A Diamond in the Rough

     Some people may argue that the 1939 film version of Emily Brontė's 1847 novel Wuthering Heights is so far removed from the author's original characterization that it is wrong for it to carry the same title as the book. The movie version does say "based on Emily Brontė's novel Wuthering Heights," and I think that justifies the vast differences between the two. Keeping this in mind, I realized that the movie version has not necessarily changed the characterization of Heathcliff; it more or less shows us different aspects of him. Just as a diamond has many facets, so does the heart and spirit of Heathcliff. This movie is still the story of Heathcliff and Catherine's love; it is simply showing us different aspects of some of those facets. It is a different view of Heathcliff, which is fed by the lack of affection he experienced as a child. He continued to experience this, at least to some degree, when he came to Wuthering Heights. When one puts the movie and novel together, one can get a better view of what motivates his vengeance and the reasons he has become callous as he grows older.

     In both versions Heathcliff was abandoned as a child and Mr. Earnshaw brought him to Wuthering Heights. Yet in the movie Mr. Earnshaw (Cecil Kellaway) says to Dr. Kenneth (Donald Crisp) that he had spent two pounds trying to find out who "its owner was." This kind of talk probably was not new to Heathcliff (Rex Downing). He is afraid of Mr. Earnshaw at first, and rightly so; he referred to him as an object, something to be possessed, as opposed to a person, or an abandoned child. While Mr. Earnshaw was a kind and generous man, phrases like the one above probably were heard by Heathcliff more than once. Most of us would feel out of place, confused or even less loved if talked about this way by our families at such a young age. Even more so, if the others had caught on to this view of taking Heathcliff in because it was the "right thing to do," that would explain where some of their cruelty towards him may have stemmed. Also, if he was truly considered to be family, why was not he even addressed as Heathcliff Earnshaw? The fact that he lived his life with no last name probably affected his sense of self-worth.

     In the movie, almost everyone that Heathcliff encounters and everyone he lives with is either constantly cruel to him or makes snide remarks about him every once in a while, including Catherine. He is treated like an outcast; and, after Mr. Earnshaw dies, Heathcliff (now played by Laurence Olivier) is referred to as a stable boy--a mere servant in his own home. Even Joseph (Leo G. Carroll in the movie), who professes to be a good Christian, treats him as if he is no more than a hired hand and a nuisance. The cruelty he encounters seems to justify, at least to some degree, the Heathcliff we see in Emily Brontė's novel.

     Catherine (Sarita Wooten/Merle Oberton) seems to be his friend as they are growing up, yet she is torn between loving him and the world of luxuries which includes "dancing and singing in a pretty world" and beautiful satin gowns. The movie clearly shows the way she battles with these views of herself and her life to the point that it destroys her and Heathcliff's view of compassion for others. Heathcliff wanted to please her; more than anything he wanted to fulfill her wishes of being whisked away to a "castle" where the two of them would live "happily ever after." When Heathcliff leaves Wuthering Heights, it is not out of selfishness; he wants to make something of himself mostly because he wants to make her happy. He is crushed by the Catherine he encounters when he returns rich, well dressed and more intelligent. She merely pushes him away. He spent years trying to truly win from her what she viewed as love, only to be rejected by her callous views of who he had been, a "poor gypsy beggar. "

     Whether he truly loved Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald) or not remains to be decided by the audience. The revenge he got by marrying her stemmed partly from Catherine still rejecting him yet being strongly opposed to him marrying someone else. There is no solid proof that he would be abusive and cruel to anyone he married. Under these circumstances it held true because marrying Isabella was his way of avenging the pain Catherine had caused him. Unfortunately, Heathcliff could not truly get to Catherine until the very end of her life, and at that point he is in emotional turmoil due to losing years of being with her--years of not being able to love her due to her own fairy tale views of what she wanted her life to be. This is the heartache he had lived with until the day he died.

     In the late 1930s a true-to-the book movie such as Wuthering Heights would not be accepted. William Wyler could have directed it magnificently, but audiences would probably loathe or reject it. What is the sense in making a movie that people will not see? I think William Wyler took a nineteenth-century novel which was highly controversial and made it into a 1930s version that many people would enjoy watching. Approximately one hundred and fifty years after Emily Brontė's story, society is more ready to accept and listen to what she has to say. Today, a mini-series would be a perfect way to bring Miss Brontė's characters to life as they were created. Yet, the audience could still argue about the characterization, especially of Heathcliff. There are gaps that one is left to fill in for one's self. Truly great literature leaves the audience contemplating unanswered questions; this is what makes a literary work immortal and timeless to people of different lifestyles, social classes, and time periods. Characterization is an immensely complex task for any good novel, and the many aspects of Heathcliff are like the facets of a half polished diamond, numerous and slightly undefined. It could take many more years to truly uncover the beauty and the tragedy that lived and died inside of Heathcliff.

Lisa Manners

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