Only Half: The 1939 Movie of Wuthering Heights
Cari Gilkison for Film Studies 578, April 1998
The single most striking difference between the book Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte and the 1939 MGM movie is the absence of the second half. Although there are many small changes, the absence of the second half dramatically alters the feel of the entire movie. We do not understand the full journey the character of Heathcliff, nor do we get the full Gothic feel of the novel from the movie. The cut of second half is typically Hollywood, as the movie rises quickly in action and cuts to the resolution. This is mostly due to lack of money and time, but it does alter the interpretation of the piece significantly.
This particular translation form the novel to the screen is made with its 1939 audience in mind. It could have been changed in many different ways to save time and money. Cutting the entire second half of the book was an interesting choice to make. At that time in America movies were full of melodrama and happy endings. No one wanted to see something so dark or negative. To lighten up the dark mood of Wuthering Heights though, takes away from its essence.
The best example is the confrontation between Heathcliff and Cathy before she dies (161). In the novel she begs for forgiveness, he refuses and ends up having to leave. Cathy dies a little while later. In the movie there is a beautiful picture of Heathcliff holding her up to see the beautiful moor. Then Cathy dies in his arms peacefully. With this new happier ending and the absence of Heathcliff’s long lasting pain, there is no sense of suffering. This sense of suffering is important to the overall message of the piece.
The movie not only lightens up the mood, but alters the pattern that is vital to the plot. The sequence of events follows a clear pattern that is like a cycle. It begins with Cathy and Heathcliff together, a part of a perfect union that is often represented by an eternal circle, like a wedding ring. Through the circle both Catherine and Heathcliff suffer. It is a long, hard journey to find peace for both of them. Then the circle ends with Heathcliff finally going to join Catherine in the afterlife. The text suggests that yet another cycle will begin with their children. When the second half was cut, so was the symbol of the eternal cycle. The film becomes much more of a straight line than circle as far as the plot is concerned.
The film is aimed more for an emotional response and the novel for an intellectual response. When the aim changes, so does the story. A lot of analysis that is clear in the reading of the novel is not so clear in the viewing of the movie. The movie leaves you with a feeling of lost love and forgiveness, but the book is much more complicated than that. The effect of not taking the time to show the loss Heathcliff felt and the punishment he inflicted on those around because of that loss is not nearly as clear in the movie. The emotion though, isn’t quite as strong in the novel. The focus shifts from the unforgivable sin of separation to the sheer romantic notion of lost love. Although the movie does hint at the unforgivable sin in the form of dialogue, it is merely an undercurrent. Without the passage of time shown in the novel and the darker dialogue, it is hard to connect to the characters and understand the psychology behind them. A part of the overall theme and message is definitely lost in the movie.
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