When one considers the 1847 novel Wuthering Heights, written by Emily Brontë, and the 1939 film adaptation directed by William Wyler, there are several comparisons and contrasts that deserve mentioning.
In their adaptation of Brontë's novel, the film makers faced several challenges when creating the sets and sound effects. Because the film was produced in the late 1930s, it is understandable that the special effects used would be on par with today's. Even given time of the film's production, however, many of the sets are rather lame. The rock face where Cathy (Sarita Wooton/Merle Oberon) and Heathcliff (Rex Downing/Laurence Olivier) meet looks like a stack of cardboard boxes. All of the indoor scenes seem to take place in one room. The skies are obviously painted backdrops, creating fake environments that ultimately hinder such great scenes as Cathy's death. To the film makers' credit, they do an excellent job of recreating some of the novel's intensity through the use of leitmotifs and horrific storms.
Considering he had to work with black and white film, Wyler does a great job dealing with color contrasts. The novel is very descriptive and emphasizes the thoughts of each character as well as the atmosphere and surrounding environment. Wyler effectively strays from mid-tone colors and successfully achieves maximum clarity of detail with the use of dark darks and light lights. This impressive control of color is also obsessively used in costume design. Every character appears just as I had imagined while reading the novel; however, this is not to say that each behaves the same.
In the novel, Hindley's character is introduced as an overconfident, selfish child, and then the novel slowly lets him evolve into a coward later in life. Wyler presents Hindley as a child (Douglas Scott) for just a moment, and then quickly flashes to the present where the audience is surprised to witness the wasted shell of a man that the adult Hindley (Hugh Williams) has become. However, Hindley's character is not nearly as important to the overall plot as Heathcliff and Cathy.
Brontë portrays Heathcliff as a hot-tempered, husky farm boy who is psychotically obsessed with Cathy. His obsession is so intense, the reader becomes empathetic to his thirst for her love and affection. The movie acknowledges this intensity, and also recognizes the fact that an intensity as strong as this would be nearly impossible to convincingly convey on film. A Heathcliff true to Brontë's novel would have frightened viewers and hindered any emotional ties the audience might have developed with the character. Wyler dulls Heathcliff's aggression to the benefit of the film.
In the novel, Cathy seems much more stable and reassured. In the film, Cathy consistently appears more fragile and slightly crazed, though this could be largely attributed to the casting and Merle Oberon's performance. Some characters, however, go completely undeveloped.
Wyler fails to show us more than a glimpse of Cathy's, Heathcliff's, and Hindley's coming of age. In the film, the characters lack some of the knowledge of past events they express in the novel. The character Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald) is also underdeveloped in the film. This is mostly because Isabella relates so many thoughts in the novel that it would be difficult to completely relay her internal dialogue on film. The last notable set of underdeveloped characters are the children. The film focuses completely on Heathcliff and Cathy by the end, but fails to consider the importance of their children to the overall plot. The children are what bring the story full circle. Without the children, how can one justify their love?