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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Dingwell

The Byronic hero with a dark past is just a bad husband

Note: this post was originally published on Medium on Jan. 25, 2021.

Armie Hammer and Lily James in Ben Wheatley's Rebecca (2020).
Armie Hammer and Lily James in Ben Wheatley's Rebecca (2020).

By now, it’s no longer news that the 2020 film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca was a failure. Critics have said the film brings nothing new or special to the story, and they’re right. Additionally, though, audiences and readers are perhaps less likely to forgive a character like Maxim de Winter than they might have been in the past.

The titular character in Rebecca is Maxim’s late wife, who died under mysterious circumstances. If you don’t already know the story: Maxim eventually reveals that Rebecca was manipulative and unfaithful. He didn’t divorce Rebecca because it would be embarrassing for someone of his social standing. Instead, he shot her while believing she was pregnant.

Maxim isn’t an anomaly. He falls into the trope of the Byronic hero with a dark past. Edward Rochester from Jane Eyre is another example of such a character. Like de Winter, Rochester is the object of romance for the protagonist, despite his horrific actions and his hatred for his first wife.

A stack of old books.

Both gothic romances, the most recent adaptations of Rebecca and Jane Eyre were marketed with more of a horror slant. For instance, the trailer for Rebecca (2020) has a rushed, claustrophobic feeling like a dream turning into a nightmare. It even dropped on Netflix just before Halloween. This gave me — someone who had just read Rebecca — a bit of hope. I understand 1938 was a different time, but I couldn’t help feeling the premise was more terrifying than romantic. The unnamed narrator comes into his life a year later. “A widower proposes to a woman half his age after only knowing her for two weeks” sounds like it could be the intro to a true crime podcast. It doesn’t make sense to treat the story the way Alfred Hitchcock would have in 1940.

When I finally watched the film, though, I was disappointed. A little angry, even. Firstly, it glosses over Maxim’s cold attitude towards the narrator after their marriage, when they arrive at Manderley. It also throws the original, impactful ending out the window. While Maxim ultimately gets away with the murder (legally, at least) in all versions of the story, the novel ends with Manderley estate burning, presumably at the hands of an arsonist who knew the truth. Du Maurier leaves the reader to infer what happened next. The 2020 film continues the narrative from there and ends with Maxim and the narrator living in bliss in a far-off country.

One of the biggest issues with Rebecca (2020) is that it presumes that the audience will forgive Maxim de Winter as the narrator has, and therefore will be satisfied with its “happier” ending, strayed from the source material. Perhaps the Byronic hero with a dark past is just too hard to stomach when looking at him through a modern lens. As we head into 2021, it may be time for creators to give up on redeeming mysterious men who mistreat their wives. We should look at characters like Maxim and Rochester and see what they are: terrible husbands. Cruel or “mad” first wives don’t excuse them.

I’m not proposing we burn all of our gothic romance novels. I love these books, too, and they’ve no doubt fascinated generations of audiences. Spinoff such as Rebecca’s Tale by Sally Beauman and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys were written, and gained success, long after the publication of the original novels. I simply believe readers and audiences can — and should — be critical of the Byronic hero archetype today. These stories, at their core, are scary. I hope, too, that any director mulling over a Wuthering Heights remake will take Ben Wheatley’s mistakes to heart.

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