Villain or Victim? Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights

         Depending on how it is told, the same story can have vastly different meanings, and an audience can be given a completely different understanding of a single character. Wuthering Heights' Heathcliff, plus his movie adaptations, is a prime example.

         A major difference between the movies and Emily Brontë's 1847 book is how Heathcliff is portrayed. In the book he is surly, obsessed with Catherine Sr., and a villain who strikes out at innocents to reap revenge on those who harmed him. He leads on Isabelle Linton in order to marry her for the Linton fortune, and possibly to tick off Edward Linton, who had the gall to fall in love with and marry Catherine Earnshaw. He manipulates Hindley Earnshaw into gambling away his inheritance until he is debt to Heathcliff. He then gloats over how Hindly's son, Hareton, likes him more than his own father, even though it was Heathcliff who has led to the child's fall in social status. He tricks the younger Catherine Linton into marrying his son, Linton Heathcliff, in order to gain control of her part of the Linton fortune. Even through this, he is a sympathetic villain, because we are shown the events that cause him to follow this path.

         In the 1939 Goldwyn film, directed by William Wyler, Heathcliff is a tragic lover. We see him as a child, played by Rex Downing, growing up with Cathy, acted as a child by Sarita Wooten, bonding with her and proclaiming her his queen. Ellen Dean (Flora Robson), the house-woman, plays the part of the "true romantic," telling the story of Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) and Cathy's (Merle Oberon) love. The entire movie plays out like a grand romance, from the grand southern style balls (a la Gone with the Wind) to Cathy's death scene in front of the window, dying in Heathcliff's arms. It even ends with the two transparent figures of the ghost-acted Heathcliff and Cathy walking off together over the snow-covered moors of sunny California in a scene which Wyler had refused to shoot.

         The Mexican adaptation, Los Abismos de Pasion, directed by Luis Buñuel, tells the viewers from the very beginning that it is about the destructive power of passion. In the beginning Heathcliff (Alejandro) (Jorge Mistral) barges into the Linton household after his three-year disappearance and demands to see Cathy (Catalina) (Irasema Dilian). When he is turned away he kicks in the door. He kicks in several doors throughout the movie. During his courtship with Isabella (Isabel) (Lilia Prado), unlike the the courtship in the more restrained English film, he aggressively kisses her neck in what looks more like an attack on her throat. He is forceful, banging up and down the stairs of the Heights. The Mexican film casts each of the characters as people driven by passion. It tells the viewers so in the beginning credits and delivers. Cathy (Catalina) shoots birds, Edward (Eduardo) (Ernesto Alanzo) actually punches Heathcliff (Alejandro), and Isabella (Isabel) gets angry and storms off when Catalina warns her about Alejandro's character. The ending deviates farther from the book than the first movie. Alejandro gets shot down by Hindley (Ricardo) (Luis Aceves Castenada) while Alaejandro is inside Catalina's grave.

         According to the message the creators wish to send, or the way they read the book, the cinematic creators bent Brontë's characters in the direction they wished.

Marissa Gentry

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