On the Many Film Adaptations of the “Unfilmable” Wuthering Heights

From The Literary Hub:

 That books change over time is obvious. But how exactly do they change? Of course, there is context and experience, the first lost and the latter gained. The time in which a book was written is naturally in the past, and the cultural and personal understanding acquired, for better or worse, alters how we read. However, what isn’t usually acknowledged is the process by which film adaptations can shift the meanings of an original text. Images become attached to words where none existed before, and that can change how we absorb certain narratives or reshape how they exist in the popular imagination. And when a book has been adapted for the screen multiple times, a strange layering occurs: each successive transformation is influenced both by the previous cinematic treatments as well as the original text. Every new adaptation now carries a heavier burden than before, and has to contend with a growing network of narrative and visual associations.

This can be seen in how we think about Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, a novel which many consider to be unfilmable. And that conclusion is understandable—Brontë’s sprawling book about the destructive bond between the orphan Heathcliff and the object of his desire, Catherine Earnshaw, is split up into two lengthy sections, spans three generations of characters, and is told through a seemingly complex narrative structure using multiple (unreliable) narrators and unfolding mostly in flashback. Translating this accurately into a film is a head-scratcher. But this hasn’t stopped people from trying: at least 14 different film and television versions of the novel exist, the first being made in 1920 and the latest in 2011. While these attempts are often wildly different and vary in their success (the less said about the California-set MTV adaptation produced in 2003, the better), they contribute to our understanding of Wuthering Heights almost as much as the original text.

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Take, for example, the moors. Their presence in Wuthering Heights represents both freedom and danger, a symbol of Heathcliff and Catherine’s love that is trampled by the forces of order. Brontë describes the moors as being covered in the “silvery vapour” of the “misty darkness,” which paints an evocative picture. But the dominance of the moors in our thinking about Wuthering Heights owes just as much the William Wyler’s 1939 film adaptation, starring Laurence Olivier as a brooding Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as Catherine. Scripted by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht, this version is the most overtly romantic, due in large part to its omissions—like most of the other adaptations that followed, Wyler’s film ignores the second half of the book, and highlights the love story between Heathcliff and Catherine by removing, for the most part, the difficult cruelty of their characterizations.

Wyler’s version of Wuthering Heights remains the best known partly because it softens the story. But what makes the film unique, and not just another romantic drama, is the way cinematographer Gregg Toland portrays the moors as a fantastic spectacle of swirling fog, billowing wind, and hovering shadows. His expressionist rendering of the world of Wuthering Heights would have a profound influence on all the film adaptations that would come after it, and remains the dominant pictorial representation of the story.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub