I kind of loathe the book Wuthering Heights. I think it’s an awful story. I’m not a fan of the Brontë sisters in general. Read all of their books. Hate most of them. They’re so dreary. Their heroines, for the most part, love men who are unworthy of them.
So why pick the 1939 adaptation to write about?
Of all the adaptations of the book, I think it does the best job of eliminating what is so dreadful about the source material and ends up a very decent tragic romantic melodrama.
I did see the 1970 version with my parents when it came out. Other than developing prepubescent crushes on the male leads, Timothy Dalton and Ian Ogilvy, I didn’t like it.
My dad insisted the next time the 1939 showed up on television we watch it together, because it was much better. He was right. (He loved the part where Cathy runs along the moors screaming “Heathcliff! Heathcliff!” for some reason.)
Over the years I tried to give the book a chance, tried to give other adaptations of it a chance, and always come back to this one as the only tolerable version.
The book and movie are both flashbacks where a stranger staying at Wuthering Heights is told Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) and Cathy’s (Merle Oberon) story after he believes he sees the ghost of a young woman banging on his window. The servant Nelly (Flora Robson) recounts how Heathcliff was adopted, then treated like a servant when his foster father died, then ran away when he hears his foster sister (not incestuous at all, right?) Cathy say it would degrade her to marry him. (He conveniently didn’t hear the part where she claims to love him down to her soul.) While she is heartsick that Heathcliff left, she still accepts the more genteel Edgar (David Niven).
Years pass and Cathy and Edgar seem happy. Heathcliff returns, now rich. He buys Wuthering Heights from his foster brother and leaves him to drink himself to death. He courts Edgar’s sister Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald), to Cathy and Edgar’s dismay. Isabella elopes with Heathcliff and is soon miserable in her marriage because she realizes he can never love her the same way she loves him. The marriage affects Cathy so deeply she becomes deathly ill. Heathcliff fights his way into her room and Cathy dies in his arms. He begs Cathy’s ghost to haunt him the rest of his days.
In present time, Heathcliff is seen walking in the snow with his arms around a woman. Heathcliff is found dead and alone with only his footprints in the snow. Nelly believes he has joined Cathy in the afterlife, where the two of them will finally begin to live. We see the young versions of Cathy and Heathcliff walking along the moors arm in arm.
I know this will probably be a controversial statement, but Heathcliff, in the book and in most of the adaptations, is a horrendously abusive and sadistic character. Sure, people will come back with the argument that he had a right to be so rotten to the people who were rotten to him, but…nah. He’s just a jerk.
Most people despise Cathy because she rejects the oh-so sexy and brooding Heathcliff to marry the dull and rich Edgar. (David Niven recounted in his autobiography that he desperately didn’t want to play Edgar because he’s such a dullard.) But if one truly acknowledges the limited ways women could make decent lives for themselves during the time period the story takes place, she becomes a lot less horrible.
What I like about this version is Heathcliff is more sad and distant than cruel and avenging. Instead of being outright abusive to Isabella, he is mostly cold and unable to love her back. He even seems a little sorry that he is incapable of loving her.
Consequently, the story ends up being far more poignant than flat-out creepy. This version also wisely eliminates the final third of the book, which follows the children of the main characters, completely innocent people Heathcliff also uses to wreak vengeance on Edgar.
Yes, I can feel the love when the two ghosts reunite in the afterlife in this version. In the others it’s more like they end up in a hellish situation where they torment each other forever.
Good call, Dad.