The Two Heathcliffs

     The writers of the 1938 screenplay for Wuthering Height, directed in 1939 by William Wyler, were much more forgiving to the character of Heathcliff than was Miss Emily Brontė, who brought him to life in her famous novel, first published in 1847.

     One example is the scene in the movie where Hindley (Douglas Scott) takes Heathcliff's (Rex Downing) horse. Poor Heathcliff is seen lying on the ground, blood coming from his mouth, as Hindley rides away on his horse. Of course Hindley is jealous of Heathcliff and has wished he had never come to Wuthering Heights. In the novel, it is Heathcliff who demands Hindley's horse because his own horse is lame. He says he will tell Mr. Earnshaw how Hindley is always beating him up. Heathcliff dares Hindley to throw a piece of iron at him; and, when he does, Heathcliff is prepared to show the damage to Mr. Earnshaw to get Hindley into trouble. Heathcliff gets the horse he wants by manipulating members of the family from his unique position. This incident is the first time the movie takes some of the edge off Heathcliff's character.

     The movie does not show the things Heathcliff teaches little Hareton when he returns to Wuthering Heights after Heathcliff has supposedly become a gentleman. Of course, there is no second generation in the movie at all. In the novel, Heathcliff gets on little Hareton's good side by teaching him to swear at Hindley (his father) and by keeping the curate out of the house. No doubt the lad could have benefited greatly from the presence of such a person. Heathcliff's influence on the already abused and neglected child adds insult to injury.

     Even though the movie is pretty honest about how mean Heathcliff is to Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald) once the two are married, she is still trying to get his love at the time of his death. The novel, however, portrays Isabella as the wife who literally runs away instead of the one who keeps holding on. In the novel Heathcliff is so violent that Isabella is blessed to escape the torment of Wuthering Heights.

     The most stunning display of the evil nature of Brontė's Heathcliff is evident when he takes his son, Linton, from Edgar in order to control the child's inheritance. He obviously does not care about his son. He basically tricks young Cathy into marrying Linton because of her sympathy for him. Once Linton and Cathy are married, Heathcliff denies the young man the services of a doctor, which he desperately needs. Linton dies as Cathy watches helplessly.

     These are just a few of the reasons I felt sorry for the Heathcliff in the movie but saw the evil in the Heathcliff in the novel.

Deborah Bland

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