In late 1938, Alfred Hitchcock was approached by producer David Selznick to direct Rebecca (1940), based on Daphne du Maurier's acclaimed novel of the same name. Making his first American picture, Hitch would soon discover that his ideas about adapting a novel for the screen were quite different from Selznick's. While Hitch used novels purely as a starting point for his films ("If I like the basic idea, I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema"), Selznick insisted on staying as true to the source material as possible. It is no surprise then that the first story treatment Hitch submitted to Selznick in June 1939 (which he had worked on with his former secretary Joan Harrison and author Philip MacDonald) was rejected. Selznick was not at all happy with the treatment, in particular with Hitch's alteration of the main characters and the comical opening of the film. (Hitch later said that he considered Rebecca "not a Hitchcock picture" due to its lack of humour.) Soon a more faithful treatment was submitted, and this time Hitch had also worked with his wife Alma Reville and screenwriter Michael Hogan. Selznick eventually brought in Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert E. Sherwood to prepare the final screenplay.
While Selznick got his way —the final result is a fairly faithful adaptation of du Maurier's novel— there was one major concession that had to be made in order to get the film released. In the novel, Maxim kills Rebecca but is not punished for his deed. As it was impossible under the Hays Code to let a murderer go free, the murder of Rebecca became an accident in the film. Selznick hated it and said: "The whole story of Rebecca is the story of a man who has murdered his wife, and it now becomes the story of a man who buried a wife who was killed accidentally!"
Seen below are two memos from David Selznick, written respectively to Alfred Hitchcock in June 1939 and Katharine Brown (Selznick's assistant) in February 1940. First up is Selznick's fascinating, lengthy memo to Hitchcock, written after Hitch had submitted his first story treatment. Selznick told Hitch that he wanted "to produce Rebecca, and not an original scenario based on Rebecca", sending Hitch back to the drawing board. Selznick's memo to Brown is up next and was written just a month before Rebecca premiered. In it, Selznick asked Brown to let Daphne du Maurier know about the plot change that was forced upon him by the censors ("I don't want her to think we are imbeciles when she sees this change, which is that Maxim actually did not kill Rebecca.")
June 12, 1939
To: Mr. Alfred Hitchcock
It is my unfortunate and distressing task to tell you that I am shocked and disappointed beyond words by the treatment of Rebecca. I regard it as a distorted and vulgarized version of a provenly successful work, in which, for no reason that I can discern, old-fashioned movie scenes have been substituted for the captivatingly charming du Maurier scenes. This is particularly true in the Riviera sequence.
We bought Rebecca and we intend to make Rebecca. The few million people who have read the book and who worship it would very properly attack us violently for the desecrations which are indicated by the treatment; but quite apart from the feelings of these few million, I have never been able to understand why motion-picture people insist upon throwing away something of proven appeal to substitute things of their own creation. It is a form of ego which has very properly drawn upon Hollywood the wrath of the world for many years, and, candidly, I am surprised to discover that the disease has apparently also spread to England.
I don't hold at all with the theory that the difference in medium necessitates a difference in storytelling, or even a difference in scenes. In my opinion, the only thing that is justified by the difference in medium is a difference in the manner in which a scene is told; and the only omissions from a successful work that are justified are omissions necessitated by length, censorship, or other practical considerations. Readers of a dearly loved book will forgive omissions if there is an obvious reason for them; but very properly, they will not forgive substitutions.
Nor do I hold with the theory that stories should be changed for motion pictures because they fall into a so-called narrative classification. I have made too many classics successfully and faithfully not to know beyond any question of a doubt that whether a film is narrative or dramatic it will succeed in the same manner as the original succeeded if only the same elements are captured and if only as much as possible is retained of the original— including alleged faults of dramatic construction. No one, not even the author of an original work, can say with any degree of accuracy why a book has caught the fancy of the public; if it were this easy, the author of the original could duplicate these elements and duplicate the success, which we know very few authors of successful works are able to do. The only sure and safe way of aiming at a successful transcription of the original into the motion-picture form is to try as far as possible to retain the original, and the degree of success in transcribing an original has always been proportionate to the success of the transcribers in their editing process and the qualities that are gotten into the casting, performances, direction, settings, etc.— as well, of course, as in the proper assembly for motion-picture purposes of the original elements.
This is not theory. I have too long and too successfully resisted attempts to movie-ize successful works not to be sure that my process of adaptation is sound. While others monkeyed around distorting original works, I insisted upon faithfulness in a long list of transcriptions...
