Why Daphne du Maurier is Cinematic Gold Dust

Joseph Coupe /
Jun 27, 2017 / Film & TV

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” is the suspenseful introduction to Alfred Hitchcock’s famous adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.

It’s a novel which has been adapted to screen a staggering 17 times since its original publication in the late 1930s and despite being a film which evokes a strong sense of time sensitivity, the source material remains as fresh as ever.

It’s universally appreciated that du Maurier’s novels are absolute gold-dust for directors and production companies, with her psychologically thrilling plot lines and Gothic visual settings making the perfect transition to motion picture. This year, Rachel Weisz joins the likes of Joan Fontaine and Tippi Hedren as the leading lady in one of such adaptations.

My Cousin Rachel is one of du Maurier’s lesser-known, and lesser-adapted novels, having only made the transition to the movies a handful of times, which makes Roger Michell’s 2017 adaptation all the more enticing. The eccentric psychological piece features a stunning performance by Weisz as the titular Rachel, who brings mischief and mystery to the sleepy South West. The ambiguity of her manipulation contributes to the great pull of du Maurier as a whole, as she is able to weave storylines which keep the audience guessing – even after the last chapter, or in the case of cinema, even after they leave their seats.

The first adaptation of My Cousin Rachel in 1952 was met by some discontent from du Maurier herself, who was not always overly happy with the way her stories made the transition from paper to picture.  Both Hitchcock’s adaptations of The Birds and Jamaica Inn were not considered too fondly by the author, but were elsewhere critically acclaimed. Despite Hitchcock’s own artistic interpretation of the source material, the success undoubtedly stems from a combination of the directorial verve and du Maurier’s innate nack for compelling storytelling.

There is something altogether special, however, about the 1940 production of Rebecca starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. The film follows Laurence Olivier’s Max de Winter as a mysterious character who is haunted by his past and, in turn, his deceased wife, the overbearing, omnipresent titular character. Being Hitchcock’s first film for American audiences, there was much riding on the adaptation, and the final result was a veritably thrilling ride through the rooms of a Cornish mansion known as Manderley, which garnered great success both critically and at the Academy Awards.

Although being incredibly expository, Rebecca is stunningly shot and the dialogue is so subtly delivered by Olivier and Fontaine that it just feels right. A highlight being the impactful moment Fontaine is tricked by the villainess extraordinaire Mrs Danvers into wearing one of Rebecca’s old ballgowns, descending the staircase in what has now become a great visual cinematic marvel.  The unnamed character played by Fontaine, that of Max de Winters’ second wife, finds herself in an unfamiliar and daunting situation, the precariousness of which many of us can find relatable.

Upon the publishing of her novel Hungry Hill in 1943, du Maurier had become synonymous with Hollywood film adaptations by mainstream media – much to her discontent as a writer who wanted to be known more immediately for her print works. But despite this, she still played a large part in the production of the adaptation of the aforementioned novel in 1947 starring Margaret Lockwood. It can be concluded that du Maurier worried about the impact film adaptations would have on her reputation as an author, but for no good reason.

Daphne du Maurier was one of the most celebrated and successful authors of the 20th century, and the thematic intention of her most popular novels lay the perfect groundwork for transitioning to the silver screen. She will forever be remembered as one of the great masters of suspense in fiction.




Words by Joseph Coupe

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