If I were to teach a film and literature course, I believe I would be least likely to teach Wuthering Heights to a class. I do not realty feel that the 1939 film version of Wuthering Heights directed by William Wyler is worth teaching…. except for a very good example of what not to do when a book to film.
If one actually understands Wuthering Heights and is able to follow all of the twists and turns, it is a pretty good book. Emily Brontë certainly knew what she was doing in 1847 when she wrote Wuthering Heights. The book almost seems alive at times, when one considers all of the passion and frustration, as well as the futile actions that take place within its pages.
Think about it. You have a boy, who, if given the proper chance, could turn out to be a normal person despite his rough start. But from the beginning, there seems to be a futility about him, as if he knows that he will never get that chance. And yet, growing up, Heathcliff falls for Catherine. Somehow, somewhere, he must realize what is going on.
The other other characters seem to have a sense of sadness and futility around them as well. There is Catherine, who has grown up without the benefit of a mother. There is Hindley, who is simply an awful person, who might have been okay under better circumstances. Then there is their father and the Lintons and their children. Because of actions taken by themselves or a previous relative, they seem to get drawn deeper and deeper into this web that will eventually destroy them all, in one way or another.
The entire cast of characters always seems to experience things in the extreme. They have wild swings of emotion. They hate powerfully and deeply, yet do the same for love. They are, at times, violently protective of what is theirs… or what they deem to be theirs. It has been said that the best way to experience feelings is in the extremes, so that one knows that feeling is genuine, but I am not so sure. In fact, the whole story could be taken as a sort of twisted Romeo and Juliet deal, except that the two star-crossed lovers do not exactly take their lives. Compared to the book, the movie is absolutely dismal. While I do not particularly care for the book or movie, the book wins hands down. The book always wins. Or it should.
When a really bad adaptation of a famous book is made, it usually has at least one redeeming quality. Wuthering Heights, directed by William Wyler, has none. The scenery was bad. I realize that the movie was made in the 1930s, the late 1930s at that, but did they not have the sense to disguise the scenery just a bit? California sagebrush is not heather!
The music by Alfred Newman was awful as well. As someone who was a self-declared "band geek" in high school, I was, well, unpleasantly surprised. Music is supposed to enhance the movie, not distract one. I will admit that broad sweeping scores are kind of cool sometimes, but they were all in the wrong places. I almost wanted to cry--it was so bad in places--or somehow go back in time and teach "those guys" a lesson or two.
I think the content of the movie was a letdown as well. It was only over half of the book, and key elements were cut out. I realize that time is money, and everything could not be added, but come on! Heathcliff (Rex Downing/ Laurence Olivier) was not as mean; Catherine (Sarita Wooten/Merle Oberon) was just a simpering ninny; and the entire second generation of the families was eliminated!--Yup--makes a lot of sense. And then there is "the final scene," with the ghost-acted ghosts wandering hand in hand over the mountains. I think that the final scene, however contrived to please audiences, killed the movie. Poor Emily, she was probably spinning circles in her grave.
So, all in all, the Wuthering Heights book/movie combination is what I would be least likely to teach. I dislike the intense differences between the two, and feel that the students would be better off without the movie.