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.