Few films can command as much press as a new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel, Rebecca. This month sees the release of the Netflix film starring Lily James as the second Mrs de Winter and Armie Hammer (the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network) as Maxim. Amidst the excitement, there’s been the inevitable smattering of controversy.
Were the producers right to reduce the age gap for the #metoo generation? (In the book Max is 42; the narrator about 21.) Isn’t Lily James too pretty to play Rebecca’s dowdy successor? Will Kristin Scott Thomas steal the show as Mrs Danvers? And do we even need a new Rebecca — given that Hitchcock’s 1940 movie won the Oscar for Best Picture and there’ve been numerous adaptations since?
Du Maurier’s books have long proved irresistible to filmmakers. They’re tightly-plotted, suspenseful yarns that grapple with perennial human questions — jealousy, obsession, dissatisfaction. There’s also a naturally filmic quality to her work. When I interviewed du Maurier’s grandson, the Jungian analyst Rupert Tower a couple of years ago, to mark the 80th anniversary of Rebecca, he recalled something the director Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now) had said.
Reading a du Maurier short story “was like being given a screenplay” Roeg told him; “all I had to do was visualise it — she really just gave it to me”.
Here are the best du Maurier adaptations to seek out (and one to avoid…)
My Cousin Rachel (2017)
At the offices of Virago, du Maurier’s publishers, there’s an ongoing debate as to whether Rebecca or My Cousin Rachel is the better book. Is it, or isn’t it? Did she, or didn’t she? Rachel Weisz is mesmerising here as the enigmatic woman who may or may not have murdered her husband.
The Birds (1963)
What became one of Hitchcock’s most iconic movies started life as a short story by du Maurier set in her beloved Cornwall. Hollywood transported it to Bodega Bay, California, where Tippi Hedren arrives in pursuit of Mitch (Rod Taylor). Utterly compelling, terrifying and — that favourite du Maurier trope — unresolved.
Don’t Look Now (1973)
Another cinematic classic based on a du Maurier short story, this shattering psychological thriller regularly tops polls of the best British and best horror films ever. It’s arguably the most successful interpretation of one of her works and had her approval. “Very well done, the photography glorious… it wasn’t badly altered,” she wrote to a friend. However, she felt it was “a pity about the sexy bit” — the explicit love scene between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland — “so unnecessary”.
Rebecca (1940, 1979, 1997)
Hitchcock’s film, starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, remains the standout version, but the plot had to be tweaked to adhere to Hollywood’s rigid Hays Code of moral conduct, which [***SPOILER ALERT***] didn’t allow a murderer to get away with it.
Jeremy Brett was a complex and alluring Maxim in the 1979 BBC series (available on You Tube) with Joanna David as the second wife. David’s daughter Emilia Fox played the part in an ITV version in 1997. The age gap with a fifty-something Charles Dance isn’t too palatable for a contemporary audience, but Diana Rigg is superb as Mrs Danvers. Her performance won the Emmy for outstanding actress in a miniseries.
Frenchman’s Creek (1944)
Joan Fontaine swapped twinsets for décolleté gowns in the swashbuckling tale of a noblewoman who falls for a pirate. Du Maurier described the book as “romantic with a capital ‘R’”. It’s an enjoyably preposterous Technicolor romp. Purists might spot the California coast standing in for the Helford River…
The Scapegoat (2012)
Du Maurier’s exploration of the Freudian notion of the doppelgänger attracted tremendous film interest on publication in 1957. One Hollywood studio wanted it as a Cary Grant vehicle, but the author formed a production company with Alec Guinness to ensure that he was cast as the protagonist, John — and his double, Jacques.
Neither the 1959 film nor the 2012 ITV mini series do justice to the complexities of the book, but the latter, starring Matthew Rhys with Eileen Atkins and Fleabag’s ‘sexy priest’ Andrew Scott, is entertaining.
The House on the Strand (1973)
With its non-linear narrative and dreamlike quality, The House on the Strand could have been written for film. Which makes it all the more surprising that the novel many aficionados consider to be du Maurier’s best has never made it to the screen. But it has been adapted for radio, with Ian Richardson playing the lead role in a 1973 production for Radio 4’s Saturday Night Theatre. You can find it on You Tube.
And one to miss…..
Jamaica Inn (2014)
Billed as the BBC’s big Easter drama series that year, the first episode (starring Downton Abbey graduate Jessica Brown Findlay as the orphan who gets mixed up with Cornish smugglers) lost a quarter of its audience — and attracted nearly 1,000 complaints — over its incomprehensible mumbling.