Analysis of the 1939 Film Adaptation of Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Last Updated: 26 Apr 2023
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The 1939 film adaptation of Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte is a faithful adaptation with a few scenes from the book cut to make the film more wild and passionate than the book described. William Wyler was the director of the film with Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as Catherine. A few details the producer from the film adaptation such as Heathcliff's son, Catherine's daughter, and Heathcliff's wife remaining loyal to him by staying instead of leaving. At the end of the film, the director added the scene with Heathcliff and Catherine's ghosts walking away to live their lives together in the afterworld. One columnist disagreed with this stating that Emily Bronte wouldn't have liked that because Catherine's ghost is there to make sure her daughter receives her inheritance. Nelly is the housekeeper of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange but in the movie her name is Ellen. Samuel Goldwyn also changed the time period of the movie from the late 18th and early 19th century to the mid-19th century because the clothes were more good-looking. The director and producer shortened the story to represent the wild love that Heathcliff and Catherine felt for one another.

“Standing on the cliff, you and me forever” (Catherine to Heathcliff). Wuthering Heights is the story of Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw and their wild love for one another. Heathcliff is the orphan that Catherine’s father brought home to live with his family. Catherine took a liking to him but her brother Hindley hated him at first sight. The characters of Heathcliff and Catherine represents how relationships can be stunted by class, environment, and miscommunication.

One example of how relationships of a romantic nature are stunted is by class. In both the movie and book, Mr. Earnshaw found Heathcliff on the streets and brought him home to live with his children. In the book, Mrs. Earnshaw asked,“ how he could fashion to bring that gypsy brat into the house.” Even Nelly called him it and placed him on the landing of the stairs and hoped he would be gone by morning. In the movie, Mr. Earnshaw brings Heathcliff home and Catherine is hesitant to welcome him but there is no sign of a Mrs. Earnshaw. In both the movie and book, Catherine and Heathcliff become best friends while Hindley (Catherine's brother) is jealous of Heathcliff and doesn't like him. Back then, Gypsies had a reputation for fortune telling, stealing, and prostitution and many people believed they were, “in league with the Devil”. Because of Heathcliff being of Gypsy descent, Hindley has no problem with reminding Heathcliff of this by calling him, “dog” “beggarly interloper” and “imp of Satan”. The Earnshaw family is of high class in the small community they live in with, “pure aristocratic blood” (Magnificat). As the children grow older a couple of things happen to change the course of events in the book: Mr. and Mrs. Earnshaw passes away, Hindley is the new owner of Wuthering Heights along with his wife and he makes Heathcliff become a servant.

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In the movie, Mr. Earnshaw passes away, Hindley is the new owner and Heathcliff becomes a servant. Because of the different classes, these young lovers are in, society already disapproves of their friendship. Imagine how it would be if they wed? In both movie and book, Catherine and Heathcliff go to their neighbor's house, the Lintons. They are both caught but Catherine is injured by their dogs so she stays with them for some time. In the book, Catherine comes back home and laughs at his dirty face then the next day Heathcliff washes up for her and argues with Edgar Linton and gets in trouble with Hindley. In the movie, Catherine had told Heathcliff to run away and become rich to come back for her. When she comes home she is furious to find that he hadn't left and calls him a “servant” and a “stable boy” with “dirty hands” (Catherine to Heathcliff). Edgar then comes into the house and Heathcliff walks out, not showing how Catherine's words hurt him. Edgar and Catherine then argue about Heathcliff in which Catherine yells that she hates feeling Edgars “soft hands.” Both scenes from the story and book show how Catherine wants to fit in with people in her class but at the same time, she loves Heathcliff and wants to be with him. Heathcliff knows he's lower class and he knows that he isn't going to ever get to be with her but he forgives her harsh words and wants to be near her even if it is to argue with her. “Cathy, you're still my queen.”

Another example of how relationships can be stunted is by the environment people live in. At first, everything seemed good in the movie and book, Heathcliff being adopted, he and Catherine become friends with the fighting between Heathcliff and Hindley. Then tragedy struck and Hindley became the master of Wuthering Heights and it all goes downhill from there. In the book, Hindley makes Heathcliff become a servant and work in the fields. Between Hindley's temper and his wife passing which makes him more bitter, Wuthering Heights stops receiving visitors. People do not want to be around Hindley with his drunken and bitter reputation and Heathcliff because of his gypsy looks. In the movie, it fast forwards from Mr. Earnshaw's death to Hindley and Catherine at the table with the former eating breakfast. The scene shows him punishing Catherine by not letting her eat while Heathcliff is cleaning the fireplace. Hindley isn't in the movie often but when he is he drinks and says mean things to Heathcliff. Because of the environment where they live, Heathcliff and Catherine have to sneak away to the moors to be able to freely talk to each other and bask in their love.

This isn't enough for Catherine though because she does decide to marry Edgar Linton to advance in society. In both the book and movie, Catherine and Nelly/Ellen, the Earnshaws servant, have an intimate discussion about Catherine's feelings towards Heathcliff and Edgar. Catherine says that she wants to marry Edgar because he will be rich one day and that he is young and handsome. She then goes on to say that it would disgrace her to marry Heathcliff but can't deny that their “souls are the same”. Catherine sees the destruction Hindley does to himself and others and she wants to escape that. At Edgar's house, it isn't gloomy and people there are respectful and she feels at peace there. No matter how peaceful she is at Edgar's house, a small part of her will always want to go back home to be with Heathcliff. She even tells Nelly that no matter what nothing will separate them. Catherine is desperate to escape her horrible home life that she would rather take Edgar's peaceful environment than running away with her true love and living on the streets. 'where the rubber really meets the road' in shaping future relationships 'is the way the parent treats the child and relates with the child. That's the laboratory in which the child learns how to relate lovingly with other people”. In the book, Catherine is a spoiled child and she does throw a fit when she doesn't get her way. This is no excuse for the way her brother treats her and Heathcliff and it is sad that a person like her has to run to another mans arms whom she doesn't love to find peace. As she grows up and marries she does become a sensible woman and stops being selfish until Heathcliff comes back.

