Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Thoughts on re-reading Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights. Few books have the power to polarise their readers to such an extent as Wuthering Heights. It's like Keira Knightley. . . or Vegemite. You either hate it, or love it. (I happen to like both of the latter, BTW).

I would have been about 12 or 13 when I read Wuthering Heights for the first time. I had never seen any of the film adaptations, and had no familiarity with the story. I was in for a shock! A complex, unpleasant story, full of characters who I greatly disliked and could not understand - those were some of my earlier impressions of Wuthering Heights.

Since that first exposure to Wuthering Heights, I have seen several of the film versions (which are nearly all pretty bad. . . WH, it would seem, is almost unfilmable). And I've read various articles, essays, and blog posts about Wuthering Heights over the years. In short, as much as I disliked WH the first time I read it, I found myself wanting to read it once more. After reading so much about other people's opinions of WH, and watching various film interpretations, I wanted to read it again - to refresh my memory of it, and to try to decipher my own feelings on the book, several years after reading it for the first time.

I finished reading it yesterday. Some of my (somewhat random) thoughts:

Wuthering Heights has got to be one of the most frustrating books in the English language! For over a century and a half, readers and critics alike have tried desperately to pin it down - to dissect it - decipher it's meaning - and have all failed. Wuthering Heights simply refuses to be pinned down or boxed in. You can try to instill some definite moral or allegory - it doesn't work! Everybody wants to 'figure it out', but no one really can. Every reader, every critic seems to interpret the story in a different way.

Heathcliff: possibly my least favourite character in English literature. A very, very messed up human being! I frankly cannot understand the appeal he holds for some women. 'Bad boy' appeal? I don't think so. He's a fiend! He's a villain! There is absolutely nothing to like about him. It is possible to feel some measure of sympathy for him early in the book, when he is cruelly abused by Hindley, but beyond that. . .

I find the hardest, most painful part of the book to read is Heathcliff's return to the Grange after his several year's absence. There is something so ominous in those pages. You know that something is going to explode - that something is going to go terribly, terribly wrong - and it does. On the other hand, there is such an incredible sense of relief upon Heathcliff's death. As he gradually fades away - and as Catherine and Hareton's romance develops - the dark, unsettling atmosphere that has haunted the Heights for years finally lifts.

We can't ever know for certain what inspired Emily Bronte to write her only novel, but my guess is, rather than wanting to write it, she was compelled to write it. The characters lived in her mind, and she had to write their story. She never set out with the intention of making up such a character as Heathcliff. He just - happened. That's how I've always imagined it to have been, anyway. . .

One thing that struck me as I was re-reading WH was how shockingly modern the language seemed to be! Or perhaps 'timeless' would be a better word than 'modern'. Emily Bronte's prose is much easier for the modern reader to follow than, say, Dickens' or even Charlotte Bronte's. The language is simple, but very powerful in its simplicity. It doesn't read like a typical Victorian novel. And of course, it isn't a typical Victorian novel at all. . .

Hmmm. . . still trying to analyze my thoughts on Wuthering Heights. I think I have something of a love-hate affair with Emily Bronte's classic. It's violent, it's depressing, full of unlikeable characters. . . and yet, I suspect that, in another couple of years, I'll be pulling it down from the shelf and reading it yet again! So what is the appeal of Wuthering Heights for me? I'm not exactly sure! I don't like either of the protagonists - Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw. I don't like their love story. The 'love' they have for each other is destructive and unhealthy. An excellent example of humanity pushed to its cruelest, darkest limits, and of passion twisted and perverted until it is utterly unlike what God intended it to be.

