on wuthering heights

February 15, 2010 § 4 Comments

taking advantage of the lunar new year, and hence, my free monday, i finished reading the novel by emily brontë this morning and after a dusty romp in the closet, emerged with the 1939 film on dvd.  ka-ching.

if you’ve read wuthering heights, i expect you either loved it and thought it the most passionate, wind-swept, heart-breaking tragedy in the history of british literature, or wanted to dropkick it off the empire state building for wasting your time.  my chem teacher called it the most boring book he’d ever read in his life, for example.  and ehm if you know my chem teacher, you can probably imagine the way he absolutely draawled it out in his korean-californian accent: the most booooorrring book i ever rea-

i loved reading wuthering heights.  it was stormy, depressing, frustrating, angsty.. and an exceedingly passionate love story.  and as you get to know me better (assuming i continue this blog and assuming you continue to read it and assuming someone in the world is reading this at all and- well, assuming a lot of things), you will find that i tend to set impossibly high expectations for film adaptations of anything i read, as i’m sure many of you do.  so you can imagine my excitement when this guy pops up on screen as the male lead, mr. heathcliff:

as mr. heathcliff.

english legend laurence olivier, considered one of the best actors of the 20th century

described by brontë as “a tall, athletic, well-formed man”, “a half-civilised ferocity lurked yet in the depressed brows and eyes full of black fire, but it was subdued.”  dark, temperamental, angry, scornful, yet in love.. a lot for an actor to live up to, especially in those days of golden hollywood when men were supposed to be all charming and gallant and cary grant-like.  laurence olivier pulled it off, managing to retain heathcliff’s manliness even against the overdone, ever-so-saccharine swell of violins every time heathcliff and cathy (the hero and heroine of the story) have a heart to heart.

as for catherine, played by english actress merle oberon.. i disliked the interpretation.  she wasn’t half so flighty, wild-hearted, saucy, sweet, manipulative, nor delicately beautiful as i imagined her to be.  for such a strong character it was a surprisingly weak performance.  cathy should have been played as a woman to be frightened of, a woman who is uncommonly obstinate, selfish, proud, and wild, but still soft and angelic when she wished to be.  merle oberon… mediocre.  i don’t know.

i think my biggest complaint with this adaptation was how tastelessly they over-simplified it.  maybe i’m being unnecessarily sensitive here, but reducing the subtleties of the characters and the story line to the point of making it a generic, unrequited love story seems unforgivable.  i don’t even care that they cut out the entire second half of the novel (in the book, cathy and heathcliff have children with their own respective spouses and their story continues through the second generation, but this second generation is nonexistent in the film).  that really isn’t a problem in itself.  the problem is that wuthering heights is supposed to be a complex story about two terribly selfish people who destroy the lives of everyone around them, while this film is more a portrayal of two rather unhappy, but relatively normal people with unexceptional personalities, who just don’t end up with a happy ending. in other words, it’s a watered-down, diluted version of the story.  it doesn’t resonate (at least with me) because i consider the beauty of wuthering heights to be the very extremity of it.  after all, this is a novel that is renowned for its starkness, its extreme characters.  the film, in my opinion, fails to embrace that intensity.

an example of this was the very last scene.  in the film, the ghosts of dead heathcliff and cathy are shown wandering the moors hand in hand, finally reunited in death and clearly in love.

there is no such scene in the novel.  apparently even the director, william wyler, despised the idea of this after-life scene, but was forced to film and include it by the producer, samuel goldwyn.  is there any reason for that scene to be there except to reassure the audience that yes, heathcliff and cathy do end up together in the end, and that it all ends very neatly and romantically with no loose strings?  i don’t think so, and i’m not sure if brontë would approve of this commercially generic, happily-ever-after either.

but having said that, man i’m a total sucker for the romance.

my favourite scenes are as follows, each romantic as hell, and for me, worth watching the movie (and enduring the sugary music) for:

1.  cathy’s confession:

2.  heathcliff woos the married mrs. cathy linton on the terrace:

3.  cathy is dying, heathcliff…

4.  at her deathbed.

sigh.  too bad laurence olivier and merle oberon apparently hated each other in real life.   olivier was engaged at the time to the beautiful actress vivien leigh, and oberon was having a thing with film producer alexander korda.

and umm.. merle's uh.. sweetheart.

the golden couple of their day..

the golden couple of their day..

and according to witnesses, the two couldn’t stand each other.  i found this pretty stupidly funny:  merle oberon apparently complained to the director that olivier kept spitting on her when saying his lines.  olivier reportedly retorted, “what’s a little spit for chrissake, between actors?”  heehee wow.

as for awards, wuthering heights received a slew of oscar nominations: for best actor (olivier), best supporting actress (geraldine fitzgerald), best art direction, best director, best original score (are you serious???), best PICTURE, and best adapted screenplay. unfortunately, it only won the oscar for best cinematography.  hm.

so.  all in all, a wind-swept, tumultuous, impassioned affair.. best watched with rain pounding against the windows and plenty of hot tea.  however, for the real, bookish thrill of experiencing dialogue like,

“Oh, God! is is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!”

…i would read the book.




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