August 11, 2013

Would you like to live, with your soul in the grave: How ‘Wuthering Heights’ compares from book to film

Full declaration: Wuthering Heights is my favourite novel.

I have multiple copies, both old and new, paperback and leather bound. I have a large framed Spineless classics version above my bed. I sing the Kate Bush song repeatedly in my car.

There’s something that appeals to me about Catherine and Heathcliff – two of the most flawed literary characters of all time – who are so alike that they equally love and loathe each other. Their love is unconditional, they are meant to be together, and yet it is their own choices and follies that prevent it. They love each other with such ferocity that it only causes pain to themselves and everyone around them.

I don’t know what this says about my own character, but there is just something about the complete imperfection of Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship that appeals to me…

But anyway – as you would if noticed if you read my last review, I can be quite particular about how my favourite novel is adapted to the big screen. In my opinion, the 2011 film by Andrea Arnold didn’t cut the mustard.

I re-read every book before I review it – so while Wuthering Heights is so fresh in my mind, I thought I’d compare it to another film version. This time, the comparison will be of the 1970 version starring Timothy Dalton and Anna Calder-Marshall.

Before the opening credits, the film begins with Catherine’s funeral, whose tombstone is surrounded by villagers. Only two of the mourners, Ellen Dean and Edgar Linton, appear to be grieving. When a glassy-eyed Edgar looks out beyond the churchyard, he sees Heathcliff on horseback on the crest of a hill.

Catherine’s funeral acts as the bookend for the film – the beginning, as well as the end. Like the 2011 film, this version also ends with Catherine’s death and completely omits the second half of the novel.

In my last review, I criticised Andrea Arnold for depriving viewers of the half of the story that offered any form of hope or resolution – but with this version I felt more forgiving. In the closing scenes, director Robert Fuest shows Heathcliff chasing Catherine’s ghost through the moors and to Wuthering Heights. Catherine’s ghost is smiling as a gunshot rings out, and it is all over.

This is a completely different ending to that which was written by Emily Bronte. In the novel, Heathcliff lives more than twenty years after Catherine – long enough to wreak havoc on the lives of the next generation of the Linton and Earnshaw families.

In Arnold’s film, the end credits roll with Heathcliff throwing himself against a wall. There is no light, no resolution. At least in Fuest’s concocted ending, the story has finality.

The Heathcliff of the novel only ever dreamed of Catherine haunting him – but in this film gets what he desires. And even though they are both dead, and all is effectively lost, their ghosts running happily through the moors gives the audience closure.

The 1970 film is in large part a very faithful adaptation. Like in the novel, Nelly has the role as the narrator and moral compass of the story. All the key plot points are there – from Heathcliff’s arrival under the coat of Mr Earnshaw, until his return to Wuthering Heights as an adult.

But along the way there are some noticeable differences:

  • When Mr Earnshaw arrives home with Heathcliff, he makes a point of announcing that the boy has been named after their first son – a boy who died. Much more importance is placed on Heathcliff’s position in the household than Bronte intended.
  • When Heathcliff comes out from under Mr Earnshaw’s coat, it is only Hindley who reacts negatively. In the book, Catherine is equally as petulant and cruel.
  • Hindley is generally treated in a much more favourable light in the film. He is presented as being undeserving of Mr Earnshaw’s poor treatment, and the audience is encouraged to pity him. It is also rewritten that Nelly harbored a desire to be Hindley’s wife.
  • Like in the 2011 film, the ages of the children at key points of the story have been altered. Catherine and Heathcliff appear to be adults when they sit at Mr Earnshaw’s knee on the night that he died. Heathcliff is also completely protected by Hindley’s physical abuse until he was fully grown.
  • Heathcliff is heard calling Mr Earnshaw “father” – something that never occurs in the book. In general, in the book, it is insinuated that the only person that Heathcliff truly cares about is Catherine, and he only tolerates Mr Earnshaw out of convenience. In this film, he seems to have a true admiration and fondness for the man.
  • The discrepancies with their ages are a little off-putting at times. Catherine and Heathcliff are seen meandering through the moors as adults, and generally appear to be acting too childish. Anna Calder-Marshall’s Catherine is generally too giddy and absurd looking for my liking.
  • The scene where Catherine urges Heathcliff to never leave was written into the screenplay. The Catherine of the book would have been too headstrong and confident to fear or beg of anything, even of Heathcliff.
  • Joseph is much more proper, and speaks much better than he does in the book. He is also not as pious or as aggravating. There is no equivalent to Zillah, the maid who replaces Nelly at Wuthering Heights.
  • As mentioned previously, in neglecting the second half of the novel, the film omitted a number of the book’s key characters – Catherine’s daughter Cathy, Heathcliff’s son Linton, and Hindley’s son Hareton. Hareton at least is born, but he is said to have died in infancy. Catherine dies in childbirth, but there is no mention of her daughter lived.
  • Heathcliff is much more physical with Catherine than he is in the book. He lashes out at her once in the barn, and throws her down by the hair in the grounds of Thrushcross Grange. His literary equivalent never harmed Catherine. He was also never shown rolling around on the ground in the throws of love with her either.
  • The pivotal scene where Catherine admits to Nelly that she will marry Edgar is there – and to a point is faithful. Catherine delivers a more succinct version of her speech and Heathcliff overhears from the hall. The difference is that Catherine discovers that Heathcliff overheard her speech before she was able to confess to Nelly her true feelings for him – this is done in the grounds of Wuthering Heights, when she has already begun searching for Heathcliff.
  • In the film, Catherine consents to go away with Heathcliff but it is he that decides to stay put. He is already plotting his revenge on Hindley, and already possesses the deeds to Wuthering Heights, and tells Catherine that he “has things to do” first. This never happens in the book – Catherine never agreed to leave with Heathcliff, she was only ever going to stay with Edgar.
  • Cathy doesn’t poke fun at Isabella for fancying Heathcliff the way that she does in the book. In fact, in the film she doesn’t seem to care two hoots about the blossoming affair between the love of her life and her sister-in-law. She seems completely unfazed and unthreatened by the prospect of it.
  • The scene in the kitchen where Edgar strikes Heathcliff on the gullet and Catherine throws the key in the fire is true to the word on the page – but the fall-out afterwards is much more dramatic. When Heathcliff flees, he fights two men with an iron rod on his way out, and screaming ladies spill from the house. Edgar even takes a shot at him as he runs away.

Despite its differences, this forty-year-old adaptation is true to the spirit of Wuthering Heights, and I believe the filmmakers understood the intentions of Emily Bronte well.

The verdict:

How does the film rate? 3/5

How does the film rate as an adaptation? 4/5

Total score: 7/10

Book or Big Screen? Book

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