Anne Moorhouse dissects the pros and cons of adapting novels to screen, using the iconic Wuthering Heights as her prime example.
Guilty as charged: I confess, there is a certain, how do the French put it… ‘je ne sais quoi’ about television and film adaptations of novels. ‘Hits different’ as the youths of today chant on departing from the local Greggs, sausage rolls at the ready. I’ve indulged in as many historical dramas as much as the next lonesome history teacher out there, whiling away their Saturday evenings. However, Samuel Goldwyn’s 1939 production of Emily Bronte’s acclaimed novel Wuthering Heights, while perhaps illuminating the director “at his best” (Frank S. Nugent), does not reveal Bronte “at hers”.
‘Twas a drizzly Tuesday when I simmered down to scour the depths of Britain’s beloved BBC iPlayer…dabbing a tear as I cast aside Colin, helplessly restraining from the ninth re-watch of Pride and Prejudice. Disappointed and somewhat surprised by the barren wasteland of options, I came across a full, albeit Portuguese, version (don’t get too excited, the English pulled through) of ‘Wuthering Heights’ on YouTube…
…The first musical chord strikes and is swiftly followed by the high lyrical hum of violins, inducing a strong feeling of comfort at the warm familiarity of old British cinema. A good start, I think…Ben, Jerry, tonight is the night. On first reading the novel, I imagined the initial narrator, Mr. Lockwood, to be a young, dashing traveller. This had been largely established through our later discovery of his attraction towards the character of young Cathy Linton, describing her face and eyes as “exquisite” and “irresistible”. However, what appears to be Goldwyn’s grandfather hobbles onto the set. Somewhat perturbed by the memory of these descriptions, now in conjunction with the face of an elderly man looking as if he needs a sit down rather than a set, I feel a sense of gratitude for having read the novel first. I forcefully invite you now to engage in some serious self-reflection and promise to yourself to always read the book first…unless you happen to be some poor unfortunate soul deprived of imagination, in which case, the casting for Lockwood fits the bill nicely.
Too often have my ideas of the characters and settings in novels been warped, nay, irrevocably polluted by the faces of actors and stage sets. A large part of the enjoyment I take from a novel is allowing my imagination to be carried off by the vibrant descriptions and vivid character profiles. Indeed, in this Gothic Romance, Bronte’s authentic depictions of the Yorkshire landscape, enriched by her own childhood experiences, lie close to the heart of its success as a novel for me. Despite its importance to the genre, one would not guess that the visual Gothic held any relevance to Goldwyn’s film. The chilling, eerie darkness that pervades the novel and intertwines with many of the characters themselves was about as present in the film as the character of Hareton Earnshaw…in other words, non-existent (correct, the film, as have many other adaptations, cut out the entirety of the second half of the book). Consequently, I would have to partially disagree with Linda Hutcheon in her assessment, “An adaptation is not vampiric: it does not draw the life-blood from its source and leave it dying or dead, nor is it paler than the adapted work”. While Goldwyn’s adaptation was by no means at all “dead”, it was rendered “paler” than the original text.
Largely stemming from the heavy romanticisation of the novel’s content, Goldwyn’s portrayal of Catherine Linton, played by Merle Oberon, poses the risk of obscuring Bronte’s original depiction of the novel’s heroine. While “it isn’t exactly a faithful transcription”, argues Nugent, “it is a faithful adaptation…which goes straight to the heart of the book.” That’s a no from me, pal. Eradicating half the plot is evidence enough against this claim. Lacking an authentic transcription of the original text is not necessarily problematic for film adaptations and is often required to retain a sense of flow. Goldwyn’s downfall in this regard is not the transcript, but a transmogrifying of Bronte’s work which would no doubt cause the old dear to roll over in her grave. Chapter 8 in the novel importantly establishes the soul-like bond and similarly violent tendencies of Catherine and Heathcliff. Catherine is described as “spitefully” pinching and slapping the housekeeper Nelly, abusing her young nephew Hareton and striking her husband-to-be Edgar Linton. Evidently, Goldwyn was having none of it. Catherine is presented as simply vocal, defending herself against Edgar’s provoking comments, and Heathcliff is the one to strike Catherine, slapping her face in with not one, but two whopping blows. The gender-role reversal here is detrimental to our impression of Bronte’s characters, in determining our sympathies, and in its presentation of women.
However, revered by Nugent as “one of the most distinguished pictures”, the film, when taken in isolation, is indeed commendable for its costume, lighting, cinematography and, above all, acting. Overall, Goldwyn deserves a large pat on the back for his casting choices, if not a substantial celebratory pint for his inclusion of Laurence Olivier…if I may be so bold. Starring as Heathcliff, Olivier earned his shining reputation from the 20th-century classics Spartacus, Hamlet, and Rebecca. Olivier’s near Shakespearean acting of the novel’s protagonist sends this otherwise black and white film blooming with colour. As a film, it is most certainly deserving of its eight Academy Awards.
One of the work’s critical moments is the scene in which Heathcliff runs to the window from which Lockwood claims to have heard the voice of Catherine Linton, Heathcliff’s “heart’s darling”. It is here that we obtain our first insight into the complexity of this character, his intense love for Catherine temporarily overriding the brooding, dark, and often malevolent self that he otherwise presents. Whilst Bronte paints a scene in which Heathcliff, overcome with heated emotion, faintly requests Lockwood to leave the room, Goldwyn conjures a far more dramatic and arguably more suitable rendition of the scene for cinematic purposes.
Manhandling supreme, the elderly Lockwood is sent flying at top speed from the room. However, the contrapuntal interplay of the two actors’ voices, followed by this dramatic display of force creates a far more effective crescendo of emotion and tension. The result is in an excellent delivery by Olivier of one of his character’s most important lines: “Cathy, do come! Oh do – once more! Oh! My heart’s darling! Hear me this time, Catherine, at last!” Not cutting it to send those tear ducts streaming? Not a problem sir. The mournful return of “Cathy’s Theme”, composed by Alfred Newman, to compliment the final scene in which Heathcliff is forced to bid farewell to the dying Catherine, the character who throughout has been developed as Heathcliff’s ‘other’, his very soul, will have every sucker sobbing. Yes, a tear or two was shed, a Kleenex or ten were drenched.
A touching ending indeed; the choir only just make it to that top A, ghost-like silhouettes of Catherine and Heathcliff are off on yet another walk to their favourite Cragg, and a quite frankly shattered looking Nelly (who can blame her really, she’s had a tough ride) sends all the fathers in the audience wailing with her last line “Goodbye Heathcliff. Goodbye my wild sweet Cathy.” You were close Nel, but not quite…so much for your earlier complaint in the book, “I own I did not like her after her infancy was past.” Despite somewhat neglecting the text, as a film, it is well crafted, highly enjoyable and I would recommend it. I would also promote the importance of film adaptations for broadening the awareness of fantastic novels such as this one. However, do not seek more than this awareness of the novel in watching this film. You will find yourself in an eye-socket wrenching situation of the most sensational embarrassment if you are found out in claiming to know the novel from what happens in the film. Easy solution – read the novel first!