In the 1847 novel Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë's Heathcliff is hard to love, but most who read the work end up thinking he is the best character. Heathcliff is a harsh, abrasive character who is transformed from a little orphaned boy just looking for someone to love him into a man, who still is looking for love. He finds that love in Catherine Earnshaw; but she is so wrapped up in her own selfishness, she abuses his unconditional love, his heart. In the 1939 film Wuthering Heights, directed by William Wyler, Laurence Olivier is a harder Heathcliff, but with his expressiveness and visible, open struggle to be loved, he becomes a Heathcliff of whom everyone must take notice.
Olivier has some of the most expressive movements and eyes as anyone in Hollywood- before or after his time on the silver screen. His inner struggle between his love for Cathy (Merle Oberon) and his complete contempt for her is easily visible on screen, which is something readers might miss from the book. Perhaps the best, well, the second best, scene in the film to showcase his man versus self struggle is evident when he is listening to Nelly (Flora Robson) and Catherine talk about Edgar's (David Niven) marriage proposal. One can see his heart break when Catherine says, "It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now." Just before he runs off for parts unknown, his face is tortured with heartache and hate.
When he returns and he visits Catherine, Catherine Linton now, at Thrushcross Grange, one can see his love for her radiating from his eyes, and the hate, too. One can literally see his soul calling out to hers to recognize him, to recognize herself. It is all in his eyes and body language. He holds himself within such a powerful restraint as to not kill Edgar Linton, or perhaps Cathy. It was said in class that William Wyler worked with Olivier to downplay his movements because they were so overt from his time of acting on stage. That restraint Wyler asked for only made Olivier's Heathcliff seem more like a man who was in love with a woman who wanted him but would not have him. It set Olivier's Heathcliff far apart from the wiry, uncontrollable Heathcliff Brontë had projected in the novel.
The best scene that showcases Olivier's Heathcliff versus Brontë's Heathcliff is seen when Cathy dies. In the novel, Heathcliff breaks down and violently curses Cathy for leaving him while he was still alive. ("How can I live without my soul?") In the film, we see a heartbroken, yet strong Heathcliff who curses her, but the curses seem born more of love, not of contempt. It gives Heathcliff a human quality that he seemed to lack in Brontë's novel.