The Jerks of Film and Literature

         Men are jerks. At least that seems to be the common theme in all the works of literature and in their various cinematic adaptations that we have read this semester. At least one, if not more than one, main male character has been portrayed as being somewhat of an ass.

         Heathcliff of Emily Brontë's 1847 Wuthering Heights, filmed in 1939 by William Wyler, is our first jerk. From the very beginning of the story Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) comes across as being a jerk. He is not very hospitable to Lockwood (Miles Mander) when he comes to see him and must stay at his house because of the storm. As we travel through the story we realize that something evil is growing in Heathcliff because he is out for vengeance and will not stop for anything.

         Dr. Sloper of Henry James's 1880 Washington Square, transformed into celluloid as The Heiress by William Wyler, is our second jerk of the semester. Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson) must share the "jerk spotlight" with Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) in this story though. Dr. Sloper is the first big jerk, because he really looks down on his daughter, Catherine (Olivia de Havilland). He thinks that she is a shame to her mother's elegance and beauty. Then there is Morris, who is really attracted to Catherine's money and not much else. He leads her on throughout this story because he is after the riches that her mother has already left her and her father is leaving her.

         Many people may not remember our next jerk. He is the unnamed uncle of the children in The Turn of the Screw, written in 1898 by Henry James, and turned into a film, The Innocents, in 1961 by Jack Clayton. First he charms the governess, named Miss Giddens in the movie, played by Deborah Kerr, into raising the children, Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin), after their other governess, Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), had died. Then the uncle blithely informs her that she is to take care of any problem that rises. She is in no way supposed to contact him for any reason. In fact, she is even afraid to contact him when she learns that young Miles has been kicked out of school. In fact, she never does try to contact him until near the end, when she writes him a letter, which Miles steals.

         Henry Higgins is by far my favorite jerk. He has a slight reason to be a jerk to Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, written in 1913 by George Bernard Shaw, turned into a movie in 1938 by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, and adapted into a musical play, My Fair Lady, in 1956 by Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe, filmed in 1964 by George Cukor. Higgins' (Leslie Howard/Rex Harrison) excuse is that he is a teacher. This does not give him the right to be a jerk, but it does somewhat justify the fact that he was a jerk. I do not think Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller/Audrey Hepburn) would have taken Henry all that serious if he had not been a jerk. If he had been Mr. Nice Guy, she would not have spoken or acted like a true lady in such little time.

         Torvald of Henrik Ibsen's 1879 A Doll's House, filmed twice in 1973 by Joseph Losey and Patrick Garland respectively, is a huge jerk to his wife, Nora (Jane Fonda/Claire Bloom), in the end. Good old Torvald (David Warner/Anthony Hopkins) is a hard worker who loves his wife; but, when he finally realizes that she had screwed up and almost ruined his reputation, she becomes nothing more than a stupid woman to him. He even asserts that she could not raise the children and that he is only going to keep her around so that the towns people would not think he was an ass.

         The last and undoubtedly the biggest jerk of them all is Stanley Kowalski of A Streetcar Named Desire, written in 1947 by Tennessee Williams and filmed in 1951 by Elia Kazan, who had directed the original stage production. Let us see: where shall I begin?--Stanley (Marlon Brando) fighting at the bowling alley, behaving badly when drunk, raping his sister-in-law, Blanche (Vivien Leigh), or beating his pregnant wife, Stella (Kim Hunter). There are many reasons to classify Stanley as "Jerk of the Semester."

         If I were a female taking this course, I might like it if I felt that guys were jerks, because this seems to be true in every story. As a male I am slightly offended, but I realize that it is somewhat true. I know we guys can be jerks, but some of us can be really sweet too.

James Smith

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