Screenplays are not like the novels they are based on. For one thing, screenplays need to be condensed so they can be made into movies. Another aspect is that novels have many thoughts that are hard to express in dialogue. Also, the mind usually creates a scene better than a producer does because the mind has no limits to what it can dream up. So what are some differences between the Wuthering Heights novel (written by Emily Brontë in 1847) and the screenplay (written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur in 1938 and filmed by William Wyler in 1939)?
First, several events are changed at the beginning of the screenplay. To start, the screenplay/film has Lockwood (Miles Mander) arriving at Wuthering Heights and seeing Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald), but in the novel he sees little Cathy sitting by the fire. Lockwood is also forced to stay overnight because he came on foot to Wuthering Heights, but in the book he rides there on a horse. A big difference is how the story is told--the screenplay has Ellen (Flora Robson) telling the story overnight at Wuthering Heights, but the novel has Ellen telling the story during Lockwood's sickness.
Do any of these changes affect the story?--not significantly. The screenplay/film is forced to show Isabella by the fire because it does not even mention little Cathy. Lockwood's transportation just affects the reason why he stays the night, having no relevance to the story. The way the story is told has an effect upon the story but does not change the story--Ellen still tells the story no matter how long it takes.
Some other changes deal with Heathcliff. First, there is a difference in the way Heathcliff is brought to Wuthering Heights. As the father, Mr. Earnshaw, comes home from a trip, he brings a little child he has adopted. In the screenplay/film, Hindley (Douglas Scott) gets a violin and a bow, while Cathy (Sarita Wooten) receives a whip for a horse. But in the novel, the children receive no gifts because of bad luck on the way home--the violin is broken, and the whip is lost. Also in the screenplay, Heathcliff (Rex Downing) gives Mr. Earnshaw (Cecil Kellaway) a hug after he is brought into his home; but in the novel, Heathcliff barely speaks a word and definitely does not give Mr. Earnshaw a hug.
These changes are minute as far as getting the story across to the viewer. Except for giving Hindley a reason for despising Heathcliff (Mr. Earnshaw loving Heathcliff more than Hindley), does it matter if the children get presents from their father? Does it matter if Heathcliff gives Mr. Earnshaw a hug? In the screenplay/film, the hug helps portray Heathcliff as a less cruel person; however, the novel shows that Heathcliff will be a cold and unloving individual
Next, in the screenplay, there are many events that are expounded. In the screenplay/film, Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) actually says to Cathy (Merle Oberon) that he is going to leave the country, but the novel keeps his location a mystery so that the reader's imagination can run wild. Next, the screenplay/film goes into great detail about Cathy and Edgar Linton's (David Niven) wedding; the novel barely mentions it. Also, the screenplay reveals Heathcliff was in America for a while, although the novel just reveals that he came back with wealth. Then the screenplay portrays Heathcliff as helping Hindley (Hugh Williams) by buying Wuthering Heights from him after he has acquired great debts, but the novel tells how Heathcliff "stole" the estate from Hindley by getting him drunk and gambling with him.
How much do these changes affect the storyline? The fact that Heathcliff leaves is very important but where he went is irrelevant. The fact that Edgar and Cathy get married is extremely vital to the story, but details about it are not very important. The fact that Heathcliff comes back wealthy is important because he has fulfilled the image that Cathy had of him, but how he made the money is not important. Also, the fact that Hindley lost the estate to Heathcliff is of great importance, but how it came about is not so important.
Lastly, the ending has some differences in the presentation of how the events happened. Because the screenplay/film must come to an end (unless a sequel will follow), it stops with Heathcliff's death, but the novel continues to show how Heathcliff and Cathy affected the next generation of Lintons and Earnshaws. Also, Heathcliff's demise is quite different. In the screenplay, Lockwood sees the ghost the night that he stays at Wuthering Heights. Later, we see Heathcliff rushing out to meet the ghost in the snow; then his body is found at the Crag covered in frost. The novel has Heathcliff being tormented by Cathy's spirit for weeks, slowly breaking down to the point that he just exists. Then he is found dead in his bed after the climax of his torment.
The integrity of the ending is most important. Is it affected by leaving out the part about the next generation?--not really, although the story is enhanced by it. Or is the integrity of the ending affected by the different ways Heathcliff's death is depicted? In both the screenplay and the novel, he is getting crazier by the day; in the end he finally gets to be closer to Cathy, which is what he has wanted all along.
The most important job a screenwriter has is to portray all of the necessary aspects of the novel. In this case, there are several unnecessary parts that can be left out in order to make the screenplay flow better and not last too long. Also, since there can be no thoughts, the dialogue and actions need to support the thoughts of the characters, especially hard to do in this piece because of Heathcliff's crazed thinking toward the end. Another difficult job of the writer is to create a set that would represent the country, the Linton home, Wuthering Heights, and the Crag. Is it so important that the screenplay be exactly like the book? As long as the storyline is not changed, it does not matter about the minute differences between the screenplay and the novel.