Over the years, there have been countless adaptations of Emily Brontë’s seminal 1847 novel which blatantly challenged the strict codifications of Victorian morality and normative values. From Luis Buñuel to Jacques Rivette, several acclaimed filmmakers have tried to translate Brontë’s bleak vision of human cruelty to the cinematic medium. Even MTV tried to give the timeless tale a new “spin” by setting it in a modern high school but the results were disastrous. Despite this version’s obvious deficits, William Wyler’s 1939 adaptation probably still remains the closest in spirit to the legendary source material.
Wuthering Heights was not the only adaptation that William Wyler conducted in his illustrious career. In fact, his legendary stature as one of the “most bankable moviemakers” grew because of his ability to make successful film adaptations like Mrs. Miniver and Ben-Hur. More than the directorial force of Wyler or the acting talents of a young Laurence Olivier, the 1939 adaptation of Wuthering Heights worked on multiple levels due to the creative agency of cinematographer Gregg Toland who went on to work on masterpieces like John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and Wyler’s magnum opus The Best Years of Our Lives.
From the opening shot of the desolate landscape and the reflected hostility in the interiors of the household through beautiful chiaroscuros, Toland’s undeniable skill is on full display. By experimenting with the balance between light and shadow, Toland managed to add depth and perception to two-dimensional frames. Interestingly, Wuthering Heights was also the first production that used the new Mitchell BNC camera made by the Mitchell Camera Corporation. The camera soon became a standard choice for most studios.
There are many conflicting reports about the casting decisions when it came to Wuthering Heights. Some reports suggest that the film was meant to be a vehicle for Merle Oberon (who played the role of Catherine) while others claim that the project was initially intended for Sylvia Sidney and Charles Boyer. Big names like Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Robert Newton were also considered for the role of Heathcliff but the part ultimately went to Laurence Olivier who turned it into a definitive performance of his distinguished filmography.
The production process wasn’t an easy one by any means. Wyler was known to be a difficult director to work with who valued perfection over anything else. One example of this was a scene with Olivier which was shot 72 times with the director not providing any constructive criticism. He just kept saying “again” repeatedly until Olivier could not take it anymore: “For God’s sake, I did it sitting down. I did it with a smile. I did it with a smirk. I did it scratching my ear. I did it with my back to the camera. How do you want me to do it?” The director calmly replied, “I want it better.”
Olivier and Oberon famously failed to get along as well and were constantly at loggerheads. Somehow, their dynamic ended up adding to the film’s rendition of the tragic romance between Catherine and Heathcliff. Although the film omits significant sections of the novel and the plot-lines about the second generation mentioned in Brontë’s work, Wyler gets the underlying sensibilities right at certain moments. Like many other adaptations, the 1939 version does get caught up in sweeping scenes of romance but there are flashes of hatred which formed the foundation of Brontë’s grim and unforgiving literary world.
Apart from the obvious changes, the film also shifts the time-period from the late 18th/early 19th century to mid-19th century. Scholars have theorised that the film’s producer Samuel Goldwyn preferred Civil War fashion but it was reported that he made that creative decision because he had to recycle Civil War costumes due to limited funds. Goldwyn made a lot of executive decisions about the project, most notably the infamous after-life scene where Heathcliff and Catherine are seen walking hand-in-hand as a testament of their undying love.
Anyone who is familiar with the novel will immediately understand that this was the exact opposite of what Brontë wanted to convey through the construction of Catherine’s ghost. The supernatural entity wasn’t a symbol of their affection but a vestigial remnant of their jealous hatred, doomed to haunt her “lover” for eternity. Given the details of the production, Goldwyn’s comments start making sense: “I made Wuthering Heights, Wyler only directed it.” It is clear that Goldwyn’s contribution ended up tarnishing Wyler’s vision and the spirit of Wuthering Heights but Goldwyn maintained that the film was his favourite project.
Despite its shortcomings, Wuthering Heights went on to be a critical and commercial success. The film picked up eight Academy Award nominations, with Gregg Toland rightfully winning one for his revolutionary cinematography. For his brooding and menacing performance as Heathcliff, Olivier picked up a nomination for Best Actor as well while Oberon was famously snubbed. Olivier was initially frustrated with Wyler’s perfectionism but he later admitted that it was Wyler who helped him transition from the theatricality of the stage to the subtlety of cinema. The world is still waiting for the perfect film adaptation of Brontë’s masterpiece but Wyler’s version stands out in the enormous legacy of Wuthering Heights as the definitive one.