The Wiles of William Wyler

     Shame on you, William Wyler! Your 1939 film adaptation of Emily Brontė's Wuthering Heights is as fraudulent as the Pennniston Crag "castle" that you created to symbolize the love between Catherine and Heathcliff. You have seduced anyone who has not read Brontė's strange and powerful novel into thinking he/she is watching a reenactment of a great literary classic.

     Your movie covers only the first sixteen chapters of the novel. You ignore the remaining eighteen chapters, with their dominant theme of Heathcliff's revenge. What the viewer sees is a romantic love story between a docile, materialistic Catherine (Merle Oberon) and Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier).

     Heathcliff, determined to win his lady love, embarks on an odyssey to win his fortune. While he is gone, she marries the wealthy Edgar Linton. Three years later, Heathcliff returns with his sacks of gold, bent on avenging the wrongs done to him when he was a child. He buys Wuthering Heights; marries Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald) to get back at Hindley (Hugh Williams); encourages Hindley's drinking and gambling; insists on visiting Catherine, which causes trouble between Catherine and Edgar (David Niven). Catherine becomes dangerously ill. He rushes to her bedside in time to hold her in his arms as she draws her last breath. He walks hand-in-hand with her spirit toward their "castle."

THE END

     Brontė's Catherine is NOT docile. She is mischievous, selfish, and sometimes actually cruel. Throughout the first nine chapters of the novel (up to the time Catherine and Edgar are married) Nelly Dean makes many remarks describing Catherine's behavior and personality: "A wild, wicked slip ... a naughty delight to provoke (her father) ... turning Joseph's religious curses into ridicule, baiting me ... behaving as badly as possible all day .... At fifteen ... a haughty, headstrong creature! I own I did not like her ... she was full of ambition ... she snatched the cloth from my hand, and pinched me very spitefully on the arm ... slapped me on the cheek ... seized [little Hareton's] shoulders, and shook him till the poor child waxed livid ... [Edgar] felt it [her hand] applied over his own ear ... flung Hareton on to the settle ... the Earnshaw's violent dispositions, and (Catherine) caps them all ...."

     You eliminate, or dry-clean, many of Heathcliff's vengeful acts: Heathcliff's determination to turn little Hareton into a brute with no love or respect for his father--his hanging of Isabella's dog--his cruel treatment of Isabella so he can take his revenge on Edgar--his bullying Nelly into arranging a meeting between him and Catherine during Edgar's absence--the fight between him and Edgar. Brontė's Heathcliff is a violent, vengeful man; some readers consider him an inhuman monster. Brontė relates many instances of Heathcliff's consuming hatred of Hindley Earnshaw and Edgar Linton, and his diabolical acts of revenge against them. Your Heathcliff appears to be morally justified in seeking revenge.

     As far as the Penniston Crag "castle" is concerned, Brontė never mentions, in those first sixteen chapters, that Catherine and Heathcliff visit it. In the movie, it appears many times as a symbol of the romantic love between Catherine and Heathcliff: (1) They "storm the castle," and Catherine tells Heathcliff that he is her prince in disguise, the son of the Emperor of China and an Indian Queen. They promise each other they will never leave it. They are two against the world, and she will always be his queen. (2) Hindley (now master of Wuthering Heights) insults Heathcliff. He runs to the "castle" and finds Catherine there. When he asks her to run away with him, she refuses because she will not live in poverty. (3) Heathcliff overhears Catherine degrading him to Nelly. He disappears. Catherine races through a terrible snow storm to find him. Searchers race through the storm toward Penniston Crag. (4) Heathcliff carries the dying Catherine to the window. She says, "Can you see the Crag? Over there, where our castle is--I'll wait for you till you come ..." (5) And now the over-sentimentalized last scene!--the still-living Heathcliff holds the hand of Catherine's ghost as they head toward the snow-swept Penniston Crag.

     In the novel, it is NELLY who suggests that Heathcliff might be of noble birth. The next mention of Penniston Crag comes when Heathcliff tells Catherine that Joseph is loading lime near it. In Chapter 12, Catherine is in a trance and imagines Nelly is an old witch in a cave on Penniston Crag. Brontė uses Gimmerton churchyard, NOT Penniston Crag "castle," to symbolize the spiritual love between Catherine and Heathcliff. In Catherine's delirium, she speaks to Heathcliff: "I'll not lie there (in the churchyard) by myself: they may bury me twelve feet deep, and throw the church down over me, but I won't rest till you are with me. I never will!"

     Brontė makes her only reference to what could be interpreted as the Penniston Crag "castle" is in Chapter Eighteen, when Cathy, Catherine's daughter, surveys the moor and sees a cropping of golden rocks. They form what the natives call the Fairy Cave. Cathy and Hareton explore it together. The Fairy Cave DOES symbolize love--the love that will develop later between Cathy and Hareton.

     Is it the Fairy Cave Mr. Wyler, that gave you idea of using Penniston Crag "castle" as a symbol of romantic love between Catherine and Heathcliff? But the love between Cathy and Hareton is carnal, not at all like the spiritual love between Catherine and Heathcliff. The love between Catherine and Heathcliff is of the soul. He is her doppelganger. She is his.

     Shame on you, Mr. Wyler. The theme of your movie is far removed from that of Brontė's great novel of crime and punishment, of the conflict between good and evil, of the conflict between love and hate, of the difference between superficial love and spiritual love.

     Despite my criticisms of your movie adaptation of Wuthering Heights,, Mr. Wyler, I often watch it again when I see it listed in the TV schedule. I'm not sure why, but ............

Barbara Locke Chorn

Table of Contents