If there were an Oscar awarded to the best adaptation of literature into film, A Streetcar Named Desire would be a very likely candidate to take the award. Wuthering Heights might be the worst adaptation of all the works we have studied and the least likely to get a nomination. These two films are so different from each other, and just about everything Streetcar does right, Wuthering Heights does wrong.
A film adaptation of literature does not necessarily need to be similar to its counterpart. For instance, Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Apocalypse Now completely transformed Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, placing it in the Vietnam War instead of colonial Africa. The movie was a great translation of the book and a classic. However, sometimes straying from the literature is not such a good idea, as in the case of Wuthering Height
The film version of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, directed by William Wyler in 1939, basically takes half of the story told in the book. A vital part of the book, which reveals a lot of the character traits, especially those of its main character Heathcliff, is omitted. The other plot change in the film is that the producer, Samuel Goldwyn, added a final scene of the ghosts of Cathy and Heathcliff (ghost-acted by doubles) walking hand in hand into the distance. This is a terrible addition because it concedes that the incorrigible lovers finally settled their difference, totally ruining the tragic ending of the book.
Elia Kazan's 1951 cinematic version of A Streetcar Named Desire has a plot which is identical to that of Tennessee Williams' 1947 play, except for a change in the ending, which depicts Stella (Kim Hunter) leaving Stanley (Marlon Brando). The change does not take that much away from the film because there no guarantee she will not come back. Also, the film version is in a way better because the play is tragic enough; it is good to see at least one character not beset by tragedy.
The acting and characterization in the film are also totally different. In Wuthering Heights, the script changes the characters to fit them into the role of a hero or a villain. The character of Cathy was selfish, stubborn, and superficial in the novel. In the film, as acted by Sarita Wooten as a girl and by Merle Oberon as an adult, she is the heroine; and thus many of these traits are diminished through scenes that were added such as one where she tells Heathcliff as a child (Rex Downing) that he is a prince in disguise, something she would have never done in the book. A similar altering is done to Heathcliff, played as an adult by Laurence Olivier. For example, he is made more likable by altering scenes in which he did nasty things to Hindley, so that Hindley is at fault in the movie. The portrayal of these characters is also not too great. Neither of the performances is entirely believable; and many scenes, such as one where Cathy yells, "I am Heathcliff!" and lightning strikes, are contrived to the point of inducing vomiting.
In A Streetcar Named Desire, the characters are identical to the powerful and realistic ones portrayed in the play. One reason for this was director of both the play and the movie, Elia Kazan had a personal relationship with Tennessee Williams. He realized the playwright's talent for creating characters, and the director did not try to change them or make them more one-sided.
Kazan also cast characters with actors, many of whom had been in the original stage production, who were perfect for their roles. Marlon Brando played Stanley Kowalski so well, that it appeared as if he were Stanley in real life. One could see his childlike nature without his doing anything, as well as the fact that he looked ready to explode at any second. The scene in which he smashes dishes at the dinner table looked like something Brando did himself at home.
Vivien Leigh, who had not been in the original stage production, also gave a great performance as the impostor Blanche. Leigh, who was emotionally disturbed, did almost all her acting with her eyes. In scenes in which she is trying to give the false impression that she is dignified, she flutters her eyelids. When she is drunk and her real personality comes out, she uses the eyes to be flirtatious and promiscuous, such as in the scene in which the paperboy comes to the door. In the scenes which are more sympathetic to her character, we can truly see the pain in these eyes, possibly what she was really feeling at the time.
The characters which have more minor roles are also played very well by the actors in the original stage production. Kim Hunter's portrayal of Stella is not Oscar-caliber, but it is just what is needed. And Karl Malden, who plays Mitch, gives a great performance as the weak and mother-dominated admirer of Blanche.
Finally, the cinematography of each film differs in its effectiveness. While neither film is ground-breaking or Oscar-worthy, the cinematography in Wuthering Heights by Gregg Toland, actually detracts from the movie, while Streetcar's by Harry Stradling is very helpful.
Wuthering Heights is an older movie, and it is set in a much more difficult place to make look realistic. But the set is so fake-looking that it really detracts from the film. The crags in which the children play on in the book are shown in the film to look like a pile of Styrofoam rocks, and the opening scene with Lockwood arriving at the Heights looks like someone cuttings up soap into a very powerful fan. Other than this, the cinematography is not that bad; it just leaves something to be desired.
In A Streetcar Named Desire, the cinematography is somewhat grainy, making the apartment look dirty. This helps portray the rugged feel of their abode. Also almost all of the shots are done from within this apartment, giving the viewer a confined feeling that mirrors the way Stella is trapped in her marriage to Stanley.
A Streetcar Named Desire is a good example of the way to translate literature to the silver screen. Of course, plays are easier to transition than novels, but Wuthering Heights is still in my opinion a good example of what not to do when making adaptations. Therefore, all of my Oscars go to A Streetcar Named Desire