ending if this scene had been cut altogether.  

Setting and film locations of Rebecca  

mrs de winter in Hartland Quay in Rebecca


Visually Wheatley’s 2020 adaptation of Rebecca is unequivocally stunning. The aesthetic is rich and grand, giving an idea of the beauty of the Cornish coast and Manderley in a gorgeous and atmospheric contrast to the lush sunshine of Monte Carlo at the start of the film. It would be hard for any 1940’s version to compete visually, but the setting has also been carefully chosen and styled to give a vibrant, modern homage to classic film noir.  

Manderley itself is based on an estate called Manabilly in Cornwall which Daphne du Maurier visited as a child. Manderley is the backdrop for much of the film and almost a character in itself. The famous opening line is “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again” as Mrs. de Winter recounts her time there, setting the scene immediately. To capture the feel of the place, eight properties and areas across the UK were used, including: 

  • Mapperton House in Dorset (which you might also recognise from Enola Holmes

  • Cranborne Manor in Wiltshire 

  • Hatfield House in Hertfordshire  

  • Petworth House in West Sussex 

  • Loseley House in Surrey 

  • Blegberry Farm in Devon 

  • Osterley House in Isleworth  

  • Hartland Quay, a rocky and wild seaside area in Devon for shots of the dramatic coastline 

The many properties were used intentionally to make the house seem vast and confusing. Director Ben Wheatley told the Radio Times

“...the architecture is really variable, the corridors don’t quite make sense in terms of where they go to, the shapes of the places don’t quite make sense – and I think that that helped with the idea that it was the second Mrs De Winter’s memory as much as it was a real space." 

Manderley’s gothic and eerie aesthetic is in contrast to the lush, sunny setting at the beginning of the film, which were shot around Europe in the Exotic Garden of Monaco, the Villa Eilenroc in Antibes and the Ancient Hotel Regina in Nice, France. 

manderley rebecca 2020


Unsurprisingly, Hitchcock’s filming locations were less authentic and were largely filmed in a studio and around California, which was the norm for 1940s productions. The beach scenes were films on Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles, while the Manderley grounds were filmed in Del Monte, California.  

However, while the 1940’s version of Rebecca has inevitable constraints visually, it still captures the gothic and haunted visuals of the setting. Manderley, Maxim’s stately home on the Cornish coast, is grand and full of shadows – the perfect setting for a ghost story. Similarly, while it can’t capture the full majesty of the Cornish coast, it does give a brilliant portrayal of the power and feeling of the waves on the coast to great dramatic effect.  

Freesat feels... 

lily james in rebecca


2020 version has more of the feel of a ghost story, yet simultaneously pushes the romance side of things which over-simplifies the story, du Maurier never intending Rebecca to be a true love story. In the book, the new Mrs. de Winter desperately asks Maxim “but we’re happy, aren’t we? Terribly happy?” Well, if you need to ask...and Maxim’s reply of “If you say we’re happy, let’s leave it at that” doesn’t inspire much confidence. 

Their relationship is purposefully one-sided, Maxim finding a young, meek wife who he can more easily control compared to the dazzling and headstrong Rebecca. While the 2020 version hints at it being an unbalanced and unhealthy relationship, it doesn't go far enough to underline the toxicity of their marriage. The 2020 version also takes a fair few creative liberties with the story, including changing the final fate of Mrs. Danvers and adding an extra scene at the end which jars with the rest of the film.  

rebecca 1940


In comparison, Hitchcock’s 1940 version of Rebecca is less authentic in terms of setting but captures more of the feel of the original story and characters. It creates a sense of foreboding which is more elegantly done than in Wheatley’s adaptation, making it more thriller than romance, more ghost story than love story, the feeling of tension and suspense running throughout. Though it feels slightly dated now, it holds up exceptionally well, especially when compared with the original 1938 novel.  

Overall, Wheatley’s 2020 adaptation of Rebecca is a visual feast for the eyes and a modern interpretation of the iconic novel, but if you’re looking for suspense and loyalty to the original source material, Hitchcock’s 1940’s version is the one for you. Ultimately, you really need to watch them both and decide for yourself! You can stream Rebecca (2020) now on Netflix, and make sure you tune into Hitchcock’s Rebecca on Talking Pictures TV (Freesat channel 306) on Sunday 11th April at 2:55pm. It’s a hard adaptation to find these days, so make sure you don’t miss out!  

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