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. 🙂


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

  1. Always disappointing to find one’s favorite novel barely recognizable on screen. At one such instance where the ending was completely changed to make it more palatable for the audience, I wanted to launch a protest…or boo and hiss at the very least. 🙂

  2. I am so glad your discovery of my blog has led me to yours. For me, films can only work if I see them before I have read the book, which is rare. Otherwise inevitably they destroy my personal picture in the mind. Despite a fortunately brief enthusiasm for Byron in my teens, I would divide your fictional ‘heroes’ into two groups, with Mr. Rochester and Mr. Darcey leading the romantic field while the loathsome Heathcliff stays forever with the villains.

  3. Hi! Thanks so much for stopping by my blog! I enjoyed your analysis of Wuthering Heights movies! I have never liked the book – and have only seen one version of the movie. I don’t know what it is about the book that I dislike – maybe that it seems whiny! Anyway, thanks again for dropping by!

  4. How to portray that sort of passion successfully? Where we can still feel for the flawed characters and not give up on them? Heathcliff is hard to like, he needs all the help he can get. Subtitles would kill it. 🙂

  5. The novel does so much more; it plays with point of view and the question of whose version of events is trustworthy and the generational effects of bad choices. As you point out, movies focus on just a small slice of the book–the tragic Heathcliffe / Cathy romance. Given that narrowed focus, I think the 1939 one is the best.

  6. This is a very insightful analysis. You’re not just complaining about the differences between the movies and the book. You are explaining the differences and pointing out why part of the book works better than on screen, while finding something admirable in at least one film version of the book.

  7. Terrific review & question about Wuthering Heights book vs movie. I agree the Olivier/Oberon film is the best handling I’ve seen. There was also a 1970 iteration with Timothy Dalton as Heathcliff. I had hopes but I seem to remember being disappointed. Creating the same emotional intensity on-screen as is in the book is such a daunting task as to be near impossible, I guess.

    • I saw that myself and I didn’t like it. Most of the characters of the novel are super-intense and on screen they may seem even slightly ridiculous sometimes. Thanks for the nice words. Love to have you here. Stefy. 🙂

  8. I saw that myself and I didn’t like it. Most of the characters of the novel are super-intense and on screen they may seem even slightly ridiculous sometimes. Thanks for the nice words. Love to have you here. Stefy. 🙂

  9. Hello there, another great post to read..
    As for me it doesn´t fit too well, and I am making reference to Kosminsky ´s version in which Juliette Binoche plays the main female role and with Ralph Fiennes as Heathcliff .. (By the way This is the only film version I know) …

    As someone has well pointed in the comments above: It is always disappointing to find one’s favorite novel barely recognizable on screen … (Sigh) yes it is…

    Cheers and thanks for sharing, Aquileana 🙂

  10. Pingback: Blogdom Jan. 15-Feb. 26, ’14 | The ToiBox of Words

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