Any time a novel is made into a movie, changes must take place. However, frequently a film does capture the essential scenes of the book as well as the nature of each character, the tone and atmosphere, and some thematic ideas of the original. Adaptations of Wuthering Heights have not accomplished any of that. They invariably depict a love story that is hardly part of the novel and distort what little they do present to the point of complete deviation. The most recent version on PBS was an abomination, and the latest movie version, although I haven’t seen it, appeared from the trailer to be another great “love story”, this time with a multi-racial element. How can I say that a love story is hardly part of the novel? Heathcliff and Cathy never call each other their soul mates; do they even kiss? There is no support in the novel to think they do, until the scene when Catherine is dying. They are brother and sister and have forged the special bond that can only arise from childhood. Heathcliff depends on her entirely because he is an outcast, deprived and unloved since the death of Mr. Earnshaw, and he has no one else in his life but Catherine. When Catherine dies, he becomes the great “lover,” but actually he becomes literature’s greatest mourner–second only to Edgar Linton, who also never recovers from her death, but who has his daughter, Catherine, to give him a reason to carry on. Speaking of which, Heathcliff does find something as well– revenge. Catherine does make a reference to marrying Heathcliff, but what marriage involves is a little sketchy for Catherine; in the scene where Catherine confides in Nellie about her decision to marry Edgar, Catherine demonstrates a very immature and erroneous concept of it (she thinks that she will marry Edgar for the status and then have Heathcliff share in her good fortune, somehow—a sort of nonsexual manage a trois.) Further, Catherine is not at all unhappy with Edgar during the three years she lives with him until Heathcliff shows up, and even then, she thinks the three of them can co-exist.
In addition to forcing a love story from childhood dependence, film versions ignore the plot and characters– forget even getting close to conveying any theme in the work. Please give me the scene of the waif at the window when Lockwood is stranded at Wuthering Heights, the dinner table when Lockwood is invited to stay for tea, the death of Frances and Hindley’s life of “reckless dissipation”, Isabella’s arrival at Wuthering Heights as a “newlywed” and encounter with Joseph, Nellie’s conversation with Hareton, as a little boy, and Linton’s “tryst” with the young Catherine on the moors prior to luring her to the Heights to fulfill his father’s plan of revenge. I would even like to see Dr Kenneth, that rural sawbones, whose main Hippocratic role is to inform family members that someone is dying or dead, in a very matter of fact way. To have even a glimmer on screen of what Bronte had to say about childhood, alcoholism, revenge, and, maybe above all, grief.
Why can there be true movie versions of Jane Austen’s works, of Vanity Fair, various works of Dickens, even of Jane Eyre, but not of Wuthering Heights? The task might be too much for Hollywood and the limitations of the length of a feature film; but what about a series on HBO? An accurate movie version of the novel is not desirable solely to gratify a scholar’s desire for fidelity to the original and for doing right by its author; it is also worth doing for the great entertainment value that would result from being able to see the incredible tale unfold before one’s eyes. As I write this, I think maybe it is time to read Wuthering Heights again.