Heathcliff—Smooth Casa Nova or Vengeance-Seeking Scourge?

         Emily Brontë's 1847 novel Wuthering Heights has been depicted on the big screen at least twice: first in William Wyler's 1939 film of the same name and also in Spanish director Luis Buñuel's 1954 film Los Abismos de Pasion. Both are fairly good movies, but they display the character Heathcliff (Alejandro in Los Abismos de Pasion) quite differently. When comparing the two characters to Brontë's Heathcliff, one can easily see that Buñuel's Alejandro (as portrayed by Jorge Mistral) is certainly a more appropriate character than Wyler's Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier).

         In the novel Wuthering Heights, Catherine falls in love with Heathcliff at a young age. After Mr. Earnshaw's death, Hindley inherits the Wuthering Heights estate and makes Heathcliff a stable boy rather than an equal in the household. Heathcliff eventually runs away, and Catherine marries a rich but cowardly man by the name of Edgar. When Heathcliff returns as a rich man, he buys Hindley enough alcohol so that Hindley gambles away the estate. Eventually, Hindley owes Heathcliff so much money that Wuthering Heights becomes Heathcliff's estate. Also, after Heathcliff's return, Catherine becomes torn between her husband and Heathcliff. All of this happens in both films, but their similarities to each other ends there.

         Alejandro in Los Abismos de Pasion becomes vengeful. He marries Isabel (Lilia Prado) (Isabella in the novel) just to make Catalina (Catherine, played by Irasema Dilian) jealous, and then he treats his new wife very poorly. He demands that the house be quiet whenever he is around. He is abusive toward almost everybody around him, though more physically rather than mentally (as Brontë's Heathcliff was). This is especially so toward Ricardo (Hindley, played by Luis Aceves Castenada) who had made Alejandro a stable boy when he took over the estate. Ricardo kills Alejandro in the end, creating one major deviation from the book that was necessary in order to wrap up the movie. By contrast, the book has Hindley dying drunk at age twenty-seven, long before Heathcliff wills his own death to rejoin his Catherine.

         In Wyler's Wuthering Heights, on the other hand, Heathcliff becomes almost like Casa Nova. He does come back and take over the estate and marry Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald), but he at least acts halfway interested in her. However, he maintains an obvious and severely elaborated passion for Catherine. Yet, Wyler's Heathcliff does not act nearly as abusively and hatefully as either Alejandro or Brontë's version of him. The combination of these two facts is pretty good evidence that Wyler had never actually read the original novel, which he once admitted. While Wyler emphasizes the fact that Catherine simply would not marry Heathcliff because he was a poor stable boy (before he left), in doing so, he ultimately changed the essence of Heathcliff's character.

         Ultimately, in the creation of a film from a novel, changes are inevitably made. Yet, because of the severe differences between Wyler's version of Heathcliff and Buñuel's Alejandro make the character's personalities and attitudes almost as different as their names. Yet, even though Wyler's Heathcliff is still named Heathcliff, his Casa Nova-like version is very different from Brontë's Heathcliff. In the end, Buñuel's hateful, vengeance-filled Alejandro is a much better portrayal of Brontë's Heathcliff.

Brandon Hale

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