When my husband saw me reading this book, he asked (a bit derisively, I must say) if it was some romance novel. I admitted there was some romance to it, but went on to explain that Hitchcock had made a film version of the story. He concluded that if Hitchcock was involved, there must be something more substantial there.
Rebecca, a classic in either book or movie version, tells the story of a young, naive woman who falls in love with (and quickly marries) one Maximilian (Maxim) de Winter. When he brings her to his estate, the imposing Manderley, their happiness is overshadowed by the presence (not literally) of his first wife, the titular Rebecca. Her memory is kept very much alive by Mrs. Danvers, Manderley's housekeeper, who is still devoted and loyal to the deceased Mrs. de Winter.
For the most part, while condensing things a bit, the movie stays true to Daphne du Maurier's novel. Some changes include a different ending for Mrs. Danvers and slightly different circumstances surrounding Rebecca's death. The book also spends more time with some of the minor characters and presents the second Mrs. de Winter's thoughts in greater depth. (While this sometimes helps a lot in understanding her character, in some cases the book gets a bit long-winded.)
The movie's strength owes a great deal to the perfectly cast actors. Joan Fontaine plays insecure and shy extremely well, and while this same type of performance was out of place in Jane Eyre, it was just right in Rebecca. Although some might ask if his mustache is really necessary, Laurence Olivier hits upon the necessary mix of qualities for Maxim: romantic, mysterious, and troubled. George Sanders, while a different physical type than the description of his character in the book, is perfect as Rebecca's slimy cousin, Jack Favell. And Judith Anderson is deliciously creepy as Mrs. Danvers.
Rebecca herself works best without appearing in either the book or movie. I'm not sure she would be completely believable as a flesh-and-blood character, but as an overbearing presence imagined or remembered, the character works. There's one part in the movie that's particularly effective where the camera tracks along an empty space as Rebecca's past actions are narrated.
Book or movie? Both are worth a look. I personally saw the movie before reading the book, and so had a clear picture in my head of the characters as I read, but I was still quite caught up in the story even knowing the eventual ending. There's enough minor differences from one to the other to keep each version interesting. And, while it's not perhaps one of Hitchcock's finest, this is one that fans of the director shouldn't miss. It did, after all, win the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1940.
If you've read the book and seen the movie, which do you prefer?