Through my life I have always heard that quantity does not necessarily mean quality. Up until now, I have always held fast to that belief; and, yes, it does maintain some legitimacy; but the transformation of Wuthering Heights from novel to screenplay does not just debunk the belief. It drives a Mac truck through it.
I simply think that a novel of its breadth cannot and should not be shrunk down to a two-hour movie, or some of the content will be lost. Emily Brontë was very methodical in the creation of her 1847 novel. I am sure she used storyboards (or the nineteenth century equivalent) to ensure that the story line and character development followed a natural progression. I doubt that she would be happy to learn that Laurence Olivier's character, Heathcliff, was dulled down and made more amiable to the viewers. I am not sure if this was to maintain Laurence's debonair characteristic in Hollywood or if William Wyler just did not realize was he was doing in 1939.
In all, I felt that there was a great deal of overacting in dialogue that should have been played down and not enough acting in dialogue that should have been crackling with tension. There were a number of scenes where angry words were exchanged between Heathcliff and Cathy (Merle Oberon). One would expect to see eyebrows pointed downward and strong enunciation of words, but the actors had very little facial expression. Instead they seemed to rely on accenting words and speaking very quickly to exhibit anger. I found scenes like these to be very unrealistic and distracting from the movie. I began to concentrate more on deciphering what they were saying than the actual meaning of the script.
Another time that I lost touch with the movie was at the end when Cathy was "dying." Granted I have never had nor seen fever of the brain, but I would think that lots of perspiration and pain would be involved, but not with Cathy. She is in full makeup in a lovely nightgown with every hair in place. As with Heathcliff, I wonder if Merle Oberon insisted that she look good on film and rejected any attempts to make her look more like her character, or if William Wyler simply did not see the inconsistencies. Also, she makes absolutely horrid gestures with her eyes when she is "dying." This is an example of the overacting that can be found in the movie. I actually laughed at the end, not because of Cathy's demise, but because of Merle's portrayal of it. The only excuse for the acting that I would accept is that perhaps this mysterious "brain fever" affects the nerves of the eyes. David Niven's reaction to Cathy's death was a bit unrealistic as well. Not only was Cathy dead, but she was dead in the arms of another man that refused to let her go and claimed her as being his Cathy. I did not take Edgar to be a spineless wimp in the novel, but he certainly is rendered as such in the movie.
Finally, as it has been said before, the book goes into great detail about the Moors and their beauty. While the movie does show glimpses of the Moors, they are hardly impressive--mostly because there are, in fact, not the Moors but lovely southern California. The Moors are the setting for many pivotal moments in the story. This setting adds to the emotion of the story and to cut out its references is to cut out some of the emotion of the story.
Although it might have been a breakthrough movie in its day, Wyler's version of Wuthering Heights is hardly a good representation of the novel. Unfortunately, forcing the story to be movie length led to a number of disappointments due to excessive editing, but then again, I am not sure if any director could make the movie as well as Brontë had made the novel.