Character Means Everything

         The characters in William Wyler’s 1939 film adaptation of Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel, Wuthering Heights, bear little resemblance to their literary counterparts. In some instances, the changes the characters undergo work and make the movie better. In others, they do not. Four important characters in the film and novel (Heathcliff, Edgar, Catherine, and Hindley) have very distinct personality differences.

         In the novel, Heathcliff is a very sinister character. He loves Catherine fiercely but is engrossed in getting revenge for wrongs done against him; he loses all romantic qualities he could have had because of this. These are not good characteristics for the main character in what is supposed to be a love story. In the film, his character is changed to make him more suited to a romance. He becomes less sinister. The movie tells certain, small details of the story a bit differently as well so the audience can sympathize with Heathcliff, who is played by Laurence Olivier. He is a romantic hero through and through. It seems to me that the novel did not really have any protagonists-I could hate any of the characters very easily. The changes made to Heathcliff make him the protagonist of the movie. I liked the changes made to Heathcilff’s character. Wuthering Heights is known as a love story; but, while I was reading it, I disliked all of the characters so much that I did not really care for the romantic aspect of the book. The movie is a perfect harmony of tragedy and romance. The changes made to Heathcliff make the story a bit more appropriate as movie-going fare.

         The film made the opposite changes to the character Edgar Linton. In the novel, he is somewhat of a wimp. He lets people walk on him, including Catherine, and is the definition of a high-class Englishman. The film version of Edgar, as depicted by David Niven, has more backbone. The audience can tell that he wears the pants in his family. He can almost be seen as the antagonist of the second half of the movie. I do not like these changes, but I can see why the screenwriters chose to make them. They made one character, Heathcliff, a little softer, so they had to make another character a bit harder. Edgar is more a villain in the film, whereas he is almost a victim in the novel. While Heathcliff is still dark and foreboding in the film, he is much more toned down, and Edgar takes up that slack.

         Similar changes were made to Catherine. She is a strong-willed, somewhat indecisive literary character, but her characteristics seem to be amplified in the film. The movie version of Catherine, portrayed by Merle Oberon, is a fickle, childish, selfish witch (replace the W with a B.) The audience cannot sympathize with the hardships she endures at all since she seems to be purposefully trying to hurt both Heathcliff and Edgar. Her dilemma is more understandable in the book. She does not seem to be spiteful in her wavering devotion between the two men. Perhaps her literary version is as cruel as her movie version, and I simply picked up on it more when given a visual, but I think that her character was changed and not for the better.

         Another character who went through a bad transformation is Hindley. His basic character was not changed, but his back-story was completely done away with in the movie. In the novel there is a reason he becomes a drunk--his wife unexpectedly dies. The film would have the audience believe that he, as acted Hugh Williams, simply just became a gambling wino for no reason what-so-ever, other than we are suppose to hate him. Another change that did not sit well with me occurred near the beginning of the film. In the novel, the child Heathcliff steals the young Hindley’s horse and threatens to tell Mr. Earnshaw if Hindley does not acquiesce to his request. In the film it is Hindley (Douglas Scott) who steals Heathcliff’s (Rex Downing) horse and makes the threats. I suppose this change was made since Heathcliff is supposed to be our hero and a hero cannot be a thief. Hindley is somewhat of a minor character so I do not see why these changes were all that necessary.

         In fact, I do not see why many of the changes in characterization were made. Obviously the movie cannot follow the novel exactly, but the basic depiction of the characters does not need to be tampered with. Overall, I did like the 1939 movie version of Wuthering Heights. It was more romantic and tragic than the book, and I love tragic romances. If the characters had been left alone, it would be an excellent movie. However, since they were drastically changed, they became less interesting and therefore the movie is only good.

Ashley Williams

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