There's a famous saying which goes, "There's many a slip twixt the cup and the lip." Nowhere is this adage more true than in the differences between the book and movie versions of Wuthering Heights. Apparently nobody on the production set of the 1939 movie had the most vague idea of what the 1847 book was about. Rather, all of them simply worked from a hack screenplay, editing out what seemed to them to be too harsh. The result is that although the book (written by Emily Brontė) is a literary classic, the movie, directed by William Wyler (with a screenplay apparently made up by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur), simply plays upon the styles of its time. This can be seen in numerous areas.
First off, in the story Wuthering Heights, the main theme is that of cold, cruel, and sometimes unjustified revenge. The movie, on the other hand, seems to forget about these acts, or at least downgrades them to justified vengeance (in the case of Heathcliff taking Wuthering Heights from Hindley). Instead, the movie focuses on the romance between Heathcliff and Catherine, which was the underlying plot in the book. Focusing on this subplot ruins the movie, switching the entire focus from drama to romance (the audience-preferred genre of the time).
To go alone with new romantic theme, the character of Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) is softened for movie audiences. Instead of a cruel, manipulative figure, we are instead presented with a "misunderstood monster": a figure who is unjust only because injustice has been rendered to him. This is all done in part that the audience might support him and his love for Catherine (Merle Oberon, a well-known leading lady of the time). At the same time, however, the film makers were also performing a second role: to set up Olivier for further roles in case of a success. So, for the love of money, they ripped apart to shreds one of the greatest melancholic anti-heroes of literature, and replaced him with another of the countless Douglas Fairbanks derring-do swashbucklers of film. Ironically, the fragments of Heathcliff's former personality come out to work against his script-written brainwashing: now he apparently makes idle threats which he does not keep.
In order to make Heathcliff and Catherine's relationship seem more innocent, the movie ignores that either of them had a child with their spouses. Part of this can be blamed on censorship, but the result is that Edgar and Isabella become worthless to the story. Perhaps Catherine could have joined a convent instead to spite Heathcliff; it would have served the same purpose. The end result of these ridiculous celibate marriages is that, instead of dying while in labor, now Catherine has a "will to die." Not only is this idea absurd, but the scriptwriter could have certain come up with a better death considering all the medical conditions in eighteenth century England.
The climax of the movie, if it can be called that, has Heathcliff visiting Catherine on her deathbed. Instead of running off as he does in the book, the movie Heathcliff instead gallantly carries her to the window, true to his mold. This action should cause a problem: Mr. Linton (David Niven) should be disturbed that his dead wife is in her lover's arms; instead, in absurd and strangely robotic fashion, he completely ignores Heathcliff.
There are many times when this movie could have been kept from being inane; for instance, in one part, the script has Hindley (Hugh Williams) prophetically mock Heathcliff and Isabella. It would have been interesting to see the film go the road not taken, and tell us more about Hindley and his death, but alas this is skipped this as well. I was truly disappointed by this because, while the book was full of intelligent complex characters, the movie was full of worthless superficial characters. Even Hindley was a stereotypically sadist bully until this point. I was deeply surprised to see him evolve to something more manipulative and cunning and then disappointingly disappear from the movie altogether.
What is lost in the translation of Wuthering Heights from book to movie? The passion of the story is the lost. Instead of a sweeping adaptation, we are left with a hodgepodge of name-only nonsense-what a price to pay! Does the movie have to rely on the book for inspiration, though? No, in most cases; but considering that the movie proclaimed its link to the world-famous novel, then one can see that it is only fitting to judge it by the same. As Shakespeare said in Hamlet, "To thine own self be true." With this in mind, one can only laugh, considering renowned film critic Leonard Maltin called this one a "must-see." Maltin, go consult Brontė.