A month greeted with mixed emotions by many. For those in colder climes, the end of the festive season is hard to deal with. Months of bitterly cold weather lie ahead, with little to provide cheer, except perhaps a flash of red lanterns for Chinese New Year. Leaving the weather aside, I love this time of year. The first Mark Dewar novel was published in the month of January and so this time of year will now always be filled with that memory for me. But what I really enjoy about January is that it marks the start of awards season fever. To celebrate this, and to try and spread a little glitz and glamour across a dark and cold winter, I’d like to devote the next four posts to a single theme. I will focus on four different stories, that all share the same common bond. They were originally all novels, they all have a crime element to their plot, and their film adaptations all won Academy Awards for Best Picture. I’d like to start with the incomparable Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier.
Since its publication in 1938 Rebecca has never been out of print. Its first film adaptation won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1940. It was produced by David O. Selznick, who was fresh from major success with Gone With The Wind, and it was directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It is, staggeringly, the only Oscar-winning film Hitchcock made and both it and the novel on which it was based, are outstanding. Here is how Daphne du Maurier described the story in her own notes.
Very roughly, the book will be about the influence of a first wife on a second, until wife 2 is haunted day and night… a tragedy is looming very close and crash! Bang! Something happens.
Well, a little more than something happens actually. What du Maurier did was to capture the pervading sense of pre-war catastrophe and intersperse it with the rich grandeur and glamour of life in the country. Life, no less, at Manderley, the iconic setting for the novel and the source of its oft-quoted opening line. It is a masterpiece of storytelling and many aspects of it were drawn from du Maurier’s own life. It is also, if you think about it, pure Hitchcock. An unseen title character in the form of a dead wife (Rebecca), a nervous, overshadowed and intensely vulnerable marital successor (the second Mrs de Winter), a coldhearted housekeeper (Mrs Danvers) and a seemingly perfect yet strangely aloof male lead (Maxim de Winter). It fits into so many genres, from gothic romance to psychological thriller that you can see why Hitchcock was drawn to it. But he must have been intensely frustrated that the Motion Picture Production Code that governed Hollywood at the time forced him to change one crucial element of du Maurier’s plot. I won’t spoil it for you in case you either haven’t read it or seen it, but the two endings deal with Rebecca’s death in very different ways. However, that doesn’t detract from the performances of Laurence Olivier (as Maxim de Winter) and Joan Fontaine (as the second Mrs de Winter) which brighten up the very darkest winter’s day.
Daphne du Maurier, it is alleged, always hated the book being described as a romantic novel. To her, the story was about hatred and jealousy and this is where her own life provided the main inspiration. In an interview last year her son, Kits Browning, himself now 72, revealed that du Maurier was always intensely jealous of her husband’s first fiancée, Jan Ricardo and was driven to distraction by the way she wrote the letter R in her surname. Ricardo later took her own life and depending on when your own copy of the novel was printed you can see this same letter R replicated on the front cover. In the copy I have open on the desk in front of me it has a flourish, and makes the other letters look small and insignificant. That single letter contains the roots of du Maurier’s inspiration and according to her son, she was always deeply concerned that her husband still carried a torch for Jan Ricardo, even after she had committed suicide.
Both the novel and the film are genuine classics and are the perfect opening to our awards season series of blogs. The novel was 75 years old last summer. It still sells 4,000 copies a month.