Wuthering, Wearying Heights
Emily Brontë’s only published novel, Wuthering Heights, has spawned numerous stage and screen adaptations. Lucky (or unlucky, as the case may be) for British Lit fanatics, made-for-TV movies based on the works of the sisters Brontë (and Dickens, Austen, et al.) are re-adapted every few years. Heathcliff, the original melancholy bad boy and his lover, the nuts-but-beautiful Catherine will undoubtedly grace the small screen again and again, reimagined for the next generation of precocious 12-year-old girls and die-hard Brontë devotees. The 1967 production of Wuthering Heights is part of a long adaptation tradition, but some elements of the story don’t change: Heathcliff and Catherine are doomed from the start, and bring misery to everyone around them.
Wuthering Heights opens in late 18th century Yorkshire. Mr. Earnshaw returns to his home, Wuthering Heights from a trip abroad. His children Catherine and Hindley are dismayed to find that he hasn’t brought them presents from his travels, but rather a new adopted brother, whom Mr. Earnshaw christens Heathcliff. Mr. Earnshaw found the urchin on the city and has apparently carried the boy all the way over the moors for a better life with him, in the countryside. Cathy and Hindley mistreat and belittle Heathcliff for most of their collective childhoods, until Catherine abruptly decides that she’s in fact madly in love with the taciturn Heathcliff, and he returns the favor. Somewhat inexplicably, Catherine decides to marry her wealthy neighbor, Edgar Linton to ascend socially and also to protect Heathcliff from life as a pauper. Her plan backfires, and Heathcliff disappears for several years.
When Heathcliff returns to Wuthering Heights, he’s suddenly wealthy, and furious with Catherine for marrying Linton. To exact his revenge, Heathcliff weds Isabella, Linton’s younger sister. Catherine soon dies from a fever and a broken heart, but not before reconciling with Heathcliff one last time. Heathcliff goes slowly crazy in the years following Catherine’s death, and eventually concocts an elaborate plan to join Catherine and Linton’s daughter, Cathy, and his and Isabella’s son, called Linton, in a forced kissing-cousins marriage. When Linton dies, Heathcliff is master of Wuthering Heights, both in name and practice.
Though made in 1967, Wuthering Heights feels like a product of a much earlier era, perhaps the ‘40s. The year 1967 gave the world The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, and In the Heat of the Night—all of which are notable for being groundbreaking films in their subject matter, style, and technique.
Wuthering Heights is straightforward in its production techniques and shot in black and white. The outdoor scenes are atmospheric and effective, with wide shots of the vast sea that is the moors. The film could do without the constant whistling wind sound effects, used throughout the film to remind us that our miserable characters live in an inhospitable world, where evidently, the wind never lets up. Certain elements of the filming are reminiscent of early Hitchcock: there are stark shots of black trees against stormy skies, and the black and white format enhances already expressive shadows. However, the camera work is unimaginative in the interior scenes, which read like watching a play on stage. The prop department goes for the obvious, cloaking Heathcliff’s room in large swaths of Halloween-like cobwebs.
Heathcliff is portrayed with gusto and a uni-brow by a young Ian McShane, who went on to an illustrious and varied career in film and television. (Lovejoy, Columbo, Deadwood, and um, SpongeBob Square Pants). His Catherine is Angela Scoular, who also portrays Catherine Jr. looking exactly the same but wearing a blonde wig. Scoular and McShane both approach their characters with maniacal intensity and don’t vary their anguish much over the course of the mini-series. Scoular in particular is a fan of wild-eyed hysteria, and she succeeds in making both of her Catherines seem completely deranged.
One has a hard time mustering empathy for any of the characters, at least in part because they’re originally written as miserable, selfish wretches. Unlike in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, in which readers/viewers are clearly expected to sympathize with Jane while they resent Rochester and fear the crazy Bertha Mason, the actors in Wuthering Heights do little to make their characters nuanced, sympathetic, or indeed, believable. Catherine and Heathcliff seem mere outlines of what they could be, and rather than feeling pity for their thwarted love, one is left with a sense that it’s just as well. When Heathcliff and Catherine are finally reunited in death, one feels neither a sense of comfort or resolution, save perhaps a faint relief that the saga is over.
But true Brontë aficionados may enjoy this addition to the canon. Apparently, the miniseries was the impetus behind Kate Bush’s 1978 ballad of the same name. Though the film’s timeline differs somewhat from the novel’s (which is told through a series of flashbacks) Wuthering Heights remains true to Brontë’s essential story. The torture of true thwarted love is earnestly, if unconvincingly represented. And the Yorkshire moors are as Brontë must have experienced them: wild, darkly beautiful, and most of all, exceptionally windy.