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Wuthering Heights "Is Mr. Heathcliff a Man?"

Masterpiece Classic

by Victoire Sanborn

"Is Mr Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad? And if not, is he a devil?" - Isabella Heathcliff in a letter to Nelly Dean

 

Since I first encountered Heathcliff in the classic 1939 film adaptation of Wuthering Heights, I have had a love/hate relationship with him. Emily Brontë's anguished character cannot be called a hero by any stretch of the imagination, yet I mistook him for one at first. Like Isabella Linton, I was sure Heathcliff was a good man needing to be rescued.

 

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While my foolish 15-year-old romantic girlish heart knew he could be redeemed through the force of true love, Miss Brontë informs us in no uncertain terms that any such thought will lead to disaster.

While my foolish 15-year-old romantic girlish heart knew he could be redeemed through the force of true love, Miss Brontë informs us in no uncertain terms that any such thought will lead to disaster. The kindest thing one can say about Heathcliff is that his tortured soul leads him to violent exertion.

 

The 1939 film stops short of the full story, concentrating on Heathcliff's obsession with Catherine Earnshaw, and neglecting fully one half of the novel in which he extracts his awful revenge on the Lintons and Earnshaws. Masterpiece Classic's 2008 adaptation of the novel, adapted by Peter Browker and directed by Coky Giedroye, makes no such mistake. Heathcliff's cunning as he plans his revenge is revealed one terrible scene at a time. Viewers who have not yet read the novel will be both attracted and repelled as Heathcliff deliberately ruins lives and creates mayhem in the psyches of those who are left standing.

 

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The opening sequence of Wuthering Heights occurs on a bleak night. Slung low to the ground, the camera swoops over a meandering path like a preternatural creature and enters the house. It hurls up the stairs to the strains of dark, throbbing music, stops abruptly in Catherine Earnshaw's room and pans to Heathcliff, who is lying in her bed moaning, "End it! End it!" The viewer knows instantly that this film - through script, direction, mood, and setting - will provide no romantic retelling of Emily Bronte's tale. Whew.

 

 

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Tom Hardy, who plays Heathcliff, is a compelling man to look at but not classically handsome. With his full lips he can look soft and tender (and even handsome) playing a young Heathcliff, but as the character ages, Mr. Hardy transforms himself into a physically menacing man, creating a memorable character oozing with passion, venom, and hatred. Hardy's loose limbed and prowling walk; large shoulders and thick thighs; scraggly hair; slightly crooked teeth; disheveled clothes; and uncouth air bespeak Heathcliff's inner torment. Even when Heathcliff transforms himself into a suave and presentable suitor in order to court Isabella Linton, he exudes danger. Cathy Earnshaw, tied to him heart and soul, understands his actions instantly, but Heathcliff's victims, projecting their own vision onto the man, are like lambs to a slaughter.

 

Heathcliff.jpgMr. Hardy delivers his lines with a casual menace (and not without relish), referring to his sick and sniffling son, Linton, as an "it"; telling his new wife, Isabella, that "I cannot love you - your eyes detestably resemble your brother's, so I cannot bear to look at them without wishing you ill"; and murmuring as he views Cathy in her casket, "May she wake in torment." One can imagine how shocked 19th century readers were to discover that this novel was penned by a provincial minister's spinster daughter not yet turned thirty. One hundred and sixty years later Miss Bronte's tale of obsession and merciless retaliation still shocks us to the core.

 

I kept asking myself as I watched this film adaptation: What is it about Heathcliff's passionate love for Cathy that we find so compelling and that has us reading the novel and viewing its movie adaptations repeatedly? ? Is it because we feel pity for both the victims and their victimizer?  In the book we learn Heathcliff's story through Nelly Dean, the narrator, and the reader never directly enters his mind. Yet even through Nelly's filter, Heathcliff leaps off the pages demanding our attention. The film provides no such barrier, telling the tale straight out. We feel deeply for his loss when Mr. Earnshaw dies, and can empathize with his rage and bewilderment when Hindley returns to Wuthering Heights and banishes him to the stables.

 

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Our sympathy is still with him as Cathy arouses his jealousy of Edgar Linton, and when she cannot make up her mind between the two men.

