WYLER’S WUTHERING HEIGHTS
The assertion that a film fails to represent a book or doesn’t do it justice is not a new one and is common, especially when a production purports to accurately portray literary provenance. The process of embellishment or the reimagining of character or plot from canonized literature often leads to a faux representation that viewers accept as a true rendering of the author’s work, when in reality nothing could be further from the truth. Invariably a director will apply his own interpretation to that which doesn’t require gilding. Although we’ve come to regard film as art we must not delude ourselves that they – just as novels – are written for a market in the hope of profit and not just for aesthetic purposes. Although this may sound cynical let us consider how often we’re regaled with box office receipt figures rather than accounts of artistic merit and directorial accomplishment. Such is the case with the 1939 production of “Wuthering Heights” which although can be forgiven for its technical failings due to its contemporaneous – although surprisingly award winning – cinematic ability, we cannot so easily dismiss the license that was taken by Wyler with Bronte’s novel. The film although claiming to a be “a faithful adaptation” by the New York Times reviewer Frank Nugent is nothing more than a romantic period-piece designed to elicit the most bums-on-seats in order to garner the greatest profit for Sam Goldwyn. Anybody who has read the novel will recognize instantly the flaws in the film and will undoubtedly register a deep dissatisfaction after viewing it.
“Wuthering Heights” although it contains a love story is anything but and instead is a novel of agonizing desperation, revenge and societal machination; the microcosm of a small community who represent the hegemonic traits of larger class culture. Its principal characters are of course flawed and rather than accepting that which will bring them eternal happiness are instead bent on self-aggrandizement and the destruction of those perceived to have done them wrong. The rub of course and the denouement, is the realization that which they have lost was not the fault of others but theirs alone. The character of Heathcliff as we read him in the novel and the visualization of the character in the film are worlds apart and although sharing certain traits are conspicuously different; that which we discover through the mind’s eye thanks to Bronte’s writing is manifestly absent in the visual rendering.
Heathcliff is played by Lawrence Olivier who unfortunately lacks the grit and grime one would associate with such a robust character. In recent years in other productions of the story the character has been played by men more fitting to the role; one thinks of Tom Hardy’s 2009 portrayal which was far more realistic in terms of Bronte’s descriptions. In clipped English tones “Larry” – contrary to the uneducated stable boy Bronte describes – becomes that which he accuses Linton of being; a “whimpering milk sop.” In the film it’s the “pasty faced” Linton (David Niven) who initially seems to portray a man of substance and not Heathcliff and of – continuing in the tradition of class hegemony; at least in the beginning of the film – possessing inner strength.
Bronte paints Heathcliff as an enduring soul, one who despite his once elevated position under the care of old Mr. Earnshaw submits to the despotic behavior of Hindley. He isn’t the self-reflecting, submissive stable hand that Wyler portrays, but a survivor who chooses his own destiny and eventually succeeds in his plan to destroy all who’ve treated him ill. The scene where Heathcliff slaps Cathy is plagiarized from the one in the novel where he attacks Linton when he first meets him as a boy. Successively we’re reminded in the novel how weak Linton is and yet the director chooses to reverse character stereotypes. Perhaps this was done in order to garner sympathy for the leading man who – despite which ever camera angle is chosen – has the cleanest, most carefully manicured hands of any stable hand!
For obvious run reasons the director chooses not to show the adolescence of the characters but instead portrays them as young adults. The first meetings between Linton, Heathcliff and Cathy occur originally when they’re children. The illusions of grandeur that Cathy decides to adopt are slowly ingrained into her over the years through the obvious wealth and kindness of the residents of Thrushcross and therefore the fabrication of the ball earlier in the film is merely an expedient. Perhaps a similar simulation of time passing as utilized in “Citizen Cain” would have been more expedient, as the viewer is left struggling to construct a realistic time frame between one incident and another. Here the characters lose significant depth as it’s the experiences they have as children that cement the animosity – particularly in Heathcliff – of their adult years.
The continuous portrayal of Heathcliff and Cathy at Penniston Crag are also beyond the scope of the novel as are their surreal declarations of love. In the novel the relationship is understated to the point where Cathy first expresses her love of Heathcliff to Nelly and not the boy. Again this lends a simpering edge to Heathcliff that is incomparable and completely out of character. Further, Heathcliff’s confession that he tried to escape to America, but instead jumped overboard, is a complete fabrication and deliberately puts the power of the relationship – in the tradition of fin ‘amors – in the hands of Cathy. When Heathcliff leaves the house he disappears into the night to mysteriously return a changed man. There are no thoughts of Cathy in his head only those of revenge. The director turns Heathcliff into an indecisive, when in the novel he proves to be a man of action and self-determination.
“Wuthering Heights” to my mind and also comparable to the writing of its author, is a mean, austere bastioned, stone building that was built to endure the inclement weather of the moors. Instead it’s revealed by the director to be a clean, well lit, orderly home. In my own imagination I envision the rooms as cramped, the house to be in disorder and in general disarray. There’s no impression of a Yorkshire farm house and instead one is cheated of imaginary creation with what is obviously a film set. Contemporary sets, thanks to the shrinkage of technology and the ability to utilize existing locations, offer a more realistic experience to the viewer. Bronte does a fantastic job of visualization in her descriptions and to have read the book and to have visited her location – if only in the mind – was far more satisfying than the faux décor of a Hollywood stage.
Everything in the movie is extraordinarily clean, from the hands of the stable boy to the farm yards themselves. Even the skies above the moor are of a perfect hue offering a surreal experience to the viewer. Rather than the claustrophobia of inclement weather, the sun ridden grasslands of northern England seem boundless juxtaposing the lives of its inhabitants – particularly within the four walls of “Wuthering Heights”- which are rather more limited. Although a willing suspension of belief is necessary to enjoy most films, the advent of realism with the popularity of color film has allowed a director to more accurately portray his own artistic vision. The choice to shoot the movie in black and white was not necessarily a good one as the portrayal of the countryside in color would have added to the depth of the movie. Instead the falling action is over shadowed; creating a shallow and lifeless environment populated by wooden figures. What was also noticeable was the attire of the actors who appear to be dressed in anti-bellum American clothes instead of the more traditional flat-capped country attire of a nineteenth century rural environment.
Because the director has chosen to make the character of Heathcliff weaker than his literary contemporary we are constantly put in a position where we can observe his inner turmoil; to perhaps understand the emotional man behind the perceived rough exterior. In particular the stable scene where Heathcliff thrusts his hands through the window in frustration is particularly poignant. Almost revisiting the sickness of Catherine at Thrushcross, Heathcliff throws himself on to a bed of straw in a dirty old stable, mirroring the frustration of his unrequited love. Rather than a man of fortitude we discover a character that has more in common with Bronte’s Linton than Wyler’s leading man. This scene of pathos fails to garner our sympathy but rather, compounds the obvious weakness of the character and showcases the sickness of love.
In all the movie fails to replicate the written word and would leave any ardent follower of Bronte disappointed and unsatisfied. Even taken outside of the novel, the story line is weak and the characters tin-cut. That it is of any worth at all is as an example in the progression of film history and the diverse representations the novel has endured through the decades. If the story of Heathcliff was based only on Wyler’s movie then he would have been nothing more than a disposable love interest and not the giant of literary history that he is. Written as a Byronic hero, Heathcliff stands head and shoulders above an ill-chosen, ill dressed, poorly accented cast, in what was clearly a studio production of a made for profit motion picture.