I’ve wanted to see Wuthering Heights for a very long time. I’d heard about it and read about it and understood that it is one of those films that made 1939 the greatest year in film history. And because I like a good gothic tale (especially if it is a movie) I was predisposed to love the film.
So I was quite disappointed when I didn’t love it, though it had nothing to do with how the movie was made and everything to do with the story. It is a beautiful film, finely acted, but I could not view the film as a great romance, which seemed to be how the story was presented.
I have to admit here, however, that I have not yet read the book, so I cannot compare how well the movie follows Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel and don’t know if my difficulties with the story stem from her original book or from how it was adapted to film.
The movie is constructed as a flashback. A man named Lockwood (Miles Mander) has sought shelter at Wuthering Heights during a snowstorm and is told the story of the ghost who haunts the house and particularly haunts the master of the house, Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier). The story is told by Ellen (Flora Robson) who now serves Heathcliff, but used to serve the young lady who haunts the house, Cathy (Merle Oberon).
Before everything went to rack and ruin, she says, Wuthering Heights was a fine house that belonged to Mr. Earnshaw (Cecil Kellaway), who had two children, Hindley and Cathy. He goes to London and when he returns he has a small gypsy boy who was starving in London. Mr. Earnshaw calls him Heathcliff and he and Cathy treat him like one of the family, but Hindley resents him and when Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley becomes the master of the home and relegates Heathcliff to stable boy.
As they grow up, Heathcliff puts up with all sorts of ill treatment and refuses to leave so he can remain near Cathy. The two of them are like flower children of the moor, retreating to their place on the moor called Peniston Crag, which they call their castle. However, as Cathy grows into a woman she becomes more interested in fine clothes and their elegant neighbors, the Lintons, especially Edgar Linton (David Niven).
As Cathy finds herself attracted to the world of Edgar, Heathcliff grows angry, possessive, and even physical, evening hitting Cathy several times when she insults him as being hired help with dirty hands (this man is definitely the type that would kill his wife in a rage of jealousy). However, they both tell Ellen at separate times that they need each other, that they are essentially one person. But Cathy comes to this realization a little too late, when Heathcliff goes off to find his fortune (which is what Cathy had been urging him to do all along so that he could come back and take her away). Convinced that he’ll never return, Cathy marries Edgar.
Ellen tells Lockwood that Cathy managed to forge a happy life for herself, not exciting or grandly passionate, but a good one. However, Heathcliff comes back a very wealthy man and acquires Wuthering Heights from the alcoholic and disintegrating Hindley by buying up all his debts. He also still wants Cathy, but Edgar’s sister, Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald) falls in love with him and pursues Heathcliff. Cathy begs Heathcliff not to marry Isabella because she knows he does not love her, but Heathcliff imagines that in doing so it will be revenge on Cathy, because, I guess, she will be jealous that she is not married to him.
The marriage is a tragedy, Isabella is so desperate for Heathcliff’s love that she welcomes the news that Cathy is dying. Hindley continues to drink himself into an early grave and the doctor (Donald Crisp) can only look on while people he helped bring into the world self-destruct, with Heathcliff the self-destructor-in-chief.
If it had been presented as being about destructive love, than I might have enjoyed it more. I don’t mind having a character like Heathcliff; I just mind being told he’s our romantic lead. He’s a narcissistic, jealous, obsessive stalker. If the movie acknowledged that, I’d be fine. But he comes back, like the Count of Monte Cristo, fabulously wealthy to wreak revenge on all people who did him harm in the past. And he blames Cathy for having rejected him and she even agrees with him when she is on her deathbed.
Even his love is narcissistic. When Cathy dies at the end, he says that now she is his. He says that she broke his heart, she’s a part of him, he can’t live without her. And because no one else, apparently, has even a fraction of the feeling, love and passion that he has, those people don’t count. Heathcliff has no sense of personhood, that perhaps people exist apart from him with their own feelings, motivations and lives. He doesn’t even see Cathy as a real person who exists apart from him, but just someone who’s one with him, who rejected herself when she rejected him and instead chose Edgar and society over Heathcliff and the moor.
I watched the film with my sister, who has read the book, and she tells me that there are children in the book. Cathy and Edgar have a daughter, Hindley has a son and Heathcliff and Isabella have a son. Cathy apparently dies in the middle of the book and the rest is taken up quite prominently with Cathy’s daughter. My sister felt that with removing the children, it changed the story significantly. Now, the story is just about Heathcliff and Cathy and not about Heathcliff’s attempts to control and destroy the second-generation, and how, despite his attempts, the second generation does achieve a kind of redemption at the end.
According to the critic John Sutherland the 1939 movie is largely responsible for the romantic interpretation of the book and that people in Brontë’s time might not have been likely to see Cathy as haunting Heathcliff because she was waiting for him to join her, but because she was angry and didn’t want him to steal her daughter’s inheritance. Interestingly, the director William Wyler did not want to include the famous ending with the ghost of Heathcliff and Cathy walking off towards Peniston Crag (I guess so they can be perpetual flower children with their heather), which cements the film’s romantic status. It is a rather upbeat ending for a man who destroyed everyone else’s lives.
I’m ranting a bit. As I said, it’s really not a bad movie; I was simply frustrated. Perhaps I will be able to enjoy it more on a second viewing now that I have gotten my rant out of my system. I am really curious, though, to read the book and see how Brontë portrays Heathcliff. I have it coming now from the library!
Notes: The score by Alfred Newman is simply lovely and haunting, with his theme for Cathy being especially notable. Here is a link to the violinist Itzhak Perlam performing the theme with the Boston Pops Orchestra.
Olivier credited Wyler with showing him him how to adapt his acting style for the stage to that of the screen. He helped him tone down some of the expansiveness of his acting and also to get over his initial contempt for the movies, as opposed to the stage. Wyler thought that making movies was a wonderful art form and Olivier apparently came to agree with him.