Born in London but having spent most of her life in Cornwall, Daphne du Maurier is one of the most celebrated female authors of the 20th Century. Though wrongfully classed of a romantic novelist, du Maurier's atmospheric and moody thrillers, with common themes of grief, revenge and deception, translate to screen with cinematic ease.
One of du Maurier’s biggest fans from the world of cinema was master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock, having directed three films adapted from du Maurier’s stories; Jamaica Inn (1939), Rebecca (1940) and The Birds (1963) – which we will look at later. Hitchcock actually knew the family well, having worked with Daphne’s father, a leading actor-manager in London however it was others that required to rights to the films and persuaded him to direct thee features.
Jamaica Inn was the first of du Maurier’s novels adapted to big screen. Inspired by du Maurier’s stay at the real Jamaica Inn which still exists as a pub in the middle of Bodmin Moor, the story is a period set piece about a group of murderous wreckers who are after cargo. The story was brought to Hitchcock’s attention by co-producer and star of the film Charles Laughton who wished for Hitchcock to helm the project. The film marked to be Hitchcock’s most successful British picture, and also his last.
After finishing Jamaica Inn, Hitchcock moved to Hollywood to begin his contact with producer David O. Selznick, where he started his second du Maurier adaptation, Rebecca. Rebecca, the story of a new bride tormented by the memory of her new husband’s deceased first wife, is du Maurier’s most successful book. The novel was a best seller, has never gone out of print and was voted number 14 on a 2003 BBC poll of the nation’s best loved novel. Starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, Rebecca is also arguably Hitchcock’s most critically successful film picking up a Best Picture Oscar as well as Best Cinematography.
After the success of Rebecca, the rights to du Maurier’s works became hot property in Hollywood with Paramount requiring the rights to another Cornish set, period-piece Frenchman’s Creek (1944). The film, set during the mid-17th century, is about the romance between a French pirate and an aristocratic English woman. Yet again, Hollywood starlet Joan Fontaine plays the heroine, after being loaned to studio by David O. Selznick. The film's budget may seem a modest $3.6 million compared to today’s standards, however the lavish production was the most expensive in Paramount history up to that time.
Joan Fontaine was not the only Hollywood leading actress that was attracted to the stories of du Maurier. In a 1959, MGM and British production of du Maurier’s crime novel, The Scapegoat, Bette Davies stars alongside Alec Guinness. The Scapegoat also saw a more prominent role from du Maurier during production. Director Robert Hamer’s and producer Michael Balcon’s orginal choice for the role John Barratt was Cary Grant, but du Maurier insisted that Alec Guinness was cast on the ground that he reminded her of her father, Gerald du Maurier.
It wasn’t just du Maurier’s novels which were adapted successfully. Also releasing collections of stories, two of du Maurier’s short stories provided source material for two of the most acclaimed thriller in cinematic history; Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973).
Inspired by the true story of a Californian town waking up to find their streets covered with dead birds, Hitchcock hired screenwriter Evan Hunter to adapt du Maurier’s novella of similar themes, The Birds. Du Maurier’s story was originally set in her native Cornwall, and thought to be a metaphor for the air attacks in London during the Second World War, Hitchcock decided to change the setting to California and eliminate the anti-war subtext to appeal to American audiences and to up the horror element. Despite the controversies surrounding the film, it ended up being a critical and box office hit, with sales of du Maurier’s The Apple Tree (the collection which houses the story) soaring after the release of the film.
Though dealing with themes of grief and elements of the supernatural running throughout her writing career, it was never more explicitly or darkly dealt with than in her 1971 collection of novella’s Not After Midnight. The most well-known novella of the collection is Don’t Look Now, which was adapted in 1973 into a film directed by Nicholas Roeg. The films is starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland as a married couple who travel to Venice after the accidental death of their daughter. Whilst there, they are haunted by guilt and grief. Now regarded as a key work in horror cinema, the adaptation of Don’t Look Now marked du Maurier, finally, as much more than just a romance writer.
With a previous adaptation starring Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland in 1952, My Cousin Rachel is the first du Maurier adaptation to grace the cinema screen (no counting TV mini-series’s) since Don’t Look Now. With early critics indicating that the film captures the sexy but eerie atmosphere of the novel, My Cousin Rachel may be the newest film to join the league of great du Maurier adaptations.
Book your ticket to My Cousin Rachel here.