The Liberties of a Film Maker: Translating Literature into Film

         The 1847 novel Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë, has taken on many interpretations and more particularly interpretations by film makers. Hollywood's golden age studio production of Wuthering Heights (1939), directed by William Wyler, and the foreign analysis of Brontë's novel, Los Abismos de Pasion (1954), directed by Luis Buñuel, are two attempts to dramatize the written story. However, it seems that these film makers take liberties with the story not designed for improved transition from novel to film but based on personal interpretation.

         Wyler uses standard Hollywood conventions in his remake of the novel. Whimsical scenery, an over-scored soundtrack, lush black-and-white imagery and empowered performances become the basis for the emotional tension of the story. This leaves his film era-based, constrained to the period it was filmed in. Instead of reproducing the "timeless" feel of the novel, or even a period piece, Wyler's interpretation holds all the standards and clichés of the late 1930s.

         This becomes apparent when considering the film's ending in contrast to the novel. Despite the objection of Wyler, who refused to shoot the final scene, producer Samuel Goldwyn opted for the happy, fairy tale ending, in which the ghost-acted ghosts of Catherine and Heathcliff were ghost-directed as they walked hand in hand into the snowy mountains.

         Furthermore, many character interpretations seem biased and one-dimensional. For example, Heathcliff's (Laurence Olivier) obsession with Catherine (Merle Oberon) is intensified to the point of stalking, which degrades much of the emotion that was present in the book. Instead of the dual persona that Heathcliff possesses in the novel, he is portrayed in Wyler's film as a devoted, hopeless romantic.

         The Spanish interpretation, Los Abismos de Pasion, chooses not to commence with the childhood of Heathcliff and Catherine. Instead Buñuel begins with the two as their fully matured counterparts. This is not a problem with an audience well aware of the story already, but beginning without any back-story possibly leaves an unacquainted audience confused. This is a decision that the film maker made due to time constraints of the visual media or in order to explore certain themes throughout the film. Buñuel portrays the majority of characters as the novel does and tends to take some liberties with visually interpreting these characters. For instance, Ricardo (Luis Aceves Castaneda) is portrayed as Catalina's (Irasema Dilian) drunken brother in this film as opposed to the Wyler version. Buñuel uses this plot point to his advantage taking artistic license and creating Fellini-esque dream sequence concerning Ricardo and the demons that drive him.

         While both films could be argued as the better of the two, it should be apparent that each film maker's interpretation may hold flaws to the novel's essence. Overexaggerated performances tend to degrade the character development in the novel, and restrictions of Hollywood storytelling leave certain plot points on the editing room floor. However, just as every audience brings "baggage" to a film so do the film makers. This is not to say that either interpretation is invalid but only to illuminate the process and comparison of two attempts at redefining an already existent piece of art.

Adam Pitman

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