 

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When Cathy informs Nelly that Edgar has proposed to her, Heathcliff overhears her saying it would degrade her to marry him. He leaves Wuthering Heights abruptly, thereby missing the rest of Cathy's conversation: "My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff!" Like Cathy and still in his corner, we want to desperately call him back and set things right. 

 

 

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Heathcliff's return years later as a rich man precipitates a series of events that destroys the Lintons and Hindley Earnshaw, and leads Cathy to her demise. His passionate outcry over Cathy's gravesite -"I cannot live without my life. I cannot live without my soul!" - is not a declaration of romantic love but a primeval cry. He survives Cathy for another eighteen years. Implacable, unchangeable, and tormented by her elusive spectre, Heathcliff seeks revenge on the second generation of Lintons and Earnshaws.

 

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By now we have stopped making excuses for Heathcliff's actions, for no rational person can condone his inexorable plans, yet without his unswerving passion for Cathy, there would be no unforgettable tale. "Haunt me then, be with me always. Take any form," he had beseeched Cathy at her gravesite, but is is Heathcliff we will remember. Long after this production of Wuthering Heights has aired, he will haunt us still.

 

 

 

 

Comments

I agree that Tom Hardy as Heathcliff was memorable in this production. His interpretation was so different from Laurence Olivier's or Ralph Fiennes'.

I can't say I approved of all the plot changes in this film. It seemed odd, for example, that Nelly Dean did not narrate the story, and it began at a confusing moment, when Linton is handed over to his father. That was such a dramatic change from the book. They shored up Isabella's role. And then there were all those sex scenes. I both liked and disliked the movie, which I found odd. I usually come away with a definite point of view, but this film had me alternately angry or applauding.

Becca, I agree about being of two minds about this adaptation. I found the changes disconcerting and unnecessary. Emily Bronte's plot is complex but cogent, and I saw no good reason for the changes, though I liked Charlotte Riley as Cathy and I thought Tom Hardy's performance was powerful. I also liked that this production took the novel to its conclusion. But Heathcliff's suicide was a cop out; Nelly was turned into a mere cipher, and creepy Linton was turned into a nice (but weak character.) Uggh.

It's been years since I read WH, but I don't recall Heathcliff and Cathy having sex or Mr. H. killing himself. I thought he stopped eating or caring about himself? I do remember that Hareton and Cathy's daughter upset Heathcliff's plans and fell in love and that she taught him to read, so this part of the film stayed true to the novel. I loved this adaptation, perhaps because I can barely recall reading the book(?) I think Tom Hardy was sexy and tough, and I agree with you that his Heathcliff is memorable. I can't say I liked Charlotte Riley's Catherine more than Juliette Binoche's. Her Cathy was perfect.

Bren,

I agree that Tom Hardy is unforgettable. I liked Charlotte Riley's tomboyish Cathy, but she did not replace my preference for Juliette Binoche's interpretation of the character.

I also thought that the casting was well done for this production's interpretation of Heathcliff. I didn't recall him being as nasty-mean in the book but I read the book ages ago, so I'm do for a revisit. Hardy's interpretation fit in well, and his exotic, interesting look was just like the wild Heathcliff I remember picturing.

well, personally, I cant stand a kind or romantic adaptation of heathcliff - if thats what you're looking for then you should read pride and prejudice. wuthering heights is meant to show us what can drive a person to the end of their wits, what can make a man feel justified in doing horrendous things! to keep you interested the story must make you sympathize, but you should not feel that heathcliff is an ideal.
wuthering heights leaves me thinking that if the whole world had left heathcliff and cathy alone, all would have been well, and i think this adaptation superbly captures the despair and horror of the tale.

Tom Hardy as Heathcliff was brilliant. His portrayal matched the picture of Heathcliff I had in my head so well it was a bit diarming! I agree with Vic that Heathcliff's suicide at the end was a cop out and really think it would have added greatly to the movie to see the horrific death face that Emily Bronte described Heathcliff as having when Nelly discovered him. The other changes I can deal with because lets face it, a movie is never better than the book. I will be waiting anxiously for the DVD release!!!

Tom hardy as Heathcliff was kind of brilliant but to me no one can portray Heathcliff as menacing and mean then the book. It's better to read then to watch because they changed it in so many ways. The sex scenes were very disturbing but i liked the part when Cathy was dieing.Charlotte Riley's Cathy was okay i guess.

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