WUTHERING HEIGHTS IS THE ONLY NOVEL by Emily Brontë, who died in 1848 at age thirty. It has been adapted for the movies nine times (1920, 1939, 1954, 1970, 1985, 1988, 1992, 1998, 2011) and for television at least four times. Bernard Herrmann wrote an opera based on it.
Its theme: deny the heart at your peril.
Wuthering Heights is a difficult read, with two narrators, a tricky timeline, and complicated family relationships. Brontë buries plot points deep within long paragraphs.
It plays like an operatic tragedy. This is the story:
Cathy and Heathcliff have known since childhood that they are soul companions. However, at around age twenty Cathy decides to marry Edgar Linton. He is wealthy, handsome, intelligent, and kind, and he is smitten with her. She believes she can marry Edgar and continue to love Heathcliff. Really.
Ellen, a young woman who is both family servant and friend, subjects Cathy to a “catechism of love.” Cathy breaks down and admits that the marriage would be a mistake.
She marries Edgar anyway.
Cathy dies shortly after giving birth to her and Edgar’s daughter. Edgar’s sister, Isabella, goes after Heathcliff in the long tradition of nice girls throwing themselves at bad boys. He detests her. One of the first things he does is hang her pet dog from the garden gate (Ellen cuts the dog down before it dies).
He marries Isabella anyway.
Isabella wises up fast, flees from him, gives birth to their son, and dies a few years later. Heathcliff, embittered by the great unresolved passion in his life, becomes a monster. He is abusive to his son and cruel to Cathy’s daughter. He is tormented by memories of Cathy and visions of her ghost. Eventually he stops eating and dies.
Passionate, brutal, and darkly mystical—those are some words for Brontë’s novel. It has a fourth quality not always associated with the first three: it is very smart. Emily Brontë obviously was the sort of person who could walk into a room and see straight through everyone in it. She did not keep quiet about what she saw.
The 1939 Movie
William Wyler’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS, with Laurence Oliver and Merle Oberon, is the distilled, purified essence of Brontë’s novel: romantic and beautiful even in tragedy. It has a happy ending that Wyler disowned.
Merle Oberon’s Cathy is passionate. However, it is impossible to imagine her getting into such a rage that her ears turn red, or ripping open a pillow with her teeth—though Brontë’s Cathy does both those things. Olivier’s Heathcliff is angry and tormented, but he is not a monster.
Never are viewers given cause to go out of sympathy with this pair.
The movie leaves out the children. Inconvenient children are often omitted in the translation from print to screen. (For example, GONE WITH THE WIND’s Scarlett O’Hara has three children in the book, but only one in the movie.) However, this omission removes a point Brontë thought important: how unresolved passion blights not only the present but the future (shades of CLOUD ATLAS there).
While browsing the WUTHERING HEIGHTS YouTube clips, I noticed that removing the dialogue punches up the movie’s power. Without words, it becomes more fiery, more like its source material.
Here is a video set to “My Immortal”:
Lindsay Edmunds blogs about robots, writing, life in southwestern Pennsylvania, and sometimes books and movies at Writer’s Rest. She is the author of a novel about love in the age of artificial intelligence: Cel & Anna.
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Your insightful comments made me long to reread the book. Though I enjoyed seeing Olivier and Oberon, I didn’t feel they were the Heathcliff and Cathy whom Bronte had created, and now I know why. Thanks for another great movie blog.
— Susan Dormady Eisenberg, author of THE VOICE I JUST HEARD
Olivier and Oberon are both stars, and in that way they are right for Cathy and Heathcliff. I have not seen any other movie/TV version of Wuthering Heights, but I am sure that actors unable to project star quality are not going to be up to the task of playing these larger-than-life characters.
I like these two short summaries ‘She marries Edgar anyway’ and ‘He marries Isabella anyway’ : call it fate or nature, but both Cathy and Heathcliff – just as, as you say, characters of Racine or the long tradition from which he came – clearly try to deny the truth, try to outrun the wind, outrun vengeance.
I wonder how much Emily’s poetry is read in comparison with Wuthering Heights, and whether there are shorter fragments of hers that might have made another novel. But I’m speculating, because I don’t know how young Enily died, only that sister Charlotte was around longer and could, for good or ill, curate her sisters’ and her memory, just as she ‘massaged’ what was available to Mrs Gaskill’s biography (though Mrs G. carefully kept secrets, too).
Right about the time I was thinking about this blog, I saw a documentary on the American Dust Bowl disaster of the 1930s, and a quote stuck with me: “We think that either we can control nature or that we can ignore nature. We can do neither.”
Hi, Lindsay–enjoyed your post. Wuthering Heights (the 1939 version) is one of my favorite movies. I actually think the ending, while Hollywoodized (“They’ve only just begun to live!”) is true to the book, as in the novel there were people who thought they saw Heathcliff walking about with a woman after his death. So maybe he was eternally wandering the moors with Cathy by his side!
BTW, I think no one could be a more perfect Heathcliff than the young Olivier. “I cannot live without my life. I cannot die without my soul!” Sigh.
Trudy: Yes, thanks for mentioning that. The ending DID come from the book, though Bronte downplayed it. I don’t know what the story was behind Wyler disowning it.
That great speech of Olivier’s is almost verbatim from the book. He is an ideal Heathcliff.
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