If you’ve read Daphne de Murier’s Rebecca, you know it’s about a heroine so timid she goes along with everyone’s agenda until her marriage is threatened by a horrific secret from her husband’s past, and then she comes into her own. Throughout the book, she is cowed and overshadowed by the memory of her husband’s first wife, the fierce, beautiful, and intimidating Rebecca, who is everything the unnamed heroine is not… extroverted, bold, sexual, confident, promiscuous, and careless with men’s feelings.
Alfred Hitchcock directed the most famous version of this story, and Joan Fontaine deservedly received an Oscar nomination for her depiction of an intimidated, fearful girl cowed by the “ghost” of a woman’s memory, and surrounded by much stronger personalities than her own – her angry husband Maxim, whose temper flares hint about his dangerous past, and the cold, unkind housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (I’ve written about her as an absolutely fantastic villain before). The 90’s Masterpiece Theater version is also superb, depicting a highly believable Charles Dance as Maxim (his eyes blaze with angry passion at times that makes me want to get out of his way), and a slightly softer, more humane Mrs. Danvers.I sat down last week to watch all three film versions of Rebecca in one week to mentally compare them (there’s also a decent version starring Jeremy Brett, but it’s hard to find). Hitchcock has the best unnamed heroine, Masterpiece Theatre has the best Maxim, and the new version by Netflix has the best Mrs. Danvers… but Netflix has one thing working against it, and that’s having neutered the main characters’ personalities so much, they are unrecognizable.
In the recent stink about Netflix “ruining Persuasion” in their new adaptation (to be honest, I enjoyed it), a lot of criticism has arisen and attention been drawn to the idea of Hollywood studios “hating passive women.” With Rebecca and, yes, Anne Elliot, that seems to be true. In the new version, it’s as if someone said, “We can’t have a meek wife in 2021, that won’t be believable, we have to make her more assertive!” The new unnamed heroine (played by Lily James, who is far too charismatic anyway) is still drawn up in other people and their agendas (all versions of this character are Enneagram 9w1s), but she’s also less… cowed. She tells off Mrs. Danvers several times, she is sexually confident (making love to Maxim on the beach on a date, which makes no sense if you know the book; one of the reasons Maxim picked her is her chaste innocence, in comparison to his promiscuous Rebecca), and even argumentative at times. She’s a “modern” woman, not Daphne’s heroine who struggles to locate herself.
Armie Hammer is the most boring Maxim I have ever seen. The point of the book is to contrast a meek girl with the stronger personalities around her – through her eyes as the narrator, everyone seems “louder” compared to her unwillingness to take up space in the world or assert herself. Maxim has a strong, tenacious and controlling personality; he’s always telling her what to do (“stop biting your nails!”), and she finds comfort in that. It’s not an ideal relationship, but it isn’t supposed to be; it’s a book about flawed people. Here, the script has removed Maxim’s bossiness and his temperamental nature. Gone is the Maxim who insults people in public. Armie has nothing to work with except an offhanded warning about his bad temper (he rarely shows it), and he seems more whiny and petulant and jealous than strong and assertive.
So, what changed? Feminist attitudes that say we can’t have docile female characters, we need them to be feisty? This unnamed heroine is much more so than the original; rather than being dragged along by events, she’s initiating them – by going after Maxim, sleeping with him, and by actively pursuing evidence to get him off the hook for murder. And that makes for a fine story, but it’s not the woman Daphne wrote. I am on the fence about movies changing characters’ personalities to make them more modern or likable.
Rebecca’s heroine is meek and mild and innocent and chaste; it’s an important moment in the earlier films and books when Maxim says she has lost her innocence and he blames himself for that. The new Persuasion does the same thing—rather than a meek, mild Anne, they have given her more personality. She’s funny. She makes herself jam mustaches to amuse the children with, she looks into the camera and bemoans her stupidity at turning down Wentworth, and she makes snide remarks to the audience about her sister’s whining. And I loved it. But I have not read Persuasion, so I am part of the “problem” – the audience Netflix is thinking about, when they say “we can’t have a passive and accommodating heroine; she has to be a modern woman!”
