Hailed as an unforgettable classic of destructive passion and immortal love, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is one of the most psychologically complex, self-reflexive and indeterminate of Victorian novels. Her nuanced exploration of class conflict, power, and patriarchy in this multi-layered narrative, undermines conventional notions of gender, class and propriety.
Bronte’s one and only prized 1847 classic, has remained the treasure-house of ideas for a plethora of film adaptations since the 1920s. Established directors from in and outside Hollywood have experimented, tried their hands to appropriate and transcreate Bronte’s fascinating classic. It is one such literary text that poses the daunting challenge of narratives embedded within narratives, the use of multiple narrators with multiple points of view that make it all the more difficult to be translated on screen.
The result has been both amazing and disappointing for lovers of literature and the movie-going audience. Directors like William Wyler, Luis Bunuel, Robert Fuest, Peter Kosminsky, and recently woman director Andrea Arnold, have been quite successful in their intermingled transactions of literature and film, to work out a nuanced dialectic in their intertextual and performative readings.
Arnold’s take on the Bronte classic foregrounds elements of race where an African American actor plays the role of Heathcliff. The interesting cultural afterlife of Bronte’s revered classic has seen Heathcliff being played by actors like Laurence Olivier, Richard Todd, Timothy Dalton, Ralph Fiennes, Robert Cavanah, Tom Hardy, James Howson et al, all attempting in their own way to do justice to Bronte’s Heathcliff.
However the two adaptations that specifically stand out and I choose to discuss here are the 1939 William Wyler adaptation and the 1954 Mexican adaptation by Luis Bunuel. The William Wyler English film Wuthering Heights (1939) starring Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as Catherine Earnshaw begins with a storm raging outside.
The director gives us a long shot of the storm and Lockwood’s struggle to combat it. Stunning visuals of a storm are accompanied by a fluid camera movement which makes it evident that a storm rages indoors too, within the mind of the owner of Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff. As we get a sneak peek into the interiors of the dark ‘Heights’ we meet the other characters in the room-Isabella, Ellen Dean, Joseph who all are full of apathy and completely controlled by Heathcliff.
With Lockwood’s nightmare we are made to feel the presence of a ghost, followed by mournful music. A howling snowstorm conveys a sense of the gothic and spiritual. Throughout, the desolate, storm-tossed Yorkshire moors with billowing wind remain a dominant motif. It is the most pictorial of Bronte adaptations. The story is recounted through Nelly’s flashback and in Wyler’s adaptation Nelly is a more authoritative narrator than the novel.
Wyler has achieved a romanticisation of Heathcliff, because Heathcliff, to earlier literary critics, may have appeared to be an incarnation of evil qualities of implacable hate, ingratitude, cruelty, falsehood, selfishness and revenge.
Bronte was reluctant to condemn Heathcliff and gradually through the nineteenth century, attitudes towards Heathcliff mellowed and readers have come to see Heathcliff as the ‘prototypical hero of Gothic romance’.
The obscurity of Heathcliff’s origin in the film, as in the Bronte text, also frees him of any exact social role, as Nelly muses, he might equally be a prince. Wyler’s film ends with Cathy’s death with no mention of a second generation, and Heathcliff’s cry of despair pleading Cathy to haunt him.
Wyler’s creative rendition even allows Nelly to play a part in infusing a romantic significance on the ending. It is ‘not a ghost’ that lures Heathcliff to his death, Nelly insists to Lockwood, ‘but Cathy’s love, stronger than time itself.’ He is ‘not dead but with her… They’ve only just begun to live’.
Outside Hollywood’s established canons Luis Bunuel’s Mexican adaptation Abismos de Pasion, treats the canonical literary text differently. The Catherine figure, Catalina, like Emily Bronte herself, has a man’s intellectual strength, boldness and utter refusal to conform and a woman’s tenderness and sensitivity. Catalina, in spite of her great love for Alejandro (Heathcliff) is prevented by pride from marrying her boorish lover.
It recalls Bronte’s novel: “It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him; and that, not because he’s more mine than I am.” (Bronte, Wuthering Heights) Despite sharing an affinity in nature with Alejandro, Catalina rejects him for the elegance, poise and refinement of the Eduardo (Edgar Linton) world. Her choice, dictated by pride, is responsible for destroying all that is good in Alejandro. Alejandro disappears; Catalina marries Eduardo; Ricardo (Hindley Earnshaw) remains in possession of Wuthering Heights.
Bunuel’s Abismos de Pasion opens some years later with an extraneous element Alejandro (Heathcliff) who comes back to the Catalina-Eduardo (Catherine-Edgar Linton) household, mysteriously wealthy, outwardly more polished and sure of himself. Maria’s (Nelly’s) exchange with Alejandro here makes it evident that Alejandro has always been perceived as a source of discord, inevitably disrupting the working of the natural order.
His return is considered a threat by Maria, for his presence would disrupt the peace of the apparently happy domestic household of Eduardo. In her brief exchange with Alejandro, Maria recalls Alejandro’s trouble-making propensities as inherent in his character without however recalling the atmosphere of conflict which he had to grow up in.
On his return to the Grange she rebukes Alejandro for being ‘incurable’. Maria in Bunuel’s version judges others applying the standards of normativity which are further based on preconceived ideas of right and wrong, heaven and hell, salvation and damnation, which are radically challenged by the very nature of the love between Catalina and Alejandro.
The old Joseph too links fiendishness with Alejandro as he uses the cross and smoke all over the interiors of Wuthering Heights to cast away the spell of the ‘devil’ from the house. Ordinarily love is thought to redeem destructive impulses, but in Alejandro’s case it is his love for Catalina which motivates his cruelty.
Under the power of a love-hate relationship, Catalina and Alejandro torture each other. Their thwarted love turns into a passion that is neither of the flesh nor of the spirit but which draws its destructive energy from impulses and subsequent frustration.
Alejandro ruins Ricardo through gambling and drink, and finally seduces Eduardo’s sister Isabel to marry him. In Bunuel’s film neither Eduardo not Isabel may be described as passive or timid. Eduardo suffers as he sees Alejandro as a rival in his love for Catalina. Isabel suffers badly for her love for Alejandro and remains trapped in her marriage to Alejandro.
Catalina’s desire for Alejandro, the wish for romantic escapism is also a wish for death and this death wish becomes integrally integrated with her love for Alejandro. She is proud of this wish to escape into death, into the glorious world of her imagination. Her death is the means by which she can satisfy her love for Alejandro. In Bunuel’s film, her love is a waiting for an impossible freedom from emotional conflict and her own excessive demands.
Bunuel has successfully changed the ending of the novel suggesting that passion in its world is asserted, often by an appeal to elemental energy, rather than analysed. Gothic melodrama of Bronte’s genre makes way for an overpowering sense of the precariousness of bodily life.
The final scene’s central focus is on a passion that seems to transcend mortality, it ultimately points toward the enigmatic world of Wuthering Heights. In its unique way, Bunuel is closer to the spirit of Bronte’s text than other adaptations.
In Wyler and Bunuel’s adaptations, like Bronte’s much loved novel, there is an enticing refusal of closure, where alluring tales of the unquiet dead continue to baffle us perpetually. This year as we fondly remember Bronte on her bicentenary let us look at the multiple film adaptations that have paid their homage and made the cultural afterlife of Wuthering Heights so memorable.
The writer is assistant professor, Department of English, Vidyasagar College for Women, University of Calcutta