Does “Wuthering Heights” work on the big screen?


How often have you found the big screen adaptation of one of your favourite novels below  your expectations? As far as I am concerned, almost always. Few  days ago, for instance, I was watching  the 1992 version of Wuthering Heights on tv, with Ralph Fiennes and Juliet Binoche and even if the characters were well-chosen ( yeah, maybe Ralph  Fiennes was a little too stiff and expressionless sometimes) and the setting accurate, I found it tremendously tedious. Even Mr Run fell soon asleep, well that doesn’t count, as this is how he reacts whenever I make him see some nineteenth century romantic stuff,  however, right  before dozing off on the couch, he said something sensible, even if it sounded like a justification: he was under the impression that the story couldn’t get off the ground. He was right, but why?

After all, Wuthering Heights is a great  story, for sure, passionate, whose intensity is the product of the cruel fate that almost all the protagonists seem to share: they never fully conquer the object of their desires, even if they fight desperately to get it. Cathy and Heathcliff love each other deeply, but they won’t be able to stay together (at least in this world), Mr Linton marries Catherine but he won’t succeed in making her love him the way he wishes, same situation for Isabel and Heathcliff; Hindley loses her wife soon, falling thus into the abyss of pain and alcohol, only  Catherine’s daughter and her cousin Hareton will end up together, but it is a matrimony that symbolically amends their parents’ mistakes and puts an end to the story .

The increasing awareness of the impossibility to reach their goals makes their emotions grow more and more powerful and devastating page after page. The consequent profound pain is so unacceptable for some of them to lead either to suicide attempts, just like in Catherine’s case, or to destructive behaviours. This feeling of intense longing for something unattainable can be expressed by a German Romantic word: Sehnsucht that is the addiction (die Sucht) to longing (Sehen) and Wuthering Heights is Sehnsucht  made fiction.

The point is that Sehnsucht in Wuthering Heights seems to work well on book, but on-screen you feel that there is something off-key. First of all, I think it is very difficult to play the roles of these super passionate, borderline characters well and be plausible at the same time. Furthermore the sense of suspension and dissatisfaction given by that prolonged craving, produces a sort of slowdown effect and a sense of frustration in the viewer. The second part of the novel is actually less involving than the first, therefore the intensity of the narration in all the screen versions which include this portion of the book diminishes, and Heathcliff’s death doesn’t have the strength of the final “coup de theatre”.

My favourite adaptation of Wuthering Heights dates back to 1939, it is the one directed by William Wyler and interpreted by the acting excellence of the time: Merle Oberon as Cathy Linton, Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff and David Niven as Edgar Linton. This movie, in my opinion, is more convincing not only for the high quality of the actors, but above all for the choice of narrating only the first part of the book, thus focusing better on the central characters of Catherine and Heathcliff. Furthermore the black and white is more suitable to produce that gloomy effect which characterises the Gothic atmosphere that pervades the novel.

One thing more, when the movie was dubbed in Italian, the names of the protagonists had to be slightly changed as those were times when the knowledge of English was not so widespread, therefore Cathy became “Keti” and Heathcliff  “Igliff”.  When my mother, who well remembers that old movie and is an old lady, saw the modern version, she told me that she would have bet that the names of the protagonists were different. 🙂


73 thoughts on “Does “Wuthering Heights” work on the big screen?

  1. I think that the book is way better than the film. In general, a book is more able to stimulate your imagination and it let’s you decide some things. Even if there is a description of everything than its your turn to imagine it. Reading a book makes you in kind of part in the story, in my opinion. A film gives a less stimulation to someone who is watching it. Nowadays there are billions of visual effects in film that when the Wuthering Heights film was registered, weren’t even thought of. Some characters couldn’t be done in the exact same way the book intended it ti be. For example Heathcliff required precises physical features which was almost impossible to recreate.

  2. It’s true, I agree with you, often the adaptation of a major novel to the big screen will turn out to be below expectations, even if I must say that I am not a fan of reading and I much prefer to watch films.
    In this case, however, I found those little parts of the novel that we have read the last few years more interesting than this boring, dark, melancholy and boring film again. I describe it in this way because in my opinion the story (which had to be compelling) turned out to be very slow and failed to interest me in viewing. It is unthinkable to be able to fit all the details of Emily Bronte’s long book into less than 2 hours of film, which in fact did not happen. In the first place, the love between the two protagonists was not best expressed, it was not clear how much the two actually loved each other, and above all I agree with you when you talk about the “Sehnsucht”, even if I understand that it must not be easy for the actors to represent and express the desire and the sense of frustration that should characterize the protagonists. I also understand that a love like Heathcliff and Catherine’s is so strong and overwhelming that it can be complicated to represent it on a screen and I am of the opinion that, in some cases, only words can describe certain feelings, and not television scenes.

  3. Personally, even if the acting of the two characters was pretty good and fluid, I found that the background, the scene, the dark theme, even the sound, was way too dramatic, almost like if the producer was trying to give a sense of drama at some point like in the moment when she die.
    I didn’t personally find that sense of sadness when we read the parts, even if they were a minimal part of the novel.
    So all of this, made the story pleasant for girls maybe which (sorry for the stereotype) are more emotives than men, but truly that film was not for us, becoming almost boring, and in fact (as I read) for mr.Run didn’t do any better.

  4. Not having read the book in this case is difficult to make a comparison. In general, after some personal experiences, I have noticed that the film often disappoints the expectations that a novel creates. I believe that the book leaves room for the imagination and above all it tells the story by dwelling on certain details that are neglected in films. In books you can get to touch feelings that do not come with films and create personal images and interpretations; films, while very beautiful, are colder and leave less room for personal thought. But I believe that, given today’s generation, films are a good opportunity to bring young people stories they would not know through books.

  5. I agree with you, in my life, I haven’t read many books, but of the few I have read, the films couldn’t be compared. The book is, of course, much more detailed and better it explains much better the feelings of characters and leaves more space for imagination, because sometimes I am disappointed by scenes that I had imagined otherwise. I found this film very slow and boring and failed to convey that curiosity to keep looking at it. Above all, I did not like the death of Heatcliff because it doesn’t leave that feeling of astonishment even though the characters were well chosen.

  6. Since we don’t know much about the book, but only about the film it’s hard to compare the two versions of the story. While you’re reading a book you’re the only “film director” of it so you’re free to imagine the plot in the way you would like it most. Seeing such an old movie, we’re talking about a film which came on screens in 1992, makes us harder to get interested with the plot, characters or maybe just the rhythm of the story. By reading it we’re able to make it way more interesting and that’s why I think that is incredibly rare that a film is better than it’s film adaptation. Obviously this doesn’t apply if it is the netflix adaptation of course 😉

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