Wuthering Heights

Film productions based on the novel by Emily Brontė:

Wuthering Heights (1939)
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Director William Wyler; writers Charles MacArthur, Ben Hecht, John Huston; featuring Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, David Niven, Geraldine Fitzgerald

Emily Brontė's Wuthering Heights (1992)
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Also called Wuthering Heights
Director Pewter Kosminsky; writer Anne Devlin; featuring Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Janet McTeer, Jeremy Northam

Wuthering Heights

COMMENTARY | MOVIES

Wuthering Heights (1939) scene

Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon are tragic lovers Heathcliffe and Catherine in 1939's Wuthering Heights.

Heights of passion onscreen

Here's the pattern.

In the early days of Hollywood, classic novels are adapted for grandiose entertainments that change the stories, characters and even themes. Then in more recent times they are redone in grittier styles, purporting to be more faithful to the authors' original visions. Often the latter unctuously carry the author's name in the film title: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Bram Stoker's Dracula, William Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice—as if to say, "Forget what came before, here's the authentic work as the author intended", although the boast is never fully justified.

The history of Emily Brontė's wildly passionate novel Wuthering Heights on screen follows this pattern—with a surprising twist.

The melodramatic heights

The first black-and-white version of Wuthering Heights is considered one of those great films that came out in the incredible year of 1939—along with The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Ninotchka, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Destry Rides Again, and Stagecoach. All of which are better than Wuthering Heights in my opinion, although the Brontė film held its own at the box office—and at the Academy Awards, with eight nominations and one win.

On the plus side, Wuthering Heights has Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff. A fine smoulderer, he is too. Also on the plus side, the film cuts out most of the latter events of the novel. It never gets to the third generation of Earnshaws, Lintons and Heathcliffs because it climaxes (and re-climaxes) with the fateful ends of Catherine and Heathcliff, without any mention of offspring. That's okay, since the entanglement of the kids in the novel seems just excessive dwelling on the same issues again.

On the negative side, Wuthering Heights has Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff. It's hard to imagine him growing from the dark-skinned gypsy boy he was supposed to be near the film's beginning. He is too clean and cultured to be continually scorned as the filthy stable boy.

He is more believable however as the sophisticated but cruel Heathcliff of the second half of the film.

And Merle Oberon—why does Heathcliff go for her Cathy? As a youngster, Cathy (played by a child actor) is vivacious, fresh, lovable. As an adult she's flighty, stuck up, and uninteresting. I don't see the romantic sparks between her and Olivier that others rhapsodize over—just a lot of melodramatic overacting. I just wish he'd give her up.

But he doesn't of course. The pagan connection between the two of them in the novel is just a lot of over-wrought emotionalism in the movie, culminating in the long, drawn-out death scene. It's topped however with Hollywood's biggest cliché for giving any tragic story a happy ending: the spirits of the two leads walking off together into the distance.

Something else that bothers me is that Thrushcross Grange (belonging to David Niven in a hapless role as the emotionally cuckolded Linton) looks from the inside like every other mansion in movies of the time: cavernous, white rooms with Romanesque pillars, sweeping stairways and twenty-foot ceilings—way too spacious to fit in a house of English provincial gentry in the 1700s. Rather a minor point, admittedly, but another indication of how Hollywood sugar-coated everything. The whole film is just too bright and airy for Brontė's dark and cramped tale.

The biggest difference readers may notice however may be how the story is told. The novel's narration from multiple perspectives is reduced in the flick to one long story told by the housekeeper in chronological order. A probably necessary and admirable measure to make it accessible for the general public in 1939, but it does reduce the mystery that comes with Brontė's fragmented unfolding of the tale.

— Eric

COMMENTARY | MOVIES

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Wuthering Heights
(1939, DVD)
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Related:

Novels
Wuthering Heighs

Author
Emily Brontė

Novel
Jane Eyre

Movies
Jane Eyre

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Wuthering Heights
Get at Amazon: USCanUK

missing graphic
Jane Eyre
Get at Amazon: USCanUK

missing graphic
Jane Eyre
(1943, DVD)
Get at Amazon: USCanUK