There have been many film and TV adaptations of Wuthering Heights over the years. But I think it’s true to say that the first one most people think of is still William Wyler’s black-and-white classic from the great Hollywood year of 1939, starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon. This adaptation is not especially faithful to the book, and indeed cuts out the whole second generation, who take up nearly half the novel. However, its wild, rain-lashed melodrama does come close to the spirit of Emily Brontë’s troubling masterpiece, and is something which modern versions, even if closer to the book on the surface, struggle to match.
Wuthering Heights is a great Gothic novel, but the film version starts with more of a flavour of Gothic horror movies, as the new tenant Lockwood (Miles Mander) makes the mistake of reaching a crumbling mansion in the middle of a storm. He then has to stay the night in the bridal chamber, which hasn’t been used for years, and which has a broken window for the wind and rain to whirl in through. All this would of course have been fresher and less clichéd in the 1930s than it is now, but, in any case, Alfred Newman’s music and Greg Toland’s amazing moody cinematography build the tension to fever pitch before Cathy’s ghost is heard wailing in the distance, followed by the unforgettable scene of Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff reaching out of the window in hopeless pursuit of a ghost, crying out: “Cathy! Come to me, oh do, once more!” This is one of the film’s key scenes, along with the moment where Merle Oberon, as Cathy, confesses: “Nelly, I am Heathcliff”. It seems the most passionate moments in this movie come when the lovers are apart – and yearning for what they have thrown away.
After its powerful opening, the film soon moves into flashback, as housekeeper Ellen (Flora Robson) recalls Cathy and Heathcliff’s story. The main characters are shown as children, tracing how Mr Earnshaw (Cecil Kellaway) finds the young Heathcliff ragged and starving on the streets of Liverpool, brings him home and adopts him, to the delight of his daughter, Cathy, but the dismay of his resentful son, Hindley. The childhood is made rather happier than it is in the novel, with a scene where the young Cathy and Heathcliff play a game of chivalry on the moors and she knights him – but the violent hatred between Heathcliff and Hindley is also built up in this early section, setting the scene for the later bitter power struggle between them.
Much of the novel’s darkness centres on Hindley’s drunken self-destruction, and his portrait is not much softened in the film from the character in the book. He is still a domineering brother who delights in humiliating both Cathy and Heathcliff, and, although Hugh Williams doesn’t really have enough screen time, he makes it tell. While his character is slightly squeezed into the margins, by contrast, the Lintons, Edgar (David Niven) and his sister Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald) are built up more. In the novel I think Emily Brontë is rather dismissive of both of them as “weak” and somehow not as alive as the central star-crossed lovers. However, in the film Niven brings all his warmth and sweetness to the character of Edgar, making his years of domestic happiness with Cathy, while her great passion is in abeyance, seem believable. Oberon and Niven had been involved in real life, so there is quite a lot of chemistry between them, which helps. And Fitzgerald makes Isabella into a potentially tragic figure, another wilful beauty trapped in Catherine’s shadow, and yet another character pining for love she can’t have.