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. Not to forget Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, as the 1992 movie is sometimes known in the U.S.
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 Brontë 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. 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 Brontë's dark and cramped tale.
The biggest difference between the novel and the flick however may be how the story is told. The narration from multiple perspectives is reduced 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 Brontë's fragmented unfolding of the tale.
The 1992 movie keeps this narrative simplicity also, but has the story briefly introduced by Brontë herself (a cameo by singer Sinéad O'Connor). Otherwise this Wuthering Heights is very faithful to the novel. In fact, it's better than the novel.
For one thing, it has Ralph Fines as Heathcliff. He's perfect—as a young man a rough-hewn but sensitive character we can well imagine Cathy committing herself to protect and love forever, and as an older man the profoundly tormented individual who is turned into the chillingly cold villain. The transformation is believable, as are his occasional relapses into obsessive love behaviour.
The same goes for Juliette Binoche as Cathy. She too is mesmerizing, in a manner not expected of this actress, perhaps better known for more off-beat roles. In some ways her character is more difficult to portray, as she must vacillate between expressing the deep bond with Heathcliff and being attracted to the advantages of the aristocratic life that she and Heathcliff appear to disdain. And she pulls it off. In the scenes with Fines particularly, she's adorably compulsive watching. (The two actors would pair again a few years later in another romance, The English Patient, but not as each other's love interest.)
This version of Wuthering Heights does continue past Cathy's death and makes the next generation's events appear an integral part of the story. Using Binoche to play the younger Catherine however yields mixed results: she keeps reminding us (and Heathcliff, no doubt) of the late Cathy, which may be seen as either a good thing or a bad thing.
But overall this is a brilliant adaptation. A film that really deserves to be a "classic" if critics can get over the Olivier version that usually (and undeservedly) gets that honour.
It could even be renamed Better than Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights.
© Copyright 2007 Eric McMillan. All rights reserved.