Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Wuthering Heights (1939)

1939 was an epic year of filmmaking with Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, and Wuthering Heights. Wuthering Heights is based on the novel by Emily Bronte and starred Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff, Merle Oberon as Catherine, and David Niven as Edgar. For a summary and review of the novel Wuthering Heights, please see this link.

This movie overall makes Heathcliff and Catherine into much more romantic leads than what was originally in Emily Bronte’s novel. They are painted solely as star-crossed lovers that are just never able to get together because of various misunderstandings. The movie leaves out the entire second half of the novel, which shows how Heathcliff carefully plotted his revenge onto the second generation. In this movie, there are no children born.
Heathcliff first of all is portrayed by the very handsome Laurence Olivier. While I love Laurence Olivier and think he is a spectacular actor, he is not the dark personage described in Wuthering Heights. He is viewed in much more a sympathetic light because of the lack of showing his revenge on the second generation. His wife Isabella is shown to be miserable solely because of his continued love for Catherine. His abuse of her and the knowledge that he only married her to be able to inherit the Linton estate, Thrushcross Grange, is not mentioned. I believe that this movie may be one reason that people think of Heathcliff as a romantic character, when he is really not a very likeable character.

Merle Oberon is a good Catherine, although her selfish motives do not take center stage. I found her to be a much more unlikeable character in the book than in this production. David Niven is a good Edgar, although if I were Catherine and had to choose between a Laurence Olivier Heathcliff and a David Niven Edgar, I would be hard pressed to pick Edgar. You have a passionate love for Heathcliff who shares your passion and he is also hot as sin. Why are you picking the boring neighbor again? I feel kind of sorry for David Niven. I know him from being the Bishop in The Bishop’s Wife. In that movie, he is afraid his wife, Loretta Young, is developing feelings for an angel played by Cary Grant. Niven always seems to be the second fiddle.

The deathbed scene seemed strange to me. There is a very passionate speech from Heathcliff, while Catherine’s husband Edgar kneels by the bed in a prayerful poise saying nothing. This is very different than the death scene in the book. Catherine and Heathcliff have a passionate speech to each other when Edgar is away at church. There is suspense when he returns and he “flies at” Heathcliff enraged to see him there, but Catherine faints. Edgar has a bit more edge to him in the novel.

I did not like the omission of Hindley’s wife, Frances. Hindley is not a good man, but you can understand him better in the novel. First he has to see his father love Heathcliff rather than himself, and then his beloved wife Frances dies. It is easier to see why he became an alcoholic when Frances is in the picture and it humanizes Hindley.

Overall, I enjoyed the romance of the 1939 film version of Wuthering Heights, but I think it did a poor job of bringing Emily Bronte’s classic to life. The romance actually took away from Bronte’s original intent, and the omission of the younger generation made it so the viewers were unable to see the masterful plotting of revenge by Heathcliff.

This if my first item for the Victorian Challenge 2012.


  1. Terrific review, Laura. I haven't seen this film, but it sounds as if the movie's departure from the book spoiled it for you, at least in part.

  2. Great review :) This is one of my favorite novels. I've seen this film in bits and pieces and it I agree, it does stray from the book. I never noticed Heathcliff looks green in the cover...lol

  3. I totally agree! The movie is fabulous but bears very little resemblance to the book. I saw this movie often as a child, and when I finally read the book as a teenager was totally shocked by how horrifically abusive Heathcliffe was. A lovely piece of classic cinema and a testament to the license the film makers of the era took with books. Literary adaptation has come a long way.

  4. I completely agree with your assessment of the differences between the book and this movie. But this was typical of how they handled books back then I think. I can't imagine people wanting so much real, dark, and edginess in their movies like people today watch.

    Thanks for the review!

  5. The only time I saw this movie was long ago on tv, I was quite young at the time but I remember it did not strike me as anything like the novel. I am very interested in seeing the latest film version of WH and I must admit that I also watched and enjoyed the last BBC version of the novel with Tom Hardy as Heathcliff. I sometimes worry that film and tv adaptations may be the only way some younger readers come to this wonderful novel. Great review!

  6. I watched this movie because I love Olivier but man I loathe WH as a story. I was surprised to read how much was left out although it would be hard to include everything in a 2 hr Hollywood movie.

  7. I'm interested in seeing the new movie version of WH also. I'll admit that I am a bit scared aftering reading a two sentence review in Entertainment Weekly that said it was two hours of wind blowing. I watched some clips online and none of the four were actually in the novel. My excitement level has started to dim.

    I watched the Tom Hardy version a couple of years ago and thought it was so-so. I kind of liked the 90's version starring Ralph Fiennes, but I have begun to think that no film version will ever be able to capture the true complexity of this novel.