But the modern woman doesn’t exist; there’s just as many shy, scared, passive, or introverted women today as there were a hundred years ago. There have always been bold, fiery women, and quieter, more circumspect women. There have been promiscuous women and chaste women. Bossy women and “go along with whatever he wants” women. All women of all personalities deserve heroines to identify with, whether they are more like the feisty Rebecca or the timid heroine. I like the bold, self-confident Nancy Wheeler in Stranger Things sawing off a shotgun to take down Vecna, but I also like the unnamed heroine in the original Rebecca and her timid sweetness. We should let the heroine of her story, be herself within her own story. Let this unnamed heroine be meek. Let Anne Elliot struggle to go against her family’s wishes to marry Wentworth. Let Amy Dorrit prioritize caring for her family above her own happiness.There’s nothing wrong with any of these heroines, just like there’s nothing wrong with us as women having nine different distinct types of personalities. They are who they are, and we should let them be themselves.
I tagged you here with the “Running Wild in Impractical Outfits” tag. Play if you want to!
Another great, quick read! I love your insights (I’m a reader from way back in the Femnista days, but this is my first time commenting). You always have such a great perspective — not leaning too heavily on one side or the other. I research new movies for a living and read A. LOT. of reviews; it can get boring when everyone is either raving about or dumping on a film. I can count on you to offer a nuanced approach!
That’s very kind of you to say. 🙂 I often land in the middle with a movie, where I can see both the good and the bad in it, and I kinda hate parroting everyone else’s thoughts, so I will sometimes like a movie more just *because* it’s getting dumped on. 😉
What happened to femnista? I went to the link and it got deleted?
Yes. Our stats had dwindled to almost nothing (very few readers/visitors), and I didn’t want to leave it up as a dead zone, so I informed all my writers of its removal on August 1st and gave them several months to collect their articles. Some of them will be re-posting their articles to their individual blogs. Sorry for the inconvenience.
Bummer, I enjoyed reading it. TY for replying.
And you mentioned Amy Dorrit…I’m guessing you’ve seen the 2008 miniseries? (One of my absolute favorite period dramas of all time, if not my favorite.)
Yes, I love that miniseries! (Along with Bleak House, which is also excellent.) Although I really do want to punch her father most of the time… 😉
I really love Bleak House as well, though Little Dorrit will forever be my favorite of the two.
Ohhh yeah, don’t get me started about her dad. Classic narcissist!
I THINK Little Dorrit was where I first saw Claire Foy. She’s spectacular in it.
All women of all personalities deserve heroines to identify with, whether they are more like the feisty Rebecca or the timid heroine.
By lauding and applauding the mythical Strong Female Character so much for years and years, our society has created a cookie-cutter stereotype that all female characters are “supposed” to live up to.
And it’s so dumb.
Anne Elliot, for instance, is crazy strong. She stood up to a handsome, charming, charismatic, persuasive man that she loved and said, “I can’t marry you.” At the age of nineteen. The chutzpah! And then she spent the next eight years dealing with her father and older sister pushing, shunning, ignoring, and insulting her, she turned down another man’s proposal even though he was kind and nice and would have taken her away from said dreadful homelife… you want a strong heroine? Anne Elliot for the win, ladies and gentlemen. As she was written. Mighty and powerful woman. But not exciting, not feisty, not sexy, so not good enough.
Grr. I’m so sad to hear that they’ve hamstrung Maxim and “liberated” the heroine of the Netflix Rebecca because I reeeeeeeally was looking forward to seeing Armie Hammer pull out all the dark and brooding stops. He gave us a tiny taste of that in Man from UNCLE and I think he would have done the original role brilliantly, and I’m sad for him that he didn’t get the chance. Sigh. Well, at least I have Olivier and Brett.
I’ve been reading more YA books than usual lately and am noticing a lot of literary heroines are falling into this “trope” — the feisty, angry, independent heroine who is assertive, defiant, goes against the grain, or beats people up. Which is fine in books where it suits the story — but it’s also just as boring to read about that girl ALL THE TIME as it is to read about a meek one ALL THE TIME. Give me a timid, fearful heroine once in awhile! Or one ruled by duty! Variety! I want variety!
You might enjoy this Rebecca since I know you like the cast; and yes, he does brood (and pout and accuse his unnamed wife of wanting to cheat on him), but overall, it felt… less full of life than the originals, because they wanted us to like them all more, I think. But liking them isn’t the point. We’re supposed to feel a moral dilemma about him getting away with murder, and her covering it up because she can’t stand the thought of losing him.