And yet - there are glimpses of light towards the very end. Catherine and Hareton's beautiful, innocent romance contrasts all the more strongly with Cathy and Heathcliff's destructive obsession with each other. I love the last few chapters of the book - as Heathcliff fades and dies, and Catherine and Hareton begin to fall in love. To me - it's like the curse has been crushed. The horrible, destructive cycle has finally been broken. Catherine and Hareton can get married, move to Thrushcross Grange, have a bunch of children. . . begin their lives again. As for Wuthering Heights itself - do you think it should be left alone? Left to itself, along with all its memories and ghosts? It seems the most fitting fate to me. . .

So, the final few chapters - and the promise of life and new beginnings after all the death and destruction - help to make it all worthwhile for me.

Now - shall I give a brief rundown of the various movie adaptations, for those of you who are interested? Please remember I don't necessarily recommend any of the following films. Wuthering Heights, by its very nature, is violent and often depressing, so of course any movie version that follows the book is also going to be. . . violent and depressing. The only major adaptation I haven't seen is the 1939 version, with Laurence Olivier. By all accounts, it doesn't follow the book with any fidelity. . .

Timothy Dalton as Heathcliff!

1970 - Timothy Dalton and Anna Calder-Marshall

Not the best version of WH, but not all bad, either. I didn't like the actress cast as Cathy - she looked more like an Isabella Linton than a Catherine Earnshaw. On the other hand, Timothy Dalton as Heathcliff. . . wow! :-) What a lot of talent the guy had/has - even at such an early age (early 20s when WH was filmed). Judy Cornwell (Mrs. Musgrove in Persuasion 1995) was lovely as Nelly Dean. One thing that that this adaptation did do well was illustrating the dynamics and relationships within the Earnshaw family. BUT. . . this adaptation finishes after the death of Catherine. And *spoiler warning* they tweaked the story a bit, so that Hindley shoots and kills Heathcliff shortly after Catherine's death! On top of that, the film is only 100 minutes long, so the whole movie felt very rushed. 100 minutes just ain't long enough to do WH any kind of justice, even if you're only adapting half of the story.

3 out of 5 stars

Wuthering Heights 1992

1992 - Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche

It's been a while since I last watched this adaptation, but from what I can remember, it simply failed to capture what Wuthering Heights is all about for me. This movie hasn't aged very well - the wigs and hairstyles, especially, are painfully early-90s. Aargh! :-( I didn't particular like any of the actors in the film. If I remember correctly, Ralph Fiennes was okay as Heathcliff, though I wasn't overly enamoured with Juliette Binoche's Catherine. They got Juliette Binoche to play both Cathys. She had such a terrible blonde wig as Cathy jr!! But getting past the wigs - I just didn't really like this version. It seemed rather bland in places, lacking the raw, wild beauty that Wuthering Heights is supposed to have. The soundtrack, the script, the overall feel of the film. . . it just didn't cut it for me. It's not 'my' Wuthering Heights.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

Wuthering Heights 1998

1998 - Robert Cavanagh and Orla Brady

My favourite version of Wuthering Heights! This is probably one of the lesser-known adaptations, but it is, in my opinion, the best. That's not to say it's perfect - far from it. As I said above, Wuthering Heights is a very difficult book to adapt for film or TV, and certainly we have yet to see the definitive version of Wuthering Heights (I very much doubt that we ever will see it. . .). But for me, WH 1998 captures the 'essence' of Wuthering Heights better than any of the other adaptations available. Robert Cavanagh as Heathcliff - he doesn't look like Heathcliff, but he manages to convey Heathcliff's character better than any of the other attempts I have seen. Heathcliff's viciousness and cruelty is also less toned down here that it is in some of the other versions.

Orla Brady as Cathy - not 100% right, but I still like her better than any of the other Cathys. Many viewers have complained about the actors playing Heathcliff and Cathy being too old. Which is true enough, I suppose. They both look about 35 in scenes where they're supposed to be 15. It is a bit distracting, but it didn't bother me enough to destroy my appreciation of the rest of the movie. The soundtrack is absolutely gorgeous. This is the only version of WH I have seen that managed to bring me to tears! I was bawling during the last few minutes of the film - which were very well done. So sad, but so beautiful. Another thing I loved about this adaptation was the fact that it retained quite a lot of Emily Bronte's dialogue - always a plus!