This is the process that I had hoped was being engaged in on Rebecca. This is why I have kept warning you to be faithful. I have my own ego and I don't mind letting my own creative instincts run wild either on an original, as in the case of A Star Is Born, or in the adaptation of an unsuccessful work, as in Made for Each Other. But my ego is not so great that it cannot be held in check on the adaptation of a successful work. I don't think I can create in two months or in two years anything as good with the characters and situations of Rebecca as du Maurier created; and frankly, I don't think you can either. I want this company to produce Rebecca, and not an original scenario based upon Rebecca.
The medium of the radio is certainly no closer to the novel form than is the motion picture. And yet Orson Welles, throwing together a radio script on Rebecca in less than a week's time, had one of the greatest dramatic successes the radio has ever known by simply assembling ten or fifteen scenes from the book word for word— thereby proving that du Maurier's Rebecca in any form has the identical appeal that it had in book form. A clever showman, he didn't waste time and effort creating anything new but simply gave them the original. I hope we will be equally astute. If we do in motion pictures as faithful a job as Welles did on the radio, we are likely to have the same success the book had and the same success that Welles had. If we create an original script, we can only pray that we'll get something that is as good and as appealing as what we had and threw away.
Now the lecture having ended, let's get down to individual instances —some very minor, some very important— of what I am talking about. I will make these comments, trivial or important, in the order of the scenes to which they apply in the treatment.
I hope that it is not our intention to use the name Daphne or any other name for the girl. Next to the fact that the title character Rebecca never appeared, one of the most talked-about things in connection with the book was that the principal character had no name. Again, Welles shrewdly capitalized on this point, and the ten or fifteen million people who were fascinated by the story on the air also know that the leading character never appeared by name. We certainly would be silly to give her a name in our picture. This is not a point of storytelling but simply of showmanship.
I think the scenes of seasickness are cheap beyond words, and old-fashioned in the bargain. If there is any humor left on the screen in seasickness, let's for God's sake leave it to the two-reel comedies and not get our picture off on a low note by indulging in such scenes. And the first portrait of Max smoking a cigar that makes the other passengers ill is not my idea of an introduction for a romantic and mysterious figure. On the contrary, it would be a good introduction for a boor.
And quite apart from this, I don't know what we gain with our principals on their way to the Riviera, and I know a great deal that we lose: in the first place, we lose the idea of the brooding, introspective man who has for some time been away from England, trying to forget and wipe out the past. In the treatment he has apparently only just left England. In the second place, we lose the idea of the girl who has been living on the Riviera for some time with her vulgar employer, apparently having led a miserable existence for at least months. In the treatment, she has no background of existence at all with her vulgar employer because she meets de Winter the very night she leaves England.
The opening of the book is excellent, and why it requires any change for motion pictures or any other medium I am sure I don't know— with its picture of snobbish Mrs. Van Hopper and her unhappy companion, and the ever-so-slight and romantic first hint of de Winter in the distance...
And Max in a speedboat, driving out to his friends on an anchored yacht— what in God's name does this do to the portrait of the man who is wandering alone, trying to get away from everything? (The repeat on the seasickness isn't even worthy of comment.) Whatever happened to the construction that we discussed and agreed upon— that we were going to follow his moods and his being difficult and distant exactly as in the book until the honeymoon, when for the first time we saw a gay man, snatched out of his depression and his bitterness and his sour humor at long last by his new young wife, and returning to his old mood as Manderley obtrudes into his life on their return?...
Even such wonderful little things as the girl tearing out the page of the book, trying this early and in this futile fashion to erase Rebecca; and the little scene in which Mrs. Van Hopper predicts doom to the girl— at the end of Chapter Six: these are wantonly thrown away too, for what reason I don't know.
So much for the Riviera sequences. As for Manderley, every little thing that the girl does in the book, her reactions of running away from the guests, and the tiny things that indicate her nervousness and her self-consciousness and her gaucherie are all so brilliant in the book that every woman who has read it has adored the girl and has understood her psychology, has cringed with embarrassment for her, yet has understood exactly what was going through her mind. We have removed all the subtleties and substituted big broad strokes which in outline form betray just how ordinary the actual plot is and just how bad a picture it would make without the little feminine things which are so recognizable and which make every woman say, "I know just how she feels... I know just what she's going through..."etc.
It would take too long to go into the details of my resentment toward the other changes. Obviously there are sections of the book which are repetitious, and which need to be telescoped. But this is no excuse for making Max' sister into another Mrs. Van Hopper; for throwing away the wonderfully etched and extremely entertaining portraits of his sister and her husband; for substituting some slapstick comedy about her hole-in-one on a golf course for the mood of the walk through the estate, with a very human little argument about the dog running over the rocks, and Max' curious subsequent behavior.
