• The third Modern Library version of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847)

    Wuthering Heights

  • Author:  Emily Bronte  (1818-1848)
  • Rank:  #93
  • Published:  1847
  • Publisher:  Thomas Cautley Newby
  • Pages:  315 (Bantam Classic)
  • First Line:  “1801 – I have just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with.”
  • Last Line:  “I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”
  • ML Edition:  #106 – 4 different dust jackets (1926, 1939, 1950, 1967)
  • Film:  1939  –  **** (dir. William Wyler)  /  1954  –  *** (Luis Buñuel)   – among numerous film versions
  • Read:  Fall, 1999

The Novel: “Whatever feelings are aroused in the read by Heights, whether sadness for the ill-matched lovers, irritability at Catherine’s petulant ways or even profound rage at how stupid Heathcliff’s victims can act as they meekly line up to abused, one thing is for sure: the evocation of a wild and windswept place that so well reflects the destructive passion of the two central characters is captured here brilliantly – and some would say, it has not been surpassed.”  The Well of Lost Plots (Jasper Fforde), p. 123

In Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, two of the main characters travel into Wuthering Heights for a rage counseling session.  They interact with the characters in much the same way that people have been interacting with them for 150 years.  They can’t understand a damn word that Joseph is saying, they must put up with the beastly way that Heathcliff treats everyone, deal with the fact that just about everyone in the novel would just as soon see Heathcliff dead and the fact that Catherine is loony in love for him in spite of all sense and reason.

That in some ways sums up Wuthering Heights.  My mother recently saw the Olivier film and it would seem that my sister has read the book and neither one of them can figure out what there is of value.  But in some ways there isn’t much of value other than the magnificent writing.  She was the middle sister in the great trio of writers and though there are thematic similarities between this and her older sister Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, the darkness rules over Emily’s story.  Charlotte’s Rochester is a distant, forbidding man whom Jane, and the audience, finally come to love.  Emily’s Heathcliff is a brute of a man, one who rules over everyone with an iron will.  Just look at the language evoked by his presence: “Ah, I thought, there will be no saving him – He’s doomed, and flies to his fate!”, or “I felt that God had forsaken the stray sheep there to its own wicked wanderings, and an evil beast prowled between it and the fold, waiting his time to spring and destroy.”  In the years since the 1939 film version there has been a view of Heathcliff as the great romantic hero (witness Michael Penn’s song “No Myth”: “What if I was Romeo in black jeans / What if I was Heathcliff, it’s no myth”), when in fact, he is one of the great dominating personalities in fiction.

Of course, as is so well pointed out in Fforde’s book, most of the characters despise Heathcliff and with good reason.  But Heathcliff is simply a character who will not allow himself to be beaten.  The second generation in the book (who are mostly cut out of film versions) have good reason to hate him for he is horrible and beastly to them, but they are suffering for the sins of their parents and Bronte does a beautiful job of setting the scene for the revenge that Heathcliff will eventually bring down upon the Earnshaws and the Lintons and, eventually, upon himself as well.  For we see, even at the beginning of the novel, the man reduced to an emotional ruin, crying in the empty room for the ghost to return.

tragic love in the novel becomes immortal on screen between Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in Wuthering Heights (1939)

The Film: “I was so disgusted with the Laurence Olivier Wuthering Heights.  It was such a soft-tummy thing.  I was so confounded that they could make a limp-wristed romance out of that great violent saga,” Jane Campion was quoted as saying in discussing Wuthering Heights as an influence on The Piano.  To me, there are two problems at play here.  The first is that Campion seems to have been taken in with Olivier’s performance and does not see the brute beneath.  The second is the “happy ending” forced on the film by Samuel Goldwyn over the objections of William Wyler.

There are indeed problems with the ending, an ending that does not work with the novel at all and only partially works with the rest of the film, giving a sort of immortal love together beyond death to Heathcliff and Cathy.  But perhaps that is the most fitting ending to this film.  And its fidelity to the book isn’t really all that important.  I review the film I see, not the film I wish they would have made.  This film is widely regarded as a classic, nominated for eight Oscars, including Picture, Director and Actor and it won Best Cinematography.  And it earned all of those nominations.  It is one of the best films from the big year in film history: 1939.  It includes the first great film performance of Laurence Olivier, so utterly believable as both the younger stable boy and the more finely dressed man returned to wreck his vengeance upon these two families.

It is a shame that they couldn’t have cast Vivien Leigh as Cathy (she wanted to play the part).  She’s so much a better actress than Merle Oberon.  But then perhaps Olivier wouldn’t have been as great, faced with someone he loved rather than someone he rather detested, could he have brought the full force of rage that lies just beneath Heathcliff’s surface at all times?  Certainly it wouldn’t have made a difference to all the other great aspects of the film, the cinematography, the art direction, the score, the direction.  Yet, Olivier’s performance is the heart and soul of this film.  So perhaps they made the best choice after all, both with the casting and with the ending.  The proof is in the results.