Wuthering Heights 1998

Simon Bonham-Carter (Mr. Bingley in P&P 95!) was very good as Edgar Linton. It's great to see a different side to his acting abilities. Finally, I can't wrap up this mini-review without mentioning MATTHEW MACFADYEN as Hareton!! He looks so young - this was his first role for TV, according to IMDb. If you're a fan of Matthew (like me), this adaptation of WH is worth checking out for Matthew's brief appearances alone. His scenes with Catherine are so adorable! :-) One more plus - this is possibly one of the cleaner versions of Wuthering Heights out there. The more violent and disturbing aspects of the story are often merely implied, rather than graphically depicted.

4 out of 5 stars

Wuthering Heights 2009

2009 - Tom Hardy and Charlotte Riley

Didn't particularly like this new miniseries adaptation from ITV. I thought it was bland, and overly modern. Remember I said the 1992 version hasn't aged well? I think it will be the same for WH 2009. In another 15-20 years we'll watch this version and groan. . . "Hm, a very 2000s version of Wuthering Heights". . . which it is. I really think they went a little too far here in trying to make this adaptation accessible for a modern audience. With a classic, timeless text like Wuthering Heights, you shouldn't need to bend over backwards in effort to make the story 'contemporary' and 'accessible'. Duh!! But it does have some good points - Tom Hardy was fantastic as Heathcliff. Too bad I didn't like any of the other actors in this production. Charlotte Riley looks like Catherine, but I wasn't all that impressed with her portrayal of Cathy. Also, there are several scenes in this version that I had to fast-forward through. :-/

3 out of 5 stars


Note: all of the above adaptations are on Youtube, if you want to watch them online. Just search for "Wuthering Heights 1998", for instance, and you should be able to find it without too much trouble.

Whew! This has turned into a pretty epic post. If you're still reading, congratulations. :P Thank you for your patience.

Now - I want to hear your thoughts and opinions! Do you like Wuthering Heights? Do you hate it? Do you think it deserves its status as one of the great classics of English literature? Do you have a favourite movie adaptation?


Marian said...

I read Wuthering Heights some years ago, did not like it, and since then I think I re-read it some two or three times. The characters are despicable, and the whole story is actually, in my opinion, very unromantic. The "love" in this book isn't my idea of true love.

But I actually want to read it again. I think it's because it's a somewhat confusing plot (it doesn't help that it repeats itself in the second half, and that the two "heroine" characters' names are both Cathy!). Also, I think I want to find something good/likeable in it. So many people love it; I never have and likely never will, but I guess I just get the feeling that I'm missing something. As I remember it, it is well-written, but good writing style doesn't necessarily make a good novel, for me.

I haven't seen any version of this; we tried the '98 version, but it had some bad language. I wouldn't mind seeing the Dalton version; he's my favourite Rochester!

Alexandra said...

I'd love to see a similar review of Jane Eyre. I've never seen any of the film adaptations or even read the book (I know...bad me...). My parents saw one of the adaptations when I was a wee thing. Didn't like it, so I never read it. Now we're willing to give it a "don't judge the book by its movie" test...but I'd like to know if it's worth reading. Also, I saw clips of the 2006 version on YouTube. It looked good...what's your personal opinion on it?

The Editrix said...

Alexandra - after I finished this post, I immediately starting thinking about doing a similar Jane Eyre post! Jane Eyre is my next book club book, so I'll have to re-read it over the next few weeks. I will definitely be covering Jane Eyre sometime soon, if not in a post about the book, then in my "Top 15 Adaptations" series, which I hopefully get back to soon. . .

But, in a nutshell: yes, Jane Eyre is DEFINITELY worth reading! From a moral perspective, Christian values are upheld. And from an artistic perspective, it really is a very powerful and well-written book.