Yeah, we all have to be Katniss Everdeen now, according to YA authors. Variety is passe, or something?
And I do want to see this version, still, simply for Armie Hammer and Lily James. It’s true. I don’t have Netflix, though, so who knows if I ever will???? And yes, the moral dilemma and having to live with what they both know is the whole point, so… sigh.
Netflix might have a free trial. You could sign up for it, watch everything you wanted to in a week, and then cancel it.
Last I checked, they had discontinued their free trials, and that was right before Rebecca bowed, grrrr. Maybe they’ve reinstated them. Maybe, once my book is done and released, I’ll do a free trial and watch a bunch of stuff while I’m taking a break between books.
Huh, they did away with their free trials? That’s a drag. Watching on one screen for a month is only $9.99, so you could give yourself a month of Netflix once you finish your book to celebrate.
I agree that today’s filmmakers are far too inclined to “update” and modernize characters until they no longer make sense within the framework of the story. And I do feel this is the biggest issue with the 2022 Persuasion. When I see Dakota Johnson’s Anne, I no longer believe THIS character would make THESE choices… the choices it is absolutely necessary for her to make for the plot to work.
There’s even a line in the new movie where Wentworth tells Anne, “You’ve never had a problem speaking up for yourself.” Ummmmmmm, YES, SHE DID, that’s the entire point of the novel!!!
The movie can’t have it both ways. They can’t have an Anne who was always free-spirited and independent and snarky and confident, and an Anne who was so terrified to go against social convention and familial authority that she threw away what could easily have been her only chance at happiness without a murmur.
@iamcharlesbakerharris I couldn’t agree more, and I like what Charity has touched on in this article. It’s almost as if the beats of a woman’s character when she is quiet, unwordly and passive are uninteresting, like throwing away your only chance of happiness due to societal pressures is not rich for psychological and emotional complexity. It IS. But it requires skill, subtlety, sensitivity, and a storyteller’s touch to tease out. The gains are not as easy or bombastic as some fourth-wall breaking snark. You need real talent. Which is not the same as a script designed primarily to generate tweets.
I think there’s an idea that modern women want modern heroines, which is to say strong feminists — when in reality, a great many women are passive, quiet, introverted, cannot go against what others want from them, and struggle to stand up for themselves. This hasn’t changed, and to ignore them as a heroine is to ignore a huge chunk of the female population and give them the idea that their story is a “dull” one.
I think Persuasion is a very inward book, and it would be hard to do it right on-screen without having a narrator; without one, the actress just has to display a shift in her body language and boldness, and most of them can’t carry it. Rather like Lily James being too charismatic of of an actress to be believable as a mousy, nameless heroine.
I guess not? Although that would sum up my life in a nutshell. Snarky, sarcastic, and opinionated, but someone who stays home, does what her parents want, and let them talk me out of friendships in the past…
I would be fine with a voiceover narrator, if done right; but Dakota Johnson constantly talking to the camera really irritated me. As well as seeming completely out of character with the Anne of the novel.
Ha! Well, I did think Anne in the book is an Enneagram 6, like you, but she’s not snarky or opinionated, and she’s far more cautious, circumspect, and fearful of the judgment and opinions of others than the character Dakota Johnson is playing.
Which is the whole problem, for me, this movie just… didn’t want to portray the original character, so they didn’t try.
If it hadn’t been Persuasion and her name hadn’t been Anne, would you have enjoyed it as a quirky Regency romp?
If they had written their own original story which bore no resemblance to Persuasion and then cast Dakota Johnson as the lead–then perhaps 😉
Although I wish they would have dialed back on the fourth-wall breaking, regardless of whether it was intended to be Persuasion or not. That really rubbed me wrong.
I watched it again last night and still loved it. For me, breaking the fourth wall made it feel as if Anne was my best friend and confiding in me, so I was super emotional and happy for her when she got Wentworth’s letter and realized he still loved her. It was far more effective for me than just ‘watching’ events like all the other adaptations.
Well, I am glad you enjoyed it. ❤
We do often have very different reactions to things, so it's not too surprising 😉