5 ways Netflix's new 'Rebecca' differs from Alfred Hitchcock's Oscar-winning 1940 classic

Brian Truitt

One fortunate thing about doing a new take on the psychological thriller “Rebecca,” 80 years after Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar-winning version: There’s no one to offend from the original movie. 

Ben Wheatley, the British director of Netflix’s new “Rebecca” (streaming Wednesday), doesn't think there's "anyone left alive who went to the premiere of that film. Pretty much if you did the math. I didn't feel too bad about that,” he says with a chuckle.

Like the Hitchcock movie starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, “Rebecca” is based on Daphne du Maurier's 1938 gothic novel. Lily James stars as a young newlywed who moves into the massive English estate of her new husband, Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), where the man’s dead spouse, Rebecca, still holds a lot of sway. As Hammer puts it, “’It's a ghost story with no ghosts.”

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“Rebecca” is also the kind of tale “that reverberates through generations,” he says. “The same (stuff) that they were dealing with, worrying about your current husband's ex or people with relationship trauma in the past, all of those we're still going through today.”

Hammer and Wheatley discuss five differences between their movie and the 1940 version:

Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) and his new wife (Lily James) are closer in age in the new "Rebecca" than the lovers in Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 movie.

1. The main characters are closer in age in the new ‘Rebecca’

In the du Maurier book, Maxim is 42 and the second Mrs. de Winter is in her early 20s – a dynamic that’s reflected in the Hitchcock film, which made Olivier  look older than his 33 years (coincidentally, the same age Hammer was while filming). The film needed a change. “If there was a 20-year age gap and a guy treated his new wife the way Maxim treats his, it would just make the modern audience uncomfortable – as it should," Hammer says.

Having them be somewhat close in age makes it more believable that they'd fall in love, Wheatley says: ”If you bought their romance at the beginning, then you put up with a lot of stuff that happens later on."

2. Maxim is a cooler dude (at least in the beginning)

In the 1940 film, Olivier's take on the character was “just a big sourpuss,” says Hammer, whose Maxim is a “little bit more approachable” but also “more vulnerable and damaged.” He’s shown as a dapper guy with a sense of humor and mystery when Maxim and James’ never-named character meet.

“She starts to become so strong that he can lean on her in a way, where he can go to her and finally tell her exactly what's been going on with him,” Hammer says. “Their balance of power is very symbiotic: As his starts to drop and he starts to break, she rises to the occasion.”

Armie Hammer (with Lily James) was a big fan of the 1920s Bentley he gets to drive in "Rebecca."

3. Both films skew old-school Hollywood – one by choice, though

The 1930s are contemporary for Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” and that’s the era Wheatley harks back to for his period piece, which pays homage in look and feel to its cinematic predecessor. “I wanted to make something that would fit into that world,” he says. 

It also gave Hammer an excuse to zoom around Monaco in a vintage 1920s Bentley. “It drove like a pig, but it was awesome,” he says. “When it was running well, it just was humming, man, and it was such a cool car to drive.”

Mrs. de Winter (Lily James) has a rough time at a masquerade ball in "Rebecca."

4. The new movie adds a trippy flavor to the masquerade ball

The Manderley estate's social event of the year turns into a nightmare for James’ heroine, who unwittingly wears one of Rebecca’s old gowns as a costume – subterfuge courtesy of manipulative housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas). It infuriates Maxim, and in a swirling, dizzying, fireworks-laden sequence, his new wife desperately pushes her way through the crowd, even seeing a mystery woman who may or may not be her spouse’s deceased wife.

“I saw that scene as almost like a black hole, that the film is collapsing on itself,” Wheatley says of his “Rebecca” addition. “Everyone's come as historical characters from the history of Britain and she's being basically crushed or ground down by the context and history of the house."

Mrs. de Winter (Lily James, seated, with Kristin Scott Thomas) can't escape the shadow of her husband's dead first wife in "Rebecca."

5. You're left guessing about Rebecca

Wheatley likes how screenwriter Jane Goldman’s new adaptation adds a thriller element toward the end of the film but also teases out the circumstances of Rebecca’s death gradually, unlike the book and the Hitchcock movie that give it away pretty early.

“You learn at the same pace as (the new Mrs. de Winter) and it's that growing, sickening feeling of like, ‘Oh, God, she didn't just die, she died in a tragic way,’” the director says. “She's building in her head that she'll never be as good as this person because (Rebecca is) so saintly.”