The 2006 version is okay, though not my favourite version. There are one or two scenes that I could have done without. And in any case, you should read the book first. :-) I didn't, and I've regretted it.

Marian - I'm a Timothy Dalton fan too, but be warned - there is some language and some 'iffy' scenes in the Dalton adaptation, as well. :-/

Theresa said...

I've only read it once, but I found it similar to how you describe it - it's a love/hate thing.

But in the end I think I have to say that I like it, for some reason. Emily Bronte was AMAZING! How on earth did she make that story so appealing and ... nice?
I want to read it again now! It's a real rainy weather book though, so I'll wait till winter :)

Enbrethiliel said...


I read Wuthering Heights in high school and liked it. I recall feeling transported by Emily Bronte's prose. In hindsight, I say that I should have bought my own copy instead of reading one from the library, because it seems like "one of those novels" that we pull down and revisit again and again. I think that if I had bought a copy, I'd know Wuthering Heights today as well as I know Jane Eyre (which is also "one of those novels"!).

Elise, now you have to see the adaptation of Wuthering Heights with Laurence Olivier as Heathcliffe!

On Timothy Dalton: he also played Antony in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, albeit only on stage. If I recall correctly, Dame Maggie Smith played Cleopatra. The director wanted her to be a sophisticated, slightly jaded older woman and Antony to be a guileless, slightly green younger man. So, yes, he does have range. =)

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Rebekah said...

I have never read or seen any of Wuthering Heights - nearly everyone has always told me that it wouldn't really be worth my while - that it's depressing, violent and - doesn't have a redeeming quality. But then, there are several movie adaptations, so there must be something in it!! *sigh* I don't know if I'll read it or not...

I would love to read Jane Eyre! I have seen three movie versions of it - the 2006 version, Timothy Dalton and Ciaran Hinds/Samantha Morton. I actually like the 2006 best (though I agree about the scenes - why oh why do they have to spoil a good movie with those things?!?)I like Timothy Dalton, but whoever played Jane just - well, was too boring. And I found that version of the movie rather boring too - though it added a lot that the others were missing!

Loved your post! I did read the entire thing! :D

To the KING be all the glory!


"Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth." 2 Timothy 2:15

Milena March said...

I read Wuthering Heights for the first time when I was about 13 and hated it. It wasn't until I watched the 1998 adaptation (also the best one, in my opinion) that I began to consider re-reading it, but I remained convinced I didn't like it. It wasn't until my teacher read us a bit of the beginning that I started re-reading it and was suddenly entranced with it. I think you're right in that it's a very complex book and the characters are very hard to like (especially Heathcliff, who I downright dislike.)

Jessica McDonald said...

Okay, I admit it. I love "Wuthering Heights". Movie, book...whatever.

I think it's the dramatic in me coming out. :) I tend to have a love-hate relationship with all the characters. Because yes, I do like them. I *feel* for them. I think Bronte was very good with emotions.

Anyway, my favorite film adaption would have to be the newest one. But then, I've only seen that one and the Laurence Olivier version (which I didn't like at all.). :)

I really enjoyed reading your post! Not many people I've talked to have actually read the book or seen any of the movies! I think Wuthering Heights ranks up there with Jane Eyre! Strange but still classics. :)

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Cathy said...

Elise, I liked your review very much. I can only recall reading the book, no other thoughts could I muster since it was so many years ago. The 1970 movie version was the only one I saw until recently.

Grace said...

Elise, you have been tagged.

FelicityKing said...

WH is one of my all-time favorite books. Yes, it's dark and twisted, but not everything in life is nice, gentle, and sweet. I think it is largely a classic because it shows everyone has the potential for a dark side. Circumstances--both external and internal---help make us what we are. Also, there is some evidence that Emily had been planning the story for years--her Gondrian cycle [written w/ her siblings] contains a prototype couple very like Heathcliff and Catherine.

BTW: you might be interested in reading Andrea Dworkin's essay on Wuthering Heights in her book, "Letters from the War Zone." She doesn't excuse the characters for their violence, but she informatively puts into a context how the characters could have become so unlikable.

P.S. I am a reader who believes you can still dislike but still have compassion for unlikable characters. Which is probably why I like the book.

Esther said...

Thanks for following my blog. :) I haven't read Wuthering Heights yet, but I plan to sometime in the near future.


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Nibs said...

Great assessment! I felt much the same way about WH - it is very cruel (when I read it I had no previous idea of its storyline, and it really shocked me!), but there is also something quite compelling about it.

motocross gear said...

Bronte, is a universe of opposing forces-storm and calm. Wuthering Heights, the land of storm, is a sturdy house that is set up high on the windy moors, belonging to the Earnshaw family. The house is highly charged with emotion of hatred, cruelty, violence, and savage love.

Sandra said...

Hi - Found your blog thru a link in Enchanted Serenity of Period Films site. Enjoyed perusing it. I, too, am a Period Drama lover. 2 or 3 you don't mention that I think you would enjoy are Mansfield Park (1999)with Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund and Frances O'Connor as Fanny Price. Wide Sargasso Sea (2006)is a prequel to Jane Eyre and very good but contains a few quite steamy sex scenes so be forewarned. It is the story of how Rochester (Rafe Spall) met and married his first wife Antoinette/Bertha (played by Rebecca Hall.) Also, a Hallmark Hall of Fame Movie called The Magic of Ordinary Days starring Kerri Russell and Skeet Ulrich. Very sweet, set during WWII. Check them out if you like. Keep up the good work. By the way. I live in Canada and have relatives in Junee, NSW AUS.

Sandra Walsh

Rebecca said...

Hi there!
Well, as far as love in WH is concerned I believe the love between Heathliff and Catherine was true and blessed, or it could have been so if Catherine hadn't refused her destiny. (that is to marry Heathcliff). She chose Edgar and then she got paid for this wrong decision. And the love between Heathliff and Catherine turned to a firy, mad, devilish passion.

Casandra Ramirez said...

Hi :D

Wuthering Heights is my favorite book, but when people ask me why, this little thought pops into my head: "I like it because the characters are horrible and get what they deserve." What kind of reason is that? :P
I read it in Spanish though, because that's my native language, and I kind of feel like a traitor for not reading it in the original language.
My mom gave it to me as a gift and I started reading it and got bored, so I left in on the shelf for a few months. When I finally picked it up again I was hooked! I loved it. This was like 5 years ago, and now I re-read it every 4 moths or so.
And the movies! Don't get me started on those. I didn't like any of them.

Well, it was nice coming across your blog.

Take care

cali said...

there's an even older Hollywood version, 1939, starring laurence olivier.

ACM said...

This was actually my favorite "Wuthering Heights" adaptation to date. I liked Charlotte Riley. I feel Cathy has to balance a challenging mix of shallower and deeper emotions, and I thought Riley did that well. Tom Hardy was by far the best Healthcliff I've ever seen, but he was still a bit off the mark. I thought he was a bit too calculating. To me, the character of Heathcliff is all of nature, the moors, incarnated in one being. His actions should be unreflective, pure reactions. I feel that Bronte men are often the emotion to the Bronte heroine's reason. Think of Jane reasoning with the passionate Rochester about the need for her departure. Heathcliff is Bronte man passion distilled to the highest concentration, the purest vintage. In my dream adaptation, the Colin Ferrell of "Ondine" plays Heathcliff.

I love the Brontes. Among them I find the most kindred of kindred spirits. I thought the 2011 "Jane Eyre" was the best adaptation yet. Though of course I would prefer a longer film, many of the best lines and sentiments were preserved in the screenplay.

I hope to see a decent adaptation of Charlotte's "Villette," my favorite, as some point.