My last example of how Heathcliff and Catherine are kept apart is by their miscommunication and pride. Catherine continuously tries to find bad things about Heathcliff to prove her choosing Edgar over him. She says that Heathcliff has a bad temper and he is very prideful. Edgar is respectable, a pushover, and doesn't have a bad temper. The love that Heathcliff and Catherine have for one another is full of passion and fire that consumes them both. Even Catherine tells her and Heathcliff have the same souls but that Linton's “is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire”. “Your soulmate makes you feel entirely whole, healed and intact, like no piece is missing from the puzzle”. One example of how Catherine's pride has hurt her and Heathcliff is by her avoiding “doing something that we know would be beneficial for us solely because it came from someone else”. Heathcliff suggests to her throughout the movie to run away with him, that everything would be better for them. She refuses to go with him saying that she doesn't want to starve for food or live in streets. Catherine is too prideful to run away with Heathcliff because she would rather marry someone and use their influence to help Heathcliff instead of running away and being with him. Even when Heathcliff comes back rich, Catherine still refuses to be with him even though he did what she wanted to.

In both the movie and the book, Heathcliff overhears the private conversation that Nelly and Catherine have about Edgar and Heathcliff. He hears almost everything they say but leaves before he hears her say that nothing would keep them apart and her true plan for Edgar. Her plan is to use Edgar's status to raise Heathcliff up so that they can eventually be together without her reputation being degraded. Heathcliff runs away and in the film and movie Catherine runs after him in the rain and tries to search for him. She makes herself sick and eventually marries Edgar. After Heathcliff comes back, Catherine and Edgar find out that he is rich. In the movie, he says to Catherine that he was kidnapped as a child and that he is of high-class blood, a reference to their childhood games. It is clear that he is back to marry her but instead of choosing him she chooses to stay with Edgar even though she loves Heathcliff. When they argue she says hurtful things to Heathcliff about how she's at peace with Edgar and Heathcliff likes to stir things up. While Heathcliff just tells her that she is treating him badly. In the movie, it isn't until her deathbed that they are able to put aside their pride and finally confess to one another what we all knew: how much they love one another. “What right to throw love away for the poor fancy thing you felt for him, for a handful of worthiness. Misery and death and all the evils that God and man could have ever done would never have parted us. You'd be better alone. You wandered off like a wanton, greedy child to break your heart and mine” (Heathcliff to Catherine). The events leading up to Catherine's death and her death itself causes a “cause-and-effect thought process” with Heathcliff because he turns into a bitter man and in the book he throws a knife at his wife and she eventually leaves him.

“Heathcliff, can you see the Crag over there where our castle is”. Heathcliff and Catherine represent how relationships are stunted by class, environment, and miscommunication. Back in the 1800s-1900s, the time setting of book and movie, it was almost impossible to marry someone of lower class without dealing with repercussions. In both the movie and book it was so easy for both of these lovers to slip out to the moors to laugh and fall in love with one another. In the moors, they were free from the heart ache at Wuthering Heights. They didn't have to worry about social classes or receiving punishments for talking to each other. Unlike at Wuthering Heights where Heathcliff received harsh punishments and Catherine needing to escape from the manor she needed to call her home. Because of her conflicting feelings about her home and her needing to feel at peace she eventually pushes Heathcliff away when she says that it would be disgraceful for her to marry him. That was the last straw for Heathcliff. You see, every time she pushed him away, argued with him and called him awful names he still forgave her. He still defended her and stuck by her side because of his love and adoration of her. “If you ever looked at me once with what I know is in you, I would be your slave. Cathy, if your heart were only stronger than your dull fear of God and the world, I would live silently contented in your shadow” (Heathcliff to Catherine). It isn't until Catherine is dying that the two of them are able to share their feelings with one another.

If only they were able to marry and live under society's thumb. In the movie, Catherine does beg Heathcliff many times to run away, get rich and come back for her. Heathcliff says that he wants her to join him and she scoffs and says she doesn't want to live like a commoner, having to steal food just to survive. He does eventually come back with riches but by then she's already married to Edgar. A man who gave her peace outside of her disparaging home, a man she settled for. “A life partner, on the other hand, can be a great supporter and long-time companion but is limited in his or her capacity to enrich your spirit”. Edgar doesn't have the fire and passion that Catherine needs. Catherine needs someone who won't let her walk over them or will make biting remarks back to her. She doesn't need someone who isn't as full of passion as she is. In the book, Heathcliff has visions of Cathy and then is found dead of sickness in Catherine's old room. In the movie, Heathcliff runs out in the middle of a snowstorm after Catherine and the family doctor says that he saw Heathcliff walking with a woman. When he walked near them, he saw Heathcliff by himself and found out he died. The last scene in the movie is the ghosts of Heathcliff and Catherine walking away with joined hands. “They've only just begun to live”.

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Analysis of the 1939 Film Adaptation of Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. (2022, Nov 17). Retrieved from

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