The steps by which the readers of the book are intrigued by the mysterious behavior of Mrs. Danvers, and by Max' curious reactions to little things— all these have been distorted in a lesser or a greater manner, and it would take days to comb through them and see just where point after point has been lost, just as they have in the Riviera sequence. I would rather say very flatly that I think the treatment is pretty bad, and that it is easier to do a new one than to repair this one. Apparently the original had very little charm for the people who worked on this treatment, because if they felt about it as I do, and as all the other readers of the book that I have ever spoken to do, all their efforts would have been toward seeing exactly how much of the original they could preserve as to incident, reactions, characterizations, and all the other things that have made the book the most successful love story next to Gone With the Wind that has appeared in the last five years....
I can't think why you avoid showing the interior of the cottage on the beach.
Nor can I understand particularly why you want the grandmother in the tower of Manderley. If for no other reason, she and her own home have value as something to break the monotony of always being in the Manderley settings. However, this value may not be important, since we have plenty of sets within Manderley, its grounds, etc., and there may, on the contrary, be a value in staying entirely within Manderley. In this case, I am not sure that grandmother serves any purpose at all, and perhaps she ought to be eliminated from the story.
Other little things that I miss are the many comparisons between the girl and Rebecca which the girl observes and which make her feel her own gaucherie. I refer to such things as the comparison of handwriting between her own and Rebecca's...
Also, in the book more than in the treatment, I understand why Max puts up with Mrs. Danvers, and this is weak even in the book...
I don't know why you have changed the converted boathouse into a small stone cottage. This, to me, is just a gratuitous change which is for no reason unless it is to annoy the readers of the book...
I don't think the breaking of the china cupid in violence is as good as its being broken through awkwardness. In the one case it is fortuitous, and in the other case it is in character.
Max's scolding of the girl in front of Mrs. Danvers, while it may be a little ill-bred, is much more heartbreaking than after Mrs. Danvers leaves.
I don't know what Max is doing in Rebecca's room when the girl visits these rooms. I think this is cheating the audience. Du Maurier accomplishes the result of having her readers and the girl think that Max is still in love with Rebecca without such cheating.
Also, Mrs. Danvers's appearance in this room turns the readers' blood cold, and I don't think the substitution of Max is comparably good. In fact, I don't think Mrs. Danvers comes through in the treatment half as well as she does in the book...
I personally don't think you could get Olivier or any other good actor to play this role as indicated in the treatment. The character has no charm, no mystery, and no romance.
It is my regretful conclusion that we should immediately start on a new treatment, probably with a new writing set up.
February 27, 1940
To: Miss Katharine Brown
I suggest you drop a note to Daphne du Maurier telling her I have tried to do the most faithful job possible on Rebecca; that early reports are enthusiastic; that I hope she will like the picture and will be eager for a reaction; that the press reviews here were very successful, particularly in the great number of people who commented on its extreme faithfulness; that Van Schmus of the Music Hall was not simply enthusiastic, but particularly commented on what he termed an even more faithful transcription than Gone With the Wind; and that you will be glad to arrange for her to see it as soon as a print gets to England. Also, please make such arrangements.
But the principal point that I would like you to make in the letter is that there is one drastic change that was forced on us by the Hays Office and that almost caused us to abandon the picture. I don't want her to think we are imbeciles when she see this change, which is that Maxim actually did not kill Rebecca. Tell her that you are writing to forewarn her, but to please withhold any comment on this point until she sees the film, as even the readers of the book apparently are not aware of the change from the way in which we have handled it. Say that if she says anything publicly or privately about this it is going to hurt the picture, and we hope she will extend us the courtesy, in view of the courtesies we have extended her, of not mentioning this, especially as it would get us in wrong at the Hays office, etc. —that we simply wanted her to be forewarned and to know it was something forced upon us, and that I was heartbroken because of my desire for complete faithfulness. You might explain that Hays did what the censors would have done anyway— and that is, reject a story in which a murderer goes free.
You might say further that in spite of this change, the confession scene seems to be word for word her scene, and is not simply one of the best scenes in the film, but in my opinion one of the best and most unique scenes in any film.
Source of both memos: Memo from David O. Selznick (1972); selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer
This post is my contribution to THE THIRD ANNUAL ALFRED HITCHCOCK BLOGATHON, hosted by MADDY LOVES HER CLASSIC FILMS. Click here for a list of all the other entries.