Wuthering Heights is a classic that tells a story of love, hate, and the need for revenge. It depicts two families living near to one another yet completely separated by class. Emily Brontë's 1847 novel is so beautifully written, it makes an excellent storyline for a film, but this is lost in William Wyler, Ben Hecht, and Charles MacArthur's 1939 cinematic adaptation. When the film makers wrote the screenplay, they focused solely on the parts of the book they deemed worthy, like the title, setting, and character names. A classic like Wuthering Heights should be left in the pages of fiction if it is not to be translated accurately to film.
So many important details are lost in Wyler's adaptation. One of the main elements not included is the children. The film completely disregards their existence, which in turn changes the ending of the story. Not including the children--Linton, Hareton, and Catherine--is a fatal blow to the integrity of the story. The story revolves around the mistreatment of Heathcliff and how this lead to his deep-seated need for revenge against Edgar, who marries Catherine, the love of Heathcliff's life. Hindley had badly mistreated Heathcliff when they were children and later as a teenager, and Catherine said she could never marry Heathcliff because he was beneath her. But despite all these things and what Heathcliff does to them all and their children, the novel still manages to have a happy ending, allowing the two remaining children, Hareton and Catherine, to overcome all they have endured, fall in love, and plan to be married when the book ends. Unfortunately, this is not the case in the Wyler adaptation. The film fails to relay the message of rising above one's past and triumphing.
Instead, Catherine, Heathcliff, Hindley, and Isabella--all of whom die after producing offspring and are at peace in the novel--are still alive but childless and miserable in the film. Therefore, the audience of the movie is left feeling depressed, as the spirits of Catherine and Heathcliff (ghost acted by doubles) fade into the distance. The film makers rob the audience of the silver lining that Brontë's novel provides.
One would think that ruining the ending was enough to lose the essence of this remarkable book; but, because of the way Brontë's characters are written, changing their attitudes is another way to not only make the film unbearable, it also loses another piece of the novel's essence. Brontë's depiction of the characters makes one simultaneously love and hate them while feeling drawn to them, but the characters in the film do not engender the audience's sympathy. In the novel, Catherine is strong, vain, and deceitful; but in the film, Catherine (Merle Oberon) is an immature twit. Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) is another character tragically altered when adapted to the screen. In the book, he is so full of hate, anger, and inhumanity that he is cruel to anything that moves; but in the film this is all lost. He seems conflicted about his decisions and yet so in love with Catherine. Where is the brooding man of the novel? These two characters are so severely altered, it is enough to lose the essence of the original; but sadly the film makers also screw up Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald), Edgar (David Niven), and Hindley (Hugh Williams).
No changes were needed to makes this a good story, so why did so much of the essence of not only the characters, but also the story get lost in translation? Brontë probably rolled over in her grave the day the film was released because of the unforgivable alterations to her work. The film leaves the audience feeling depressed, while the novel leaves one with a shred of hope. This film adaptation does the worst job at capturing the essence of its source material. All the film makers did was borrow the character names, title, setting, and a few minor details to make a movie.