And the Winner is… Writer versus Director

A Matter of Interpretation?

     I think William Wyler’s 1939 film Wuthering Heights, adapted from Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel by the same title, was the least successful film adaptation from a literary counterpart we watched in class. Although I agree with some of the decisions Wyler made, I think it was unsuccessful because it did not stay true to its literary counterpart.

     The film completely changed the meaning of the novel. Brontë’s Wuthering Heights was a story about a man who drove himself into total ruin by exploring the incredible depths of his hatred, jealousy, bitterness, and revenge. Wyler’s Wuthering Heights was simply a love story-a love story between two innocent hearts whose only faults were possessing mischievous streaks.

     Brontë created Heathcliff-a character worthy of his awe-inspiring name. He was the kind of character who could capture Catherine’s heart and take it on a magical journey of exploration of self-revelation. One knew when one was with Heathcliff great things would happen. He was that person who exists in everyone’s mind, a person everyone can relate to, but Brontë sketched him so vividly that as I read it I felt as if I were on a guided tour of my own soul. When he laughed, I laughed. When he cried, I cried. When he loved, I loved. When he plotted revenge, I plotted with him. I owe this to the brilliant talent of my guide, Miss Brontë. She brought this fantasy, this adventure, this exploration to life.

     Wyler simply bypassed all of this. He cheated me. He took my Heathcliff and replaced him with an over-aged reject from the Romper Room. This is certainly not a cut to Laurence Olivier’s portrayal. Olivier was a fine actor and definitely idealized the physical characteristics of this imaginary character, but he could have done so much more with the role.

     Wyler focused on the love story between Heathcliff and Catherine. Naturally when she died there was nowhere else for the story to go. Brontë’s Wuthering Heights made it through just fine without its heroine. The second generation was very appropriate and necessary because the children served as a stage for Heathcliff to play out the rest of his life.

     I think Elia Kazan’s 1951 film A Streetcar Named Desire, adapted from Tennessee William’s 1947 play by the same title, was the most successful film adaptation from a literary counterpart we watched in class. It followed the play closely, and for the most part, it stayed true to its literary counterpart.

     Williams created Stanley--a more realistic Heathcliff. Although Stanley possessed different qualities from Heathcliff's, Stanley still had that one unmistakable appeal-the ability to capture a woman’s heart by brutish force. Maybe it is because of the stereotypes associated with the English that I viewed Stanley as being lower class than Heathcliff. Although Heathcliff possessed the status of a slave, his being a mastermind put him on level superior to others. Stanley was clever and witty, but it did not elevate him to a higher status, at least not in my eyes.

     Kazan recreated this character on the screen magnificently. His casting choice was superb. Marlon Brando represented the complete mental image of the character. He conveyed Stanley’s rollercoaster of emotions. I connected with Brando’s character deeper than I did by reading the play. Kazan opened up a whole new world to me-a world where I was a pawn on a giant chessboard, and Stanley was controlling me. I lived the life Stanley lived.

     Some writers have the gift of making a character come to life better than others. The same can be said for directors. Brontë showed me Heathcliff more vividly than Wyler did. Likewise, Kazan showed me Stanley more vividly than Williams did.

Christy Stephens

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