Cinematic Taming of Brontė's Wild Beasts

      One problem with translating a novel into a film is that character depth is lost in the process. Very often, acharacter is changed so much in the film that positive or negative qualities are omitted. Hollywood seems to do this to make characters fit into the hero/villain role. In the film Wuthering Heights, directed by William Wyler in 1939, there are many significant differences from the novel of the same name, written in 1847 by Emily Brontė.

      Catherine is the main female character in the film and the movie. In the novel, her character is complicated because she is beautiful and smart, yet very selfish and superficial. To show her self-centered persona, the book opens with a scene in which her father returns from a trip, not bearing the gifts he had promised for his children. Instead, he brings Heathcliff, a stray orphan, having spent all his money on food for the child.

      Cathy, upset about not getting a horsewhip, spits on the child. In the film, however, this important event is changed so that she (Sarita Wooten) gets the whip; and, instead of regarding Heathcliff (Rex Downing) with disgust, she only says, "He's dirty."

      In contrast, the film has parts in which it highlights good character traits not even exhibited by Cathy in the book. For instance, Cathy is presented as kind when she makes Heathcliff feel better about his lowly position by telling him he's a prince in disguise. In the novel, it is the housekeeper, Ellen Dean, who says these things. In fact, she seems to be the only person at Wuthering Heights capable of compassion, although she is the narrator of the story.

      A similar change is made to the character of Heathcliff, though it is not as glaring. The film must maintain some of the evil characteristics of Heathcliff, because it is essential to the story. However, he is made to seem less sinister as he is in the novel.

      One instance of this is evident when, in the book, Heathcliff tells Hindley (Douglas Scott) to trade horses with him. If he does not, Heathcliff says he will tell his father of the abuse Hindley has given him for being the favorite. A malignant act, it is reversed in the film, with Hindley taking Heathcliff's horse, while he protests. "I don't care," says Hindley. "Mine's lame and I'm going to ride yours." So instead of seeing evil in Heathcliff, as we did in the novel, we sympathize with him.

      Another example of the book making Heathcliff appear wicked is the death of Isabella. While Heathcliff does not directly cause her death, it is symbolic of her loss of a will to live after being rejected and abused by the man she loved. In the film she (Geraldine Fitzgerald) is mistreated, but she never dies. We do not feel nearly as sorry for her because she never even leaves Heathcliff (now played as an adult by Laurence Olivier).

      The characters are changed in this way, perhaps, so that when their ghosts walk hand in hand in the final sickening scene, the audience will leave happy. In the book, this could never be possible. Even in the afterlife, I do not think Cathy and Heathcliff would have gotten along, because of their self-centered personalities. Also, no reader would have been able to stomach the idea of the conniving Heathcliff finally getting his way.

Brooks Dawkins

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