Wuthering Heights "Is Mr. Heathcliff a Man?"
"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
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.
The opening sequence of
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.
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
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.
When Cathy informs Nelly that Edgar has proposed to her, Heathcliff overhears her saying it would degrade her to marry him. He leaves
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.
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