Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur surely read Emily Brontë's 1847 novel Wuthering Heights (obviously, since they adapted it for the 1939 film, directed by William Wyler), but they completely missed the point of the beginning, which is to give the reader a better understanding of the children's backgrounds, thereby allowing them to trace the dispositions and actions of certain characters back to the stimuli of their youth. Their gravest mistake was portraying Heathcliff as the wronged child in confrontations with Hindley.
The first meeting between Heathcliff and Hindley occurs the day that Mr. Earnshaw returns from his long journey to Liverpool. In the book he is to bring Hindley a violin, but it is crushed when he picks up Heathcliff and carries him the many miles back home. However, in the screenplay, the violin is intact. Most young men would be quite upset if, instead of a beautiful violin, their father had brought home a dirty gypsy boy. Perhaps Hindley is not justified in being quite as cruel as he was to Heathcliff, but he does have some reason to be angry in the situation portrayed in the book. In the screenplay and movie, however, Hindley (Douglas Scott) is mean without much reason. He receives what he wished; yet he is still cruel to young Heathcliff (Rex Downing).
This behavior persists throughout the screenplay and movie and is next found in what I believe to be one of the most critical scenes in the movie. Hindley finds Heathcliff and Cathy (Sarita Wooten) at the stables and insists that Heathcliff give up his horse, proclaiming, "Mine's lame and I'm going to ride yours." Wait, that does not sound right. Oh, yeah, that is the case because in the book the roles are reversed. Heathcliff is the one who seeks out Hindley and forces him to give up his horse. This is supposed to lay the background for the rest of the book, showing Heathcliff's vindictive nature and foreshadowing the relationship that Hindley (Hugh Williams) and Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) will eventually develop as adults.
In conclusion, it is obvious that Hecht and MacArthur missed the point that the book was supposed to make early on. Just these two instances have completely changed the outlook of the movie. Instead of coming off as the vindictive jerk he is, Heathcliff was portrayed as the poor, wronged, homeless boy. The character of Hindley was also served a
great injustice, coming off as the horrible tyrant instead of the boy in a man's body still vying for